Couples Therapy: What is Wrong with Love? And What You Can Do About It.

Are You Worried That Your Family Is Falling Apart?

  • Are you worried you’re losing the love of your life?
  • Do you watch everything you say, and it still leads to arguments?
  • Is the person you love someone you can’t stand anymore?
  • Do you feel alone in the marriage?

Endless arguments can make spouses feel chronically angry.  Sometimes anger turns inward and one or both partners will feel depressed or shut down.  Anger can also explode in the form of hurtful words and actions.  Living with an angry partner can feel like walking on eggshells.  It is stressful and depressing.

What is Wrong with Love?

Love stinks.  Love hurts.  Love can be tearing your heart in two.  Perhaps, you have noticed.  As a couples therapist, I’ve heard people say to their partners, “I love you, but I can’t trust you,” or “I love you, but I can’t stand you,” or “I love you, but you have hurt me so badly that I want to hurt you back.”  These are heavy words.  These are heavy realizations.

There is nothing abnormal or unnatural about an untutored heart being stuck in an unhappy marriage or a broken long-term relationship.  About half of marriages end in divorce.  Of the other half of married couples, of the half of couples that remain together, about half are unhappy.  So only a quarter of couples that marry have a happy relationship.

Modern popular songs document this epidemic of heartbreak:

  • And deep down I know this never works but you can lay with me so it doesn’t hurt. Oh, won’t you stay with me? ‘Cause you’re all I need.
    • — Stay With Me, Sam Smith. Peaked at #2 on 08.16.2014
  • I see your blue eyes every time I close mine. You make it hard to see. Where I belong to when I’m not around you? It’s like I’m not with me.
    • — I Never Told You, Colbie Caillat. Peaked at #48 on 07.24.2010
  • Oh, I thought that we could be the greatest story that I tell. I know that it’s time to tell you it’s over but I don’t wanna love somebody else.
    • — I Don’t Wanna Love Somebody Else, A Great Big World. Peaked at #3 on 02.08.2014

Why Are Heartbreak and Bad Long-Term Relationships So Common?

These and thousands of other popular songs tell the story of how human nature in its unschooled state creates unhappy love.  Millions of works of poetry, literature, and drama throughout human history paint the same picture.  Research psychology tells us that two things (concepts) conspire to produce this result: attachment and negativity bias.  Attachment brings and keeps us together.  Negativity bias makes us fight and makes us miserable.

Attachment is the reason why, with all the heartache and pain, it’s not easy to leave a lover, even if you’re hurt again and again.  Something happens with us, humans, when we fall in love.  Psychologists call this attachment.  We attach to our romantic partners.  Our romantic partners become our “attachment figures.”  Attachment helped us survive as a species in the Stone Age.  Now, it is our evolutionary heritage that makes life exciting and allows us to experience companionship, care, and trust.  It also keeps us in painful relationships.  The solution is not to blame love but to learn to improve the relationships that love creates and maintains for us.  But I am getting ahead of the story.

To understand attachment let’s distinguish it from other kinds of personal connections.  A person might have been working at the same organization for a decade or longer, but being unjustly fired will not feel as bad as divorce.  Being fired does not pull the rug from under you and does not turn your world upside down the way divorce does.  It is because of attachment to our romantic partners that divorce is so agonizing.  This is also why people do such crazy acts of revenge in divorce.  This is also why for many unlucky former lovers who had a short but tumultuous marriage, divorce can last longer than their matrimonial union.  And, because of the way people handle divorce in court, the trauma of divorce does not end when the divorce judgment ends the divorce court case.  For most people, the trauma continues to torment them for much longer than the divorce itself.

Negativity bias makes us focus on the dangers, deprivations, attacks, or insults and makes us aggressive, suspicious, and defensive.  In the Stone Age, negativity bias helped us survive.  Now, it causes conflict in many social situations, including romantic relationships.  We are not dogs.  We, humans, are wolves.  We like dogs because they are not like people.  Dogs are loyal, caring, and forgiving.  We want our human partners to be like this, but, like wolves, humans are not born that way.  However, unlike wolves, we can use our human intelligence to become loyal, caring, and forgiving, the qualities we learn in good family relationships and bring to create happy romantic relationships.  Even if you never learned good relationships skills and habits, you can learn them now, and both partners can learn them together.

