I came across this photo last week of the sculpture “Love” by Alexandr Milov from Burning Man 2015. I posted it on social media and gave it my own title: “What Your Couples Therapist Sees.” Several of my colleagues weighed in with their agreement of that sentiment.
I’ll explain: When most couples arrive at my office for an assessment, I’m not looking at the flaws. Of course, I’m listening to you describe your concerns (little therapist secret: I’m especially listening to HOW you describe those concerns) but there’s a good chance I’m seeing the strengths in your relationship first. So, your scorecard starts at full.
Here’s what I see:
1. I see that you had the courage to reach out to me in the first place.
Being able to ask for help is a sign of good mental and emotional health. Even if one member of the couple pioneered this visit and the other came reluctantly (as is often the case), there’s hope written all over this situation. John Gottman called this “Accepting Influence” and is defined as one of his “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” namely, allowing yourself to be convinced by your partner. Score for you (and me).
2. I see that you both showed up
This is always a good sign, especially when both partners are on time! Another score.
3. I see your body language.
I see how you negotiate the space around each other. And in it, I see the small gestures that say, “you matter to me.” Believe it or not, your nervousness, unease, small acts of consideration, or even overt hostility as demonstrated by sitting as far away as possible from your partner in my office are signs that you care. Deeply. Believe me, apathy concerns me much more than anger. If you’re feeling your feelings, that’s a big score.
4. I see past your defenses.
Lest this sound creepy, let me be clear: this is what I’m trained to do. Not because it entitles me to cross your boundaries or violate your sense of privacy. What this means is that, no matter how hurt, angry, or scared you are, there’s really nothing you’ve done or can do that will make me lose sight of that human part of you that just wants to be seen, heard, and held by your partner. It’s my job to connect to and enliven your humanity, so what covers that up temporarily is not how you are defined in my office. I’m human, too. So if you’re willing to acknowledge your pain in the first place, and go deeper to honor your need for connection with your partner, that’s a Powerball-sized score.
5. I see the couple you can be.
Don’t get me wrong: it may take a few sessions to figure out what’s what and to get a sense of where your relationship gets off track. But from the beginning, I’ve been watching for your strengths. We will work on creating the safety necessary for everyone’s voices to be heard. That’s usually the hardest part because we’ve all been trained in codependency since we were born (namely, that our feelings are the responsibility of another and their feelings, ours). It takes time to unlearn that and build the muscle to tolerate that we are separate people. When couples start responding with compassion and empathy, and stop reacting with victimization and hurt, they are on the road to recovery. This road is what I see when you walk in, with you on it. My job is to help get you there. Your job is to….work your ass off to get yourself there, too.
The dominant paradigm surrounding couples therapy is still rooted in the idea that seeking professional help is only for when problems in the relationship have reached a crisis level. While this is not ideal, I chalk it up to the stigma that still surrounds asking for any sort of help. It’s too bad that this thinking prevails…but it’s changing as more and more people are seeking support before they’re in crisis. And what’s most important is that it’s never too late to seek help.
No matter what condition your relationship is in, chances are, in your therapist’s eyes you start at a surplus of success. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all couples therapy results in successfully reuniting partners in bliss. Sometimes, a good round of couples therapy results in a conscious and civil uncoupling, being the healthiest option for all involved.
What’s most important is that it’s never too late to seek help and honor the part of you that just wants to re-establish connection with the one you love. That’s usually the best part in all of us.