Couples therapists can approach therapy in many different ways. Some of the most common couple therapy methods are briefly described below.
It’s important to note that no method is better than others, and a good couples therapist will approach counseling in a manner that best suits each individual couple.
If your therapist uses the Gottman Method, you will spend a lot of time repairing your relationship by processing fights. This means you will talk about the fight without reliving the argument. You and your partner will
- take turns talking about your feelings and needs,
- take turns describing your point of view,
- validate each other’s experience,
- admit your role in the conflict,
- choose something to try differently next time.
Your therapist will educate you about the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” that can doom a relationship: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. You will also practice their antidotes: expressing disappointment without criticizing, taking responsibility, cultivating appreciation and respect, and self-soothing.
You will talk about strategies to increase positivity during conflict by using the following forms of communication:
- shared humor
- emotional support
- showing interest
Learning these skills will help you and your partner maintain positivity in the midst of conflict, giving you small successes adding up to a more satisfying relationship.
Your therapist will, also, help you build positivity in your normal every-day interactions. You will learn to recognize and respond when your partner asks for attention or affection, increasing fondness and admiration in your relationship.
Your therapist will lead you to build rituals of connection, such as celebrating anniversaries, checking in with each other weekly, and regular date nights. You will explore how to create shared meaning by supporting each other’s dreams and fulfilling your shared goals.
The Emotionally-Focused (EFT) approach centers on each partner’s emotional experience of one another. The EFT therapist’s goal is to increase a couple’s sense of closeness and develop a more secure bond through more purposeful interactions of care and concern.
In the first few sessions, the therapist identifies the couple’s
- conflict issues,
- the negative cycle of interaction, and
- the underlying emotions feeding this cycle.
Next, the therapist will help the couple
- view the cycle as the problem, rather than the relationship,
- identify each partner’s needs for love and security,
- accept each other’s experience, and
- change the way they interact to strengthen their bond.
In the last few sessions, the therapist will
- assist the couple in finding new solutions to old problems, and
- reinforce new, more effective behaviors for increasing closeness.
In Solution-Focused Therapy, couples learn to focus on useful approaches to their issues rather than getting stuck on the problems. The therapist acts as a consultant who aides couples to build solutions to their problems.
The therapist achieves this by asking many different types of questions.
- Goal building questions: These questions are designed to identify specifically what you want from therapy, and how it will affect your relationship.
Example: Suppose one night there is a miracle. While you were sleeping, the problem that brought you into therapy is magically solved: How would you know? What would be different?
- Exceptions questions: These questions highlight moments when the problem does not exist, when it has been less severe, or when it was manageable.
Example: When in the past might the problem have happened but was less intense or manageable?
- Efficacy questions: These questions are intended to shine light on couple’s ability to make changes.
Example: What would you say you need to do to get the result you want?
- Endurance questions: These questions highlight the couple’s resiliency to the painful problems they are experiencing.
Example: How have the two of you managed to cope or keep going in spite of the problem?
- Scaling questions: These questions make it easier to measure something that is otherwise difficult to describe, including progress toward therapy goals.
Example: On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being no hope and 10 being total confidence, what number would you give your current level of hope?
- Meaning questions: These questions highlight a couple’s strengths, successes, and positive qualities to use when looking for solutions to problems.
Example: What does this say about you as a couple?
The solution-focused couples therapist will assign homework encouraging clients to take an active part in therapy. For example, if the couple is concerned about how little time they spend together, the therapist might ask the couple to determine an activity to do together during the week and when they will do it.
Many therapists use a combination of strategies from the various methods of couples therapy. The best therapists tailor a combination to what works best for you and the goals you want to achieve.
Information taken from Gurman, Alan S. Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy. New York: The Guilford Press, 2008.