Resolving Relationship Problems

Individual Psychotherapy

When I ask new clients why they want my help, relationship problems are often high on the list of reasons. Many people who come to therapy are distressed by conflicts or a lack of closeness with their intimate partner. Other people are discouraged by their inability to find a partner and sustain a relationship. The quality of communication with children, parents and other family members is also frequently discussed in my office. In recent years, an increasing number of clients have been talking to me about difficulties in simply meeting people and making friends. No matter where we begin our work, the client’s past and present relationships are a central theme in most courses of therapy.

Relationship problems are a primary cause of depression, stress, and impaired work performance. In fact, individual psychotherapy focusing on relationship issues is one of the most effective ways to treat depression. A therapeutic focus on current interpersonal issues can also heal the long-term damage caused by destructive experiences with other people in the past. Sometimes the therapeutic relationship itself can make up for enough of the emotional security and closeness that a client’s family of origin failed to provide.

The term “individual therapy” is a misleading way to refer to a special kind of relationship in which two people meet regularly to talk about very personal matters. Therapy provides a safe place in which to learn about what we want from others, what we fear might happen instead, and how to communicate all those things. Individual psychotherapy is a highly effective process for improving one’s communication skills and the quality of one’s relationships with other people.

Couple Counseling

Psychotherapy for couples, or “couple counseling,” is a process in which partners learn to identify repetitive, painful, communication patterns and to replace them with more caring, understanding responses to each other. Each person has characteristic ways of behaving in an intimate relationship that are initially learned in childhood and shaped further over the course of a lifetime. Some of a person’s ways of being in a relationship may feel familiar and welcome to the current partner, whereas others may feel foreign and abrasive. Our attractions and aversions to people are based in part on how our usual relating patterns fit with theirs.  

Couples often ask: “Are we compatible”? They should ask instead, “How will we work with all the differences we will certainly find between us”?

Differences in relating styles, preferences, values, and goals lie at the heart of conflicts in an intimate relationship. Today, we expect our intimate relationships to meet most of our basic emotional and physical needs, without any shared understanding of how this can be done. This is especially true in America, because we come from many different ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds. We tend to assume that others think as we do about how a family should operate, and are surprised and frustrated when our partners have different ideas.

Relationships can become more stressful if either partner grew up in a dysfunctional family. Dysfunctional families teach children how to relate to adults who have emotional problems, destructive behaviors, and substance abuse issues. These interpersonal skills frequently don’t work well outside the family. People who have been mistreated as children typically hope to have better experiences in adult relationships, without knowing how to make this happen. They fear and expect that they will be hurt again, which causes them to be distrustful and self-protective. This combination of needs and expectations tends to draw negative responses from an intimate partner.

In any relationship, conflicts start with instantaneous emotional reactions to the partner’s words, facial expressions or tone of voice. The resulting stress interferes with peoples’ ability to think and triggers defensive behaviors. I support both members of a couple while we try to slow down these automatic reactions, explore what the interaction meant to each person, and create opportunities to respond in new ways.     

Beginning a course of couple therapy can be both challenging and exciting for a couple. Including a professional stranger in their most intimate conversations, especially at a time when they feel vulnerable, can inspire fear as well as hope. In mainstream American culture, where marital disputes are kept private, couples often view counseling as a last resort. This is unfortunate, because therapy is most effective when a couple’s stress level is relatively low, the commitment to the relationship is strong, and mutual good will is available.

The best piece of advice that can be given to couples who are considering counseling is, “Do it sooner rather than later!”

Once they have made a decision to look for a therapist, most couples want to know something about how the therapist will work with them. Because my approach to therapy is custom-designed for every client, I can’t tell people exactly how I will work with them until I meet with them at least once. There are some general things I can say, however, based on feedback I have received from couples I have seen.

People usually tell me they are pleased by the amount of interaction, information, and suggestions I offer them. I communicate in an honest, straightforward manner my understanding of a couple’s issues and how I can be helpful to them. Many couples say they look forward to coming to sessions because they can discuss issues with me that they have not been able to approach successfully at home. Clients frequently express pleasure about the opportunity to increase their understanding of themselves, how they relate to each other, and to change communication patterns in which they have felt stuck.