How Change Happens In Couples Therapy

When couples have been in distress for a long time it can be difficult to understand how therapy can help. Each person may feel so entrenched in the relationship conflict and dysfunction that the possibility of change feels hopeless. Yet if there’s a commitment to change on the part of both partners, then transformation can happen!

Change in couples therapy


In my work with couples I see important work and change happening in the following areas:

Taking responsibility

When couples present in therapy by blaming one another, it’s important to begin to gain perspective on relationship dynamics. From the lens of family systems theory, relationship dynamics, both positive and negative, are generally maintained by both partners.

For example, a woman may say her husband is emotionally unavailable and doesn’t share his feelings with her. She blames him for the lack of intimacy in their relationship. Yet as we start to explore what happens when they communicate, we learn that she turns away when he does occasionally express emotion. She might say something overt, such as, “Why are you feeling that way?” Or she may subtly withdraw physically and emotionally. In turn, her husband perceives her as “cold and critical” and withdraws from the interaction.

So in this scenario it would be important for both partners to understand their roles in the dynamic. The wife would need to take responsibility for her difficulties in tolerating her husband’s emotions. The husband would need to take responsibility for passively withdrawing from interactions, rather than communicating his displeasure to his wife.

“I” statements

As each partner begins to see their role in maintaining relationship conflict, I encourage clients to use “I” statements. Rather than beginning statements with a blaming “you,” such as, “You never share your feelings with me,” we work on starting with an “I” such as “I feel disconnected from you and would like to feel closer.” A simple and effective format for communicating feelings and needs is, “I feel __________ and I need __________.” Communicating in an “I” voice allows each person to express their feelings and ask for what they need in the relationship. In turn, it helps their partner to bypass defensiveness because they’re not feeling blamed.

Emotional awareness and expression

As couples gain perspective on their conflict and communication and make some changes in their behaviors, we can begin to explore their emotional experiences. In the beginning stages of couples therapy, partners readily express their anger and frustration at one another. One of the goals of couples work is to go beneath that by accessing primary underlying emotions.

Emotion-focused therapy posits that when we feel a vulnerable emotion such as hurt, sadness, or fear, we often defend it with anger. Therefore, rather than communicating their hurts and fears to one another, couples direct their frustration and aggression at each other.

In order to go deeper emotionally, we first need to develop trust and safety in the relationship. Each partner needs to feel that their emotional experience is valid and will be validated by their partner. To return to the previous example, I would help each client see sadness as a natural human emotion that we all feel. Additionally, sadness is not something to be “fixed” but felt. By expanding clients’ tolerance for the full range of feelings they can better lean-in to their partner’s emotional experiences.

Flexibility in rigid patterns

The behavior and emotional therapy work I’ve described generally results in increased flexibility in the relationship. By opening to one another, couples expand their view of each other. No longer is she “the emotional one,” and he “the shutdown one.” Each partner can go to the other with their feelings and needs.

Additionally, expressing hurts and fears allows for repair after arguments. The goal of a healthy relationship is to trust that your partner truly cares for you, accepts all your feelings, and is committed to meeting your needs.

Of course, depending on the couple, there is plenty of other work that may need to happen in therapy. For example, we may need to explore and develop ways to manage a perpetual relationship conflict, such as money. Or it may be that couples learn what to do but have trouble doing it because of past traumas or underlying beliefs. In couples therapy it is often very helpful to explore childhood experiences and family-of-origin dynamics to move towards a better relationship in the present.

Katrina Taylor, LMFT-Associate. 512-270-9002

Disclaimer: The content provided here is intended for informational purposes only. Reading articles and content on this website does not constitute a therapeutic relationship.