Fear and Loathing … and Couples Therapy?

Why are couples afraid of therapy?

This question circulated on an Imago listserv a few weeks ago. Therapists across the country noted the difficulty in convincing couples that therapy can be a gift to their relationships, not something to fear. The comments resonated with what I hear from clients, colleagues, and my own circle of friends. Many people are very curious about my work as a certified Imago Relationship therapist, but they rarely admit that they might like to try the process for themselves.

What’s this all about? A good hypothesis is that many of us are just plain embarrassed when our own relationships show strife of any kind. We have bought into the Hollywood concept that a relationship is either perfect and frozen-in-time (see Ozzie and Harriet) or flawed so badly that it could script a soap opera (Desperate Housewives) or primetime drama (Mad Men…or even CSI?).

The therapists weighing in on the listserv called these extremes disingenuous. All relationships have power struggles, and Imago theory holds that these struggles are the only way we push ourselves to evolve and grow. When a relationship is unable to adjust to life’s unfolding terrain, it runs off the road. The truth is that our power struggles teach us the skills to change our expectations and ride out the bumps along the way. But many of us are shamed into believing these struggles represent personal failings, making it almost humiliating to reach out and ask for help.

Another common concern is that going to therapy will reveal that a relationship is broken beyond fixing, forcing a drastic decision that the couple would rather not face. They stay in the unconscious relationship, locked in the power struggle, because they do not want to lose the other person. But this very active practice of working so hard to avoid a breakup (maintaining a power struggle takes a lot of perseverance and commitment!) actually proves the fact that the couple has a very strong bond – just the sort of bond that actually would be the emphasis of the therapy, guiