Many people attend therapy – not because their crazy – but rather to improve their most important relationships. Enhancing relationships and decreasing conflict are generally the focus of Family Therapy and Couples Counseling. But what is relationship therapy, and how does it differ from more traditional individually-based therapies?
Here’s some thoughts:
1. Philosophically, for most relational therapies, problems are not based upon defective people or defective personalities, but from ineffective patterns of interaction. Over time, we develop patterns in the way that we relate to other people. It’s true with your kids, it’s true with your coworkers and boss, it’s true with strangers you meet out in public, it’s true with your parents, and it’s certainly true in your most intimate relationships. These patterns work in many areas of our relationships, but we also develop patterns that don’t work. That’s why we generally have the same couple of fights over and over. The fight is actually a very heater complaint about how the pattern between you fails to satisfactorily meet one of both of your needs and expectations. Relationship therapy works to identify and modify these ineffective patterns, while learning from and supporting the effective patterns that you’ve also developed.
2. Patterns & thus Problems are maintained by the circular give-and-take of the partners responding to each other’s maneuvers in the relationship. Essentially, partners begin to maintain the very problems they are trying to solve. Let me give you a common example from marriages. A husband might say “I’m suspicious of my wife because she seems to be hiding something.” The wife is very likely to say “I’m guarded because you don’t trust me.” They both blame the other for the growing distance and mistrust in the relationship. But from a relational perspective, they’re simply engaged in a sequence of interaction that exacerbates the problem. And since their behaviors, i.e. the husband snooping and the wife concealing are inextricably interconnected (i.e. he does what he does because of her, and she does what she does because of him), if either of them stopped doing their part, for whatever reason, the other person’s part would also stop, since it is a reaction to the other partner’s behavior. They’ve formed a pattern of interaction that would fall apart if they did almost anything else!
3. The focus of many relational therapies is to help people stop doing what doesn’t work. Do more of what works; do less of what doesn’t. Learn from the successful parts and moments of your relationship. Be creative. Try something new – almost anything, and you have a chance of changing the patterns.
4. Finally, whatever people are doing in their relationship generally makes sense given the context. Take the couple I mentioned earlier, the suspicious husband and the guarded wife. It makes sense that he would snoop and investigate if he believed critically important information was being concealed from him. It would also make sense that she would be guarded and defensive if she felt that she was being unduly spied upon. Both make sense given the context they believe is in operation.
Relationships permeate everything that we do, all that we are and value, and all of our future goals and plans. Relationships are central to our life, and that alone would qualify them for therapeutic investigation. But perhaps even more important, relationships are affected by our problems and affect if not cause most of our problems, and therefore are a wonderful starting point for therapeutic change.