Marital and Couples Psychotherapy
By Charles B. Mark, Psy. D.
Romantic relationships sure are complicated! Problems surface that do not emerge anywhere else.
Relationships hold the possibility of enormous personal growth and joy or persistent emotional conflict and pain.
Emotional distress resulting from relationship problems are probably the number one reason adults enter
psychotherapy. Very often the most practical approach to resolving relationship conflicts is in couples
Many couples enter counseling pointing their finger at the other person. Often they begin marital or couples
therapy with a very clear picture of what they think is wrong with their spouse or partner. Though this
perspective can be helpful, the more difficult and humbling task is determining what changes you personally
need to make. Too often our individual role in the problem is invisible to us. Ultimately, each partner needs to
be able to answer the question, “What do I need to do differently?” Marital/couples psychotherapy can help
create an environment where the answer can emerge.
Couples therapy begins with defining the problems. An initial session may start with determining if either person
has difficulties that need to be addressed apart from the relationship conflicts. For example, it is important to
screen for serious depression, alcohol/drug abuse or addiction, or other psychological problems that are in
themselves a barrier to addressing the couple issues. A history of each family of origin and prior relationships
helps to put the presenting problems in a broader perspective. Though we cannot simply blame our problems
on how we grew up, our prior relationships predispose certain kinds of patterns. These relationships provide the
positive model or negative model for later relationships. Of course, a history of the courtship itself and later
events allows us to see a couple’s unique patterns.
The couples therapist will want to facilitate a dialogue about what each person wants and needs within the
relationship. This helps determine what each person needs to do differently for the relationship to improve.
Couples establish a range of habits about how they relate to one another. Though many such habits may be
kind, empathic and appreciative; other behaviors may tend to leave the partner angry, unappreciated, criticized
or unfairly burdened. Couples often need to communicate in greater quantity to begin to establish the quality
communication necessary to work out their differences and to stay emotionally close. Communicating
effectively takes practice but the reward is greater intimacy.
Arguments are inevitable and couples need to learn to argue productively. When there are problems, the same
conflicts come up over and over again. Some couples have been through the same arguments so many times
they feel they could write the script! They need to learn to listen to each other and set ground rules for mutual
respect during conflicts. It is important for couples to work out agreements on a broad range of issues. These
might include the balance of responsibilities and chores, privacy, sharing money, work stress, managing
extended family and friendships, sex, social and leisure time and parenting. The goal is to be in a relationship
that is rooted in mutual compassion and understanding.