How Can Couples Therapy Help?


Could couples therapy be just what your relationship needs?

What if you and your loved one are living the opposite of happily ever after? Do you feel less than loved in your partnership? Are your disagreements creating tensions and distance between you instead of leading to mutually satisfying solutions? If your partnership is yielding too much negative energy, maybe it's time to reverse the trend. How can couples counseling help?  

While couples counseling encompasses a wide range of philosophies and techniques, three levels of interventions stand out for me as critical for successful outcomes. First, an effective marriage therapist will coach the two of you in the skills for talking together about sensitive issues that enable couples to succeed as partners in life. The therapist also hopefully will guide you in using conflict resolution skills on your especially sensitive issues.

Second, a good marriage counselor can help you glance backwards to understand how your problems developed. Third, a potent therapist can identify and clear the subconscious trapped emotions that fuel strong emotions like anger and anxiety. The terminology I like best for these three aspects of couples treatment come from my therapy colleague Matthew LeBauer: How-to, How-come, and Landmines. Thanks Matt!

To illustrate the three levels of intervention, here's a case from my practice: Jerry and Nora (names changed) sought therapy to end their chronic bickering.

Level I: How-To

Marriage is a high-skilled activity. Technique for communication in relationships matters. Jerry and Nora needed coaching to upgrade their skills in four arenas. They learned how to:

1)      Talk and listen cooperatively instead of becoming adversarial

2)      Keep their interactions in the calm zone, with zero emotional escalations

3)      Resolve their differences with what I call the win-win waltz

4)      Sustain a steady flow of loving appreciation, affection, and pleasure

Over a series of sessions, plus home practice on my website, Jerry and Nora found that as they knew better, they began to do better.

Level II:  How-Come

Pulling up old habits by their roots helps make changes permanent. Where had Jerry and Nora learned to bicker? In a household where parents speak English, the kids learn English. If they speak fighting, the kids learn the language of arguing.

Jerry learned in his family to be insistent; whoever hung in there the loudest and longest got his way. Nora's parents were too swamped to listen to the specific preferences of any of their seven children. Nora learned to give up before even saying what she wanted, and then to issue criticisms to vent her disappointment when her parents or siblings made decisions that differed from her preferences.   

As a married couple, Jerry and Nora triggered each others' skill glitches. Jerry insisted on his way; Nora refrained from saying her preferences and then criticized Jerry's decisions. Jerry felt unfairly judged. When he snapped back defensively, his barbs invited further criticism from Nora, and round and round they went.

In sum, Nora and Jerry's conflict patterns stemmed both from the habits they'd learned from their families of origin, and from interaction cycles they had developed in response to each other.

Level III: Landmines

Identifying and clearing landmines deeper emotional well-springs of negative feelings--completes the therapy process. Deeper, as described by psychologist John Norcross, refers to subconscious feelings that occurred historically earlier in life, and/or that are less accessible to conscious awareness.

To access clients' landmine issues, I listen closely for clients:

a) Metaphorical words of distress: "I feel hijacked."
b) Thoughts that trigger intense negative feelings: "She doesn't treat me like number one!"
c) Specific situations that regularly evoke strong feelings: "I hate being interrupted!"

Nora's frequently critical tone of voice could trigger a geyser of resentment in Jerry. While no one likes to receive criticism, Jerry's hyper-intense response to feeling unjustly accused stemmed from having been the recipient of unjust accusations in his youth from his dad.

Similarly, Nora's anger surged when she experienced Jerry as not listening to her, a situation that felt to her like a repeat of her growing up experiences in her family of origin.

My favorite techniques for neutralizing landmines are a depth dive, which I describe in my book From Conflict to Resolution, and energy therapy strategies from Bradley Nelson's The Emotion Code.

Jerry and Nora completed all three levels of treatment: How-to, How-come, and Landmines. While they still experience occasional bumps, overall they now enjoy a vastly more collaborative, affectionate and bicker-free relationship. Mission accomplished!

Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple books including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is an online program,, that teaches the skills for relationship success.

More couples counselor advice from YourTango:

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.