When two people who are involved in an important relationship with each other choose to enter couples therapy together, the first item of business is often the clarification of objectives. It is common to find that each person secretly, or perhaps not so secretly, sees the first objective in terms of having the therapist recognize and confirm that all the difficulties in the relationship are a result of defects or at least bad behavior in the other person. Then the second objective is for the therapist to straighten that person out so that the couple can live happily ever after.
From the point of view of the therapist the first objective is to discover how each partner contributes to the trouble or pain in the couple’s relationship and thereby help each drop the illusion that it is all the other’s fault. The second objective is then to help each partner find ways to change the patterns of their interactions so that they cause less trouble or pain. Usually this amounts to finding ways to interact that help each partner to feel loved and supported by the other. Often it also requires finding ways to heal the wounds that have been caused by hurtful things one’s partner has done in the past or by experiences that took place before ever having met one’s partner.
Couples therapy requires a willingness to be emotionally vulnerable to one’s partner in ways that can be quite challenging to most of us. Therefore it can only be successful when both partners truly want the relationship to continue and to get better and each is willing to work on how he or she can change to accomplish this. Both must be willing and able to tolerate the feelings of vulnerability that accompany this work. While operating primarily at the first level of psychotherapy, couples therapy can sometimes jump quickly to the second level.