How Does Couples Therapy Work?

The thousands of years of human culture document that bad romantic relationships is our history, but it need not be our present and will not be our future.  In the last fifty years, couples therapy developed into a clinical science capable to predicting divorce if the relationship is untreated and capable of making the ailing relationships healthy and strong.  Skilled and caring clinicians can use evidence-based methods to help couples stop fighting, get closure on past hurts, and then envision and live the future they want to have.  Today, couples have a choice to do something about their conflicts and hurts so they can be happy together, or to do nothing and continue to suffer the bad relationship or needlessly split up and suffer a traumatic loss of a romantic partner (an attachment figure).

How does couples therapy work?  I am glad you asked.  It’s my favorite subject.

The process of improving relationships can and should include many approaches.

  • Family Systems Therapy. A relationship is a system.  It can be in a bad state or a good state.  Couples get into bad cycles of tit-for-tat aggression, approach and withdraw, etc.  Like a dislocated shoulder, these patterns can be stable, and couples get stuck in them.  A therapist can interrupt the cycles that keep the partners fighting and move the partners towards harmony.
  • Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). To live a long life in a happy marriage, it takes the same qualities as performing in an acrobatic duo—strength and flexibility—in acrobatics, physical strength and physical flexibility and, in relationships, emotional strength and emotional flexibility.  When strength and flexibility are missing, usually because of prior emotional trauma or bad relationship habits (the habit of raising one’s voice, the habit of never expressing concerns until they build up and then exploding, and many more), one or both partners will get hurt and traumatized.  The couples therapist starts the process of healing the trauma and reshaping habits that don’t work to give the partners emotional strength and flexibility, so they can deal with life’s challenges together without re-traumatizing each other.  The partners continue with this process, helping each other heal and feel loved in the relationship.
  • Behavioral Therapy/Emotional Intelligence and Communication Coaching. When partners have regained emotional flexibility and strength, as well as in the process of regaining these, partners can heighten their emotional intelligence and learn good communication practices.  These skills can help interrupt current conflict cycles and prevent future fights.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Narrative Therapy. Conflicts are often entrenched in conflict-infected thinking.  People who are stuck in a conflict invariably think, speak, and act in a particular way that was molded by conflict, preserves the conflict in their relationship, and keeps them stuck in conflict.  CBT, ACT and Narrative Therapy techniques can loosen the grip of conflict.  If partners start thinking, speaking, and acting differently, the conflict will yield.

In addition to doing couples therapy, I have practiced mediation for twenty years, including divorce mediation.  I have helped hundreds of couples with the above techniques.  I have mediated parenting disputes in Children’s Court, working with the most difficult couples who had the most troubled histories including felony domestic violence, criminal protective orders, cheating on the spouse with spouse’s best friend and then refusing to admit it until the proof of infidelity was obvious and incontrovertible, complicated by mental illness, complicated by money problems, complicated by addiction.  Whatever relationship problems you are facing now, I have seen worse.  I have helped couples deal with worse.

But You May Still Have Questions About Couples Therapy…

Q: My partner is so stuck in his/her way.  What can you say to change his/her mind?

What can I say to change his/her mind?  Actually, there is a lot I can say to change the mind of someone who wants the relationship to improve but feels stuck and does not know how to make that happen.  And it has to be said at the right moment, and it needs to respond to what’s happening in the room, in the here-and-now.  And, of course, the three paragraphs below do not begin to scratch the surface, but here’s the roughest thumbnail sketch.

There are three stages in couples therapy.  We can also think of these stages as terrains through which the path of couples therapy leads.  The first stage is crisis intervention and rapport building.  The second stage is meaning making and problem solving.  This is the stage you are talking about when you talk about changing minds.  If you have tried to change your partner’s mind, and it did not work, it’s because your partner was in a crisis and you did not have a good rapport with him or her.  The third stage is visioning.  This is the equivalent a couple writing their marriage vows together.

Couples usually come into therapy in a crisis.  Both partners are in pain and actively hurting each other causing deeper and deeper pain.  Partners come in feeling isolated in their pain.  A person who is isolated and in pain is not able to see the world from somebody else’s perspective.  People in crisis are always selfish.  It’s not their fault.  It’s human nature.  But the same people out of crisis can be compassionate, generous, and caring.

