Why does good couples therapy fail?

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), “After receiving treatment, almost 90% of clients report an improvement in their emotional health, and nearly two-thirds report an improvement in their overall physical health. Over three-fourths of those receiving marital/couples or family therapy report an improvement in the couple relationship.”

If therapy works so well, then why then, does good couples therapy sometimes fail? What are the reasons?

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Why does good couples therapy fail?

I have twelve rules that have proven effective for having productive couples counseling. These rules particularly apply to couples in distress, who wonder if they should even be together at all.

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Why does good couples therapy fail?

Ahhhh. We do love a quiz that promises to reveal ourselves to our, well, ourselves. And big business loves to to see how well you might fit into their organizational team. That we love personality tests is the why that drives their proliferation. But I wonder if you might like to understand why many of them are junk, clickbait, and rather useless. And how to pick one that gives useful information about your personality. I am going to help you do that!

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Why does good couples therapy fail?

So what is clean pain vs. dirty pain? Recently I ran across this description of the ways couples typically interact that just rang true. This concept of pain describes both the perils and the possibilities that exist within our relationships.

If you can agree that pain is a given at times with our partners, this will make a lot of sense to you. Obviously pain, like most things, is by degrees and has wide variations in its expression. You could be miffed that your lover failed to pick up milk OTW home from work as requested, or you could be caught in the devastation that follows when an affair is revealed. There is a wide variation—in both clean and dirty pain.

The truth is that once you and your partner start moving past the initial stage of a relationship where everything is new and shiny, pain may begin. That is not a bad thing. I repeat, that is not a bad thing. You could substitute the word conflict for pain if that helps broaden your understanding.

The truth is that once you and your partner start moving past the initial stage of a relationship where everything is new and shiny, pain may begin.

As I lay the groundwork for why this is true, please understand that your relationship acts as a crucible where each person has the opportunity to become the best version of themselves that they wish to become. That is the primary function of a healthy relationship.

Naturally over time as you learn each other and your differences more deeply, conflicts will arise. In those conflicts you will find yourself choosing clean pain or dirty pain time and time again. None of us is immune from these choices, but true growth both individually and as a couple will only come from choosing clean pain.

So What Is Clean Pain vs. Dirty Pain?

Clean pain comes from a place of accepting the conflict vs shrinking from it. In clean pain you use the best parts of yourself to engage productively in the conflict. It includes discomfort, and sometimes leaning into the parts of yourself that may need work. All of that is conducted in the best interests of the overall relationship, and is not “I’m right and you’re wrong”—even if it’s true!

When a person chooses dirty pain, they are coming from their most wounded parts. This looks any number of ways. It includes sarcasm, gaslighting, manipulation, contempt, capitulation, betrayal (there are many ways to betray), possibly name-calling, and for many, avoidance. It may even lead to violence. Dirty pain will always prolong and deepen conflict.

Sadly, people will most often choose dirty pain. Perhaps this knee jerk response means for them that cruelty or avoidance will hurt less than considering the possibilities of transforming themselves, or engaging in (healthy) compromise. Sometimes they are simply missing the self awareness needed to see they have work to do.

Engaging in either choice will lead you to one of two cycles. The clean pain will lead you both to a new cycle of growth and will deepen your own personal growth towards being the best you possible.

The dirty pain choice will also lead to a cycle: one of common cruelty. That may be heightened conflict, or create conditions for the even worse path of contempt. Over time, contempt leads to the dissolution of the relationship.

There is no “promise” inherent in choosing clean pain that your coupledom will survive as the result. This choice could also mean that the honesty and reflection you undergo may lead to a choice to leave your partner. That also provides a possibility for growth.

Submerging the things that matter to you will override your integrity, and cause you to live a life that does not align with your values.

Sometimes compromise and better efforts at communication work, but if those choices are made only in the effort to soothe rough waters, and they tend to repeat themselves, then you have not actually acted out of authenticity for yourself. Submerging the things that matter to you will override your integrity, and cause you to live a life that does not align with your values. Over time, that will result in unhappiness for you both.

If you need help with parsing this out, contact me here. I love helping couples figure these issues out. It is especially gratifying when couples choose to work on these issues before they are already steeped in pain.

I believe it is truly worth it to experience the pain of growth to have the richness that can happen with a loving partner that you can walk through this thing called life, with all of its joys and sorrows.

Resource: Monsters In Love by Resmaa Menakem. Many thanks to Menakem for the language to help couples understand themselves more deeply.

Why does good couples therapy fail?

Couples can be cruel to each other in many different ways. Couples betray each other in many different ways. Beyond the obvious betrayal of affairs, cruelty is is far more common that we think within our most valued relationship. Just about every couple practices this, at least occasionally.

This cruelty is physical, emotional , psychological, and spiritual. We knowingly and deliberately hurt our partner. Many times it can be what I think of as a micro-cruelty. This is something small, like hurtful sarcasm or the “forgotten” task or obligation. We do this perhaps out of selfishness, or more often, to make ourselves hurt less in a relationship that is already aching. And we do this to punish them for something they did or didn’t do, but most often, we do this instead of looking inside of ourselves to grow up.

Being in a committed relationship always makes for friction and problems. Your relationship is a crucible for experiencing friction and uncertainty. It is fuel for growth and transformation. The right question to ask is “Can I be who I strive to be and remain connected to this person who means the most to me?”

Your relationship is a crucible for experiencing friction and uncertainty.

The logical conclusion to this is that you must reduce the cruelty within the relationship, not eliminate the friction. The friction is your compass point signaling the need for growth and change. If you pay attention to it, it can lead you to make the changes needed for your own growth. This requires that you be brave enough to voice what is happening for you to your partner in a way that can be heard by them. That doesn’t mean you are responsible for their (possibly) emotional response.

When you feel stuck, and don’t know what to do to make it better, sometimes living with the uncertainty you feel is best. Things can appear quite black and white at the highest point of anger, confusion and mistrust. You do not see clearly, even though it feels like you do. Even with the most blatant trust breaches.

Stay in it while taking care of yourself. When you can, reach out to your partner from the best parts of yourself.

If you need help with this, contact me here. It may not be “the answer” you want, but know that the process of being in relationship with another is exactly that. There is no one answer. The relationship you are in is your opportunity for growth. How you choose to use it will determine the outcome.

curious not furious

Have you ever wondered why your partner triggers such an immediate response in you? Would you like to get curious not furious? Understanding your attachment style, or the way you related growing up to your primary caregiver, can provide a clue to the immediate, visceral reactions you have at times in your current relationships. Instead of getting furious, you can get curious!

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neurodiverse couples

Connection or protection? How are you wired? Did you know that love wires us for connection but trauma wires us for protection? Sometimes over-protection. Sometimes under-protection. Here’s how.

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happy marriage

What is the secret sauce to a long and happy marriage? I recently had my own personal physician ask me this. She said she asks every patient this. I have to assume she meant every long-time married patient! 

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the gift of resentment

What on earth would I mean by the gift of resentment? What are the signals that your boundaries are being tested, crossed or outright ignored? What feelings or emotions might you notice when this is occurring? How might you consistently and accurately judge when you need to clarify, remind, or set a firmer boundary?

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sexual health

Sexual health problems within a relationship are very complex to sort out. It helps to have a sort of matrix or template you can overlay on any particular issue. This may help you pinpoint the real issue of concern more accurately. The six principles of a healthy sexual relationships I offer here are meant to serve in that capacity. They are taken from Doug Braun-Harvey’s work from the Harvey Institute in San Diego, California (see resources below).

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