Couple Counseling: What is the Most Common Problem?

Couples Therapy

The problems couples face are often caused by what is actually normal growth in their relationship. Couples grow through stages in a relationship, and when it happens that each partner is at a different stage, the result is often pain and confusion.  It is at these times that couples most often come to therapy, and it is often the biggest problem for couples. Couples therapy can help by guiding both partners to an understanding of what is going on between them and helping them both grow together.


I am certified by the Couples Institute in California in couples therapy. I use the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy to help many of my clients. This is an approach to relationship counseling and therapy developed in the 1980s by Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson, of the Couples Institute in California.

This approach focuses on the development and growth of each partner individually in addition to the development and growth of the relationship. It identifies a number of stages in the evolution of every couple’s relationship. The first two stages of couple growth are Symbiosis and Differentiation.

Symbiosis – The Initial Stage

All couples start out here – feeling romantic, delighting in their newfound similarities, wanting to spend all their time together. This brings about important bonding, your becoming a couple.

Differentiation – The Second Stage

As time goes on, usually within the first two years, Differentiation begins: one person, or both, need to identify themselves as who they are as an individual person. Now is when you recognize that you have differences in feelings and thoughts than your partner, that you don’t always agree.  You may want to go out and explore their world, have time with old friends or start a new hobby.

When Stages Happen at Different Times

If this isn’t happening at the same for both people, the one not moving into this second stage often feels hurt or abandoned. “Why am I not enough for you anymore? Why can’t we be together all the time like we were when we were so happy?”  The resulting confusion, unhappiness, and stress is the most common time for couples to seek couple counseling.

A Real Problem Caused by Normal Growth

There’s that common problem I was talking about: the normal growth of one person moving to the second stage of the relationship while the other is still in the first stage. The person feeling left and hurt is in the first stage, Symbiosis, and the other has moved into the second stage, Differentiation. It would be so much easier if both people moved from the first stage to the next, but it often doesn’t always happen that way. So they show up in a therapist office, wondering what went “wrong.” Actually, nothing went wrong, they are growing as a couple, but unevenly.

Understanding What is Happening

Learning about these normal stages of growth helps enormously in understanding and normalizing what is happening for both people, and these are taught without judging either person.  There are lots of reasons why people go through these stages at different times, and that can be understood by looking at their relationships with their important childhood caregivers, usually their parents. For our purposes here, suffice it to say it is normal, but when one person is at one stage and the other moving into another, it’s a stressful time for the couple. There are more stages to normal couple growth which I can explain elsewhere.

Learning the Skills

In couple therapy, you both can learn the skills of the second stage: Differentiation.  These skills include you each acknowledging and stating your own feelings, needs, thoughts, and preferences even when they are not the same as your partner’s.  You learn you can maintain your own perspective and not attempt to change your partner’s to match your own. You can agree that as a couple you really are two different people. Being heard and being understood as a separate but still loved and accepted person is a wonderful experience, different than the first stage, but equally bonding.  It brings you two together in a new way, with new respect and clarity of who your partner really is and being seen as you really are. It can be exciting and enhance intimacy.

Of course, there can be conflict, and learning how to deal with conflict rather than being afraid to face it is another skill of living in an honest and vibrant relationship.

What does the therapist do in couple therapy?

  • Provide a safe environment where both people are able to speak  and be heard, and  where both sides come to  be understood and validated
  • Show how your backgrounds  (yes, your baggage) are being triggered and affecting the present, and what to do about it.
  • Help each person explore their feelings and thoughts without being blocked by taking their partners’ opinions. Learn to do this at home without the therapist being present.
  • Get clarity about what is going on so the couple can understand themselves and progress.
  • Discover patterns that are destructive or at least not productive.
  • Provide ideas about what to focus on between sessions.
  • Specific advice and guidance for your particular relationship

Would a Therapist Ever Give Up on a Client?

That’s a very important question – in that it could be devastating to a client to be “fired” by his/her therapist. It’s tantamount to having your parent dis-own you, because of the transference.

After close to 40 years of doing therapy in private practice I think I have told a client I couldn’t keep working with them 3 times: once, the client was refusing to engage with therapy and only wanted to “use me “ much the way he used prostitutes – to feel better emotionally – and refused to have even have an area he wanted to improve himself about and ‘work on’. Another time it was very similar with a woman, and a third time I was seeing a man for the first time and intuitively felt in danger being alone with him in my office. I later heard he had attacked a female nurse in a hospital situation. In the first two examples I considered what I was doing to be therapeutic – in that the impact of having me refuse to continue seeing these people was my *final* BIG statement to them about the importance of dealing with their behavior.

All of which is to say – if you take someone on as a patient and you are not legitimately over your head with them – you have a moral obligation to them to work with them. It’s really OK to admit to a client that you don’t know how to help them and refer them to someone you think can help them. So yes, I think some therapists probably do give up on clients. Hopefully not often. It’s important for therapists to learn how to “size up” clients who show up at their door and decide if they want to work with this person or not.

Relationship Therapy

In the middle of war, people are still very preoccupied with the state of their love relationship. Love is so important, and it is so easy to mess it up.  Many people find maintaining a good relationship to be one of the hardest jobs there is. However –

There are skills you can learn to help you communicate honestly and productively with your partner; there are things to learn that better the satisfaction in your sex life. Good relationships make each person a better, happier and more successful version of themselves.  The opposite is also true, an unhappy relationship can and does hold you back.

I encourage you to try relationship therapy. Surprisingly, it pushes each person in the relationship to grow, to mature basically, sometimes even more than individual therapy does. I am particularly skilled and catching the small things that people do that affect each other – both positively and negatively. Recapture what it was that brought you together in the first place, and activate those feelings at the stage of development your relationship is at now.