When a couple tormented by conflict enters couples therapy, the process of emotional mutual combat and mutual emotional injury stops.  Also, having in the room the therapist who cares about each of them, keeps a balanced and nonjudgmental perspective, and does not pick sides creates rapport with the therapist.  With the crisis subsiding and rapport building, partners can move on to meaning making and problem solving–seeing the world from a different perspective, for example, seeing the partner’s perspective or reexamining traumatic events and seeing that they were not “the end of the world.”

Q: Couples therapy can be expensive.  And it could take a long time.  Is it worth it?

Couples therapy is the most direct investment in yourself, your love, your children (if you have them or want to have them), and in your family.  Having a good relationship is the best predictor of happiness and even of physical health for both men and women.

And if we are talking about money, let’s compare couples therapy with divorce.  A middle-class divorce can cost $50,000-$100,000.  This includes two lawyers (his and hers), two sets of court fees, two testifying economics and/or financial experts, and two testifying co-parenting experts.

This does not include the post-divorce cost of keeping two homes, each with bedrooms for the kid(s).  This also does not include the cost of individual therapy for the kids during and after the divorce to help them adjust to the new distant relationship between the parents.  Parents may still need conjoint therapy (co-parenting therapy) during and after the divorce to help them figure out how to get along and co-parent in the new more distant and, perhaps, less-than-friendly environment.

If you see yourself as the kind of person who would spend money on co-parenting therapy after the divorce to get help with co-parenting, so you can be the best parent to your children that you could be, then you may want to spend the money to prevent the divorce to begin with.

As for how long couples therapy takes, relief often comes quickly, after only 5-10 weeks.  One couple had relief after just one session.  As they put it, the relationship was “reset”.  Some couples stay in couples therapy after the crisis passes because they are learning how to strengthen the relationship, how to ask for and get the love that they want, how to understand each other, how to get over old hurts, and much more.

Q: My partner won’t come to therapy with me.

Is your partner worried that he or she will be judged and blamed for problems?  I always ask new clients about their prior couples therapy experience.  I frequently hear that my new client quit previous couples therapy because he (or she) was treated as “the bad partner.”  As a therapist, I have to actively work to avoid taking sides and to create a nonjudgmental environment.

If your partner does not come in for therapy, you and I can still get a lot done.  I can help you deal with trauma and coach you on communication.  Both of these are huge steps on the way to a better relationship.  Often my client’s partner takes notice of the changes and says, “I like the new you.”  Then the reluctant partner starts coming in for therapy.

Q: What if couples therapy brings up more issues, or makes things worse, or makes things worse before it makes things better?

Every couple has hurts and gripes that they are not addressing at the moment.  These issues are real, and they are not really gone.  They are like landmines waiting for someone to step on them, so they can explode.  You will learn in couples therapy tools for addressing these.  Couples therapy is a safe, caring, non-toxic, confidential, and compassionate environment where you can get closure on these issues.  This is where you can get a heartfelt apology you have wanted but did not know how to ask for or, looking at it from the other side, this is where you can make amends for your mistakes and make sure that your apology is heard and not ignored.  If you think your relationship has the potential for things getting worse, then the best place to deal with that risk is couples therapy.

Q:  What’s the hurry?  The relationship isn’t good, but why can’t we go to couples therapy next year?

There are several reasons why couples therapy is urgent:

  1. Relationships are vital to our happiness, but at the same time relationships are fragile.  You don’t see half of the people committing suicide, but you do see half of the marriages end in divorce.  This means that we need to protect and strengthen our relationships or we will have . . . what we have now.
  2. If you allow chronic conflict to infect your relationship, and you don’t get help, then you could have complications like infidelity, baseless jealousy or domestic violence enter your marriage and make things much worse.
  3. The chronic conflict between parents is hurting the kids.  They are troubled by it.  They are disturbed by it.  Kids regress emotionally and behaviorally it this kind of emotionally toxic environment.  If you are the kind of parent who will spend time and money to protect your kids, couples therapy should also be on the table if the relationship between parents it the problem.

Your Relationships Can Get Better.

Call me at 310-751-0616 to schedule an appointment or discuss your situation.  I return all voicemails and emails within 24 hours.