“Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers.”
- Rainer Maria Rilke
The quote above, from the Austrian poet Rilke, says something about the couple therapy process and how changes in a relationship are often achieved not by applying a new technique but rather by a gradual shift in awareness and perspective.
Many couples who are struggling in their relationships come to therapy to be fixed. Or, more accurately, they come to get their partner ‘fixed’. They hope that the therapist will tell their partner what he or she needs to do differently or what techniques the couple needs to put into practice in order to solve the problem they come with.
While there is a place for techniques and tools in helping couples tackle their problems, it is naive to think that these alone will lead to sustained improvements.
In my experience couple therapy is more of a stuttering, unpredictable process than a linear improvement. Over time I would expect a couple’s relationship to improve but it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. There may be periods where nothing seems to be improving at all.
But if the couple is able to stick with the process and hold a little less tightly their desire for a solution to their problem, something different can emerge.
Often that something different comes from each partner being willing to feel their pain, and sometimes to share it, without immediately blaming the other person.
Frequently one of the things that needs to happen in couple therapy is for each person to understand how they have contributed to the stuck place the couple finds itself in. Once we begin to recognise our own responsibility we can then stop pointing the finger so quickly at our partner. This takes the pressure off them a little, which can open up a space for something new to enter the relationship.
In my own relationship I’ve found that, when I’m unhappy about something, the simple act of being heard by my partner can make a difference. It often means that the thing that was annoying me so much doesn’t seem quite so difficult any more.
As couples we can sometimes get stuck in an “I win, you lose” mentality, in which power struggles take over and we feel that unless we get our way it will be unbearable. The reality is that it is always going to be difficult for two people to share their lives and that we need to find ways of making space for the differences but still allowing each person to have their feelings acknowledged.
John Welwood, one of my favourite writers on relationships, says in his book Journey of the Heart, : “Techniques rarely have any impact when used as short cuts, to bypass letting a difficulty affect us, work on us and move us to find our own genuine response to it.”
(Photo courtesy of Tom Blackwell, creative commons, at Flickr.com)