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

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.

The Hard Truth about Couple Therapy

Taking your most recent fight to your couple therapist is probably one of the least likely ways to get much of anything from couple therapy. The therapist is not there to be a judge and decide who is right in your struggles. The therapist is there to teach you new skills so you can both get the relationship you want.

You need to set goals for what you want your relationship to be and learn the skills to get it there. So many people come in to a  couple session and want the therapist to “fix” their partner. In fact, you need to look at what needs changing in yourself, and if both partners  will do this, real growth and change can occur.  You need to be willing to look at yourself and what you learned about relationships and love from your family of origin and see how that is getting in your way in your current love relationship.  All of this takes time, dedication, a willingness to take risks, and often, frankly, a touch of humility.

If you are up for all of this, you could really improve your relationship.  There are very specific skills involved in improving an intimate relationship, and for some people they aren’t  easy to learn. You will grow personally in couple therapy much as you would if you were in individual therapy. If you are interested in how you contribute to the struggles you have with your partner,  you could  gain  a lot and grow a lot and have a much more loving , close and satisfying relationship –  through couple therapy.

Couple Therapy – Helpful Hints for Success

It is clear to me almost the first session which couples are going to get what they want out of couple therapy relatively quickly and who is going to be coming for a long time. It has to do with a willingness to be open to new ideas, a willingness to make changes and to learn new things, and a willingness to make the effort to have this happen.

Another huge piece is to stop blaming your partner and for what’s wrong in the relationship and look to yourself to see what you can do differently.

It takes a certain amount of strength in self, ego strength some people call it, to be able to do this without collapsing on the one hand or blowing up on the other. Good couple therapists know this and provide vehicles for the couple to build personal strength so that they can grow, as partners, in their communication and caring for one another.

The Stages of Couple Growth

Couple relationships go through growing stages, and although this is a normal and healthy development, it can be painful to experience and  can sometimes make couples question if they should remain together. This is often why couples often come into therapy as they move through the stages, especially when one person is moving into a different stage than their partner is in.
Let’s look at stages of growth of all couples.

Stage 1 is called Symbiosis:  This is also known as  “The Honeymoon Period” – both people are swept up in  the excitement of their romance. “He (or she) has so much in common with me!” “Everything seems perfect”  and “We are so much alike!” Both are ecstatic with the  mutuality and perfection of the other, “How could anything go wrong?” It’s important to have some  time like this to establish your coupledom.

Stage 2 is called  Differentiating: After a while things happen  that show you are really two different people. Maybe you don’t really like watching  football, and that he has no interest in riding horses. She thinks you are “too” left leaning and liberal and you’ve been proud of that. It’s disappointing and hard to take for the one who wants to feel exactly alike and perfectly suited ( the one that is still symbiotic). It may feel liberating and factual for the differentiating  partner. Here indeed is trouble in paradise. As it happens, one partner  starts feeling restless or smothered. It seems like hanging out with old friends would be so nice.  Doing that sport, hobby (or whatever) that’s been neglected in spending so much of your time together – starts to look appealing.  This is a time when couples often show up in a therapist’s office.

Stage 3 is called Practicing: This is when the couple are both “trying out” being their separate selves while still being connected as a couple. They spend time apart doing separate things. They take the risk to  say they disagree and speak their differing opinions. At this time they are often dealing  with the risks and struggles of dealing with each other’s different needs and preferences , and it is a time of immense personal growth.

Stage 4 is called Rapprochement: This is when the couple is comfortable going back and forth, going away and coming together, returning to each other with ease and intimacy.  They come back to each other refreshed and happy to be connected deeply again.  Their trust is  secure in the other. The each are supporting the other’s self esteem.

Being able to see what stage your relationship is in can be reassuring and useful. Often one person is a little ahead of the other, and pulling their partner to come along with them.  When going  through these stages gets rough, couple therapy is often what is needed.

Good luck with each other! Love is a wonderful thing to cultivate at all it’s stages, and much too precious to neglect or loose.

How do I get my partner into therapy?

QuestionMy boyfriend and I are fighting a lot and he refuses to go to a therapist with me. I love him, and don’t want to leave, but I can’t handle all the fights. He says a stranger can’t help us – and that we can work it out by ourselves. The problem is we don’t and nothing is changing. What can I do?

If he won’t go to a therapist,  go by yourself. You will learn about yourself and your relationship and most likely will grow in your own self estimation.  You will become better equipped to deal with your boyfriend and more able  to know what you have a right to expect in a relationship.

Many men agree to see a therapist once their partner has been going and obviously getting something from the sessions, so you may be surprised about him.

When people choose the wrong partner

Everybody needs love from their parents. When we were kids we quite literally needed it like food, and we needed it everyday. Many of us didn’t get the love we needed. The less we got as kids the more we still need as adults. As adults we often choose our partners hoping to get what we never got from our parents. In our unconscious cleverness, we pick people that are “psychological stand-ins” for the parent(s) we most needed love from. Without knowing it, we are looking to solve the childhood problem of needing to be loved.

If a child is not getting the approval and love they need the problem is most likely in the parent’s inability to love, not in the child’s deserving of it.  In our choosing a psychological stand-in, we choose some one who is like our parent(s), and therefore another person who can’t love us.In therapy you get to finish (within yourself)  the  emotional problem with the unloving parent. Then you are actually free to pick a good partner.

There are other strong influences that may appear as you begin exploring what is driving your choice of partner. For example:   A woman was the oldest child of apparently loving parents who both had to work full time. She was needed to take care of of her syblings when both parents were working.  She learned that the way to be valued was to be a caretaker and sacrifice her own needs. She chooses a partner who needs her care taking and continues sacrificing herself.

Influences from early experience formed your self image and taught you what you can expect from other people. The most powerful and longest lasting are those from our families. What you learned about yourself from peers, teachers, and other significant relationships also have a lasting effect.

We see ourselves with the eyes our parents gave us.  A good therapist can be useful in understanding  how you learned, and what you learned, about who you are and what you can expect for yourself in the world.