Therapy is 100% a marathon; it is NOT a sprint. This is a general principle, and an even more relevant principle for couples therapy.
Why? Because your problems did not start overnight, or within the past week, which means they take time to work through. And in couples therapy, it is not only your problems, and the problems in the relationship, but that of your partners, as well.
Let’s Be Realistic About the First Appointment
The expectation that you can or should be able to come to a first therapy appointment and walk away feeling totally changed, positive, happy, or your relationship significantly improved is not only unrealistic, but impossible.
The first (and possibly second and third) session is, after all, an intake session. In layman’s terms, this is an opportunity for the therapist to start getting to know you, understanding what brings you and your partner into therapy, and to start formulating ideas about how they will work with you and your partner in therapy.
However, realistically, the therapist has a lot of investigational work to do in that first session, and when it comes to couples therapy in particular, it is often not possible for the therapist to get a comprehensive picture of what is really going on in your relationship in only one session. This process of the therapist conceptualizing the issues in the relationship and providing a plan of action realistically takes between one and three sessions depending on:
- the couple
- the complexity of the problem (the severity and how long it has been going on – are we talking days, months, or years?)
- the number of different problem areas present
- past attempts at resolving issues
- each person’s level of openness to make both individual and relationship changes
- the couple’s openness with sharing what is going on without keeping any secrets from the therapist
Opening up some Wounds or Areas of Conflict
Yes, by virtue of sharing with the therapist why you are coming to therapy, you and your partner are going to talk about the hard stuff. There simply is no way around it. This is the only way you can give the therapist a full picture of what is going in the relationship so that the therapist can actually help you and your partner, and the relationship itself.
It is not uncommon for a couple to walk away from a first session (or even follow-up appointments) feeling as though the appointment was unhelpful in the sense that they discussed difficult areas of contention and perhaps even left arguing in the immediate time after the appointment or for a few days afterward.
The key here is that this is no way means therapy won’t work, will be ineffective, or will lead to bigger issues. What this does mean is that you and your partner are clearly working through the hard stuff. If you keep going, and both you and your partner have the same goals in mind, therapy is likely to be incredibly beneficial as you will be working through the problems. While it feels nice to avoid conflict in relationships, which is really what the conflict-adverse, one-appointment attender couple is aiming for, this does not do anything to resolve the issues in your relationship that are likely to present themselves over and over again if they are difficult points of contention in the relationship.
If you want change to occur and your relationship to improve, the important factor is that you work through the issues rather than try to work around the problems. Working around just means you are avoiding the real issues, and this means they are likely to resurface (perhaps again and again and leading to other conflicts and ill-feelings).
Realistic Expectations and Why You Shouldn’t Quit Right Away
It is incredibly important that you and your partner have realistic expectations about what to expect in therapy. Change takes time, and in therapy, a sign that you are actually working through the important content is when you feel like things are getting worse (before they get better!). This truly means you are digging into the stuff that needs to be dealt with, which is usually the uncomfortable, challenging, and emotional stuff. After all, why would you even come to therapy if those things weren’t present and didn’t need to be dealt with?
Unrealistic Reactions to a First Session
We frequently hear from new couples therapy clients how they are hesitant to move forward with therapy, or are considering canceling the second scheduled session. This is due to the difficult emotions that were conjured up in the first session, or failed (but honestly, unrealistic) expectations that the therapist would either convince your partner to stay during that first appointment or have a fully developed plan of action for you and your partner by the conclusion of the first appointment. Both of these are completely unrealistic for different reasons, but nonetheless completely unrealistic.
We also sometimes hear from clients after attending only one session that they didn’t like bringing up the difficult stuff, which are usually the things you and your partner have worked so hard to bury (but which are not really buried) and then perhaps leaving on conflictual terms. Quitting therapy at this point won’t do you or the relationship any good, but pushing through the discomfort and continuing the therapy process (which, again, it is a process), likely will result in positive outcomes as long as both of you are committed and willing to make changes.
What we also find often happens to couples who quit suddenly due to the discomfort of dealing with the hard stuff is that they end up back in therapy, but starting all over with a new therapist or at a point when things are much worse in the relationship. Alternately, many relationships end because the couple didn’t adequately deal with what was going on and they didn’t give therapy a chance at saving their relationship.
Let us be clear, though: a therapist cannot save your relationship. You and your partner have to put in the (very) hard work to make changes and improve the quality of the partnership. However, when things are impacting you both enough, this type of work rarely happens without the help of a mental health professional.
WE’RE HERE TO HELP
At Tampa Therapy, we are committed to providing a relaxing, healing, and non-judgmental environment to support you on your journey to mental and emotional growth and health. If you want things to be different, you have to change them. This means being open-minded, patient, committed, and understanding that therapy truly is a process. However, it is one of the most worthwhile endeavors you and your partner may seek out and worth every ounce of discomfort if it is worth it to you AND your partner to save the relationship at hand. Tensions can mount during or even after the first few sessions, but this is a sign to not give up and to keep going. It means you are working through the important stuff.
If you and your partner are struggling or running into challenges in your relationship, we can help. Give us a call or email us today to start the process of making important changes in your life and relationship.