What makes going to marriage & romantic relationship therapy so difficult?

The intention of this post is not to scare away clients from seeking therapy, but to normalize and demystify a few aspects of couple/marriage/romantic relationship therapy. I discuss five reasons why romantic relationship therapy can be quite difficult. This list is not exhaustive and is greatly dependent upon the people seeking therapy.

1. To get the results you want, it takes time and a lot of emotional energy.

You are coming to therapy with wounds that occurred before you met. Picture all of your rejection, shame, abandonment, loneliness, confusion etc. as an open wound. Throughout your life, many things have aggravated this wound. And what’s worse is this relationship is supposed to be safe and loving, but it is tearing into that wound. And what is even worse is that your partner has an old festering wound, too.

It is difficult to recognize yours and your partner’s wounds and enormous energy, vulnerability, and bravery to take the steps to heal together.

2. The closer the relationship, the greater the opportunity for pain.

If an acquaintance repeatedly forgets to wipe their feet on the door mat even after you repeatedly asked them to, it is often not as painful as it would be if your partner were to repeatedly forget to wipe their feet on the door mat. You may plead with them, “If you love me, why won’t you just do this simple thing?”

Why do we take our partner’s actions so much deeper to heart than those of an acquaintance and assign ill intent to their actions when we feel slighted by our partners? It’s largely because we have expectations that our romantic partners will meet our needs, which is a helpful and healthy desire that leads to connection and intimacy. Where things can take away from intimacy and go toward conflict is how we react when our partner does not meet these needs.

Humans tend to react to our partners with anger, distancing, passivity, accusations, and shaming to get them to understand us, to meet our needs, to protect ourselves, or to get love from them. We do this naturally because it feels unsafe when our needs are not met. It jabs at our open wounds and puts us in a fight, flight, or freeze situation.

The trick is in learning a different way to respond when our partner inadvertently pokes our wound. This is where relationship therapy comes in handy as it can teach us how to realize our needs, and ask for them nicely, clearly, maybe with a bit of humor, or in a way that promotes safety and connectedness.

Reactions that promote positive connection and healing sound like this:

“I know this is not what you are trying to make me feel, but I’m so sad that you want to hang out with your friends tonight instead of being with me. I feel like you are trying to get away from me. Can you please hug me? I could use some reassurance from you.”

Note: Limit the use of guilt manipulation as much as you can possibly muster. In this case, guilt manipulation is intentionally implying that your partner is bad for wanting to be with their friends. They know when you are using manipulation because it feels bad and they will either distance from you or give in to your request, but it won’t feel good to either of you either way.

And less like this:

“Why don’t you care about me or this relationship anymore? You are always leaving me.”

Another note: If you feel yourself wanting to say something accusatory like this, you are probably re-experiencing the pain of someone important to you majorly letting you down as a kiddo. Give yourself a break if you have this reaction. In my opinion, there is no deeper wound than feeling unloved, rejected, or otherwise left to your own devices, especially as a child.

3. You think your problem is lack of communication.

You don’t have a problem with lack of communication per se. I guarantee you that neurotypical people in romantic relationships communicate quite effectively, especially during conflict. More often than not, you know what your partner’s deep sigh, eye-roll, clenched fist, lack of eye-contact, overt eye-contact, and tone of voice mean regardless of the words they use. Relationship therapy can help you get to a place where you can infuse love, empathy, and emotional safety back into your communications around difficult topics. It can also help you see things from your partner’s perspective by getting insight into their wounds, which tends to increase one’s capacity to react with compassion and give them the benefit of the doubt.

4. Your therapist won’t take your side when your partner is clearly doing something that hurts you and harms the relationship.

This feels awful and there is no denying it. You may ask, “How could my therapist not take my side on this? I’m clearly in the right! Has everyone lost their minds?” You may be objectively right, if such a thing exists, and your therapist may have opinions about who is right and wrong. However, a good therapist who supports the growth and healing of your relationship will, only in the rarest of cases, take sides. Instead, they will aid each of you in communicating effectively around the sticky issue. Building these skills and growing in understanding of yourself and your partner in this way is what makes relationship therapy different than going before a judge, a referee, a friend, or a parent.

5. You don’t feel affection for your partner.

You may not feel affection or love for your partner. This is normal in newer and older relationships and can happen intermittently or it can have existed continuously for years. It can feel like a waste of time to seek therapy because of how angry and distant you feel from your partner. This makes relationship therapy very difficult. It is difficult to feel that there is so little to hold onto and fight for in your relationship.

Therapists are trained to hold hope for the goals of your relationship when you lack hope. Be it to stay together, to figure out what you want, or to end it well, a good therapist will be there for each of you and your relationship without judgement, criticism, or blame.

I recommend:
Big Think Interview With David Schnarch


On healing from infidelity

For the client that dislikes emotions