How to Survive Before Couples Therapy Begins
From my many years as a couples therapist, I have learned one of the most difficult phases of the work is when a couple has committed to repairing their marriage, but before the repair has begun.
It’s an important time: you and your partner have decided to go to couples therapy, so you’ve researched local counselors and booked an appointment. But your first session hasn’t happened yet and you’re still feeling distressed, disconnected, or dissatisfied.
Some models of relationship counseling have specific tasks for this stage, such as the online relationship assessment for the Prepare/Enrich program. Therapists may also have their own preferred assessment measures, such as the classic Dyadic Adjustment Scale or the newer Gottman Relationship Checkup.
But these assessments are meant to inform your therapist about where to start treatment, about the issues and dynamics contributing to conflict or distress. They don’t help you and your partner get through the days or weeks until your first appointment with any more peace or patience.
So what should you be doing? Thinking about? Paying attention to? Here are three things I ask of couples seeing me for the first time, before therapy begins:
1. PREVENT FURTHER DAMAGE
To prevent further damage, do your best to stop unhealthy patterns of interaction that are causing distress in the relationship. There has been enough conflict already. In other words, it’s important to bring your best self to every exchange so you don’t heap problems on top of problems.
You’ve committed to therapy to make positive changes, and they can start right now.
For example, if you’re used to yelling at each other, preventing further damage means keeping your volume low and your tone pleasant. If you’ve been sleeping in separate rooms, preventing further damage means respecting the boundaries each of you have set to avoid distress.
2. PRIORITIZE SELF-CARE
To prioritize self-care is to choose behaviors that nourish your body and spirit. The road to relationship health through therapy may be long and difficult, so it’s important to prepare yourself mentally and physically. Prioritizing self-care means taking good care of yourself.
If you find yourself back in a familiar dance of hurt feelings, miscommunication, or bad habits, remember to prevent further damage.
Here are seven ways to be intentional about self-care:
Eat fresh, healthy foods.
Drink plenty of water.
Rest when you are tired.
Prioritize sufficient, uninterrupted sleep.
Exercise and stretch your body.
Seek joy through the arts (music, comedy, theater/movies, art).
Soak up love from supportive relationships (children, friends, family).
You may realize it’s been a while since you were intentional about caring for yourself. Don’t worry—self-care can start right now.
3. PRACTICE INTROSPECTION
No matter which theory of couples therapy your therapist is trained in—Emotionally Focused Therapy, Imago, and the Gottman Method may be the most well-known for their evidence-based practice—one of the primary ways your therapist will intervene in your distress is to help you and your partner think and feel differently about what is happening. These skills of perspective taking don’t come naturally to all of us, but there are ways to practice before therapy begins.
One way to practice introspection is to think about your experience from a new perspective. I’ve written previously about the power of therapy to shift your point of view, and the metaphor can help before therapy even begins. Ask yourself: What are the ways I understand or explain what is happening in my relationship? Are there alternative ways to understand it, even if I don’t agree with them? How does my partner explain what is happening? Are we looking at things from the balcony or the dance floor? What might I see if I look from the other perspective?
Another way to practice introspection is to become familiar with the idea of mindfulness. Yoga, guided imagery, apps like Headspace or Calm, or spending intentional time in nature are readily available ways to bring mindfulness into your life.
When you are ready to start the process of couples therapy, make an appointment at my Buckman area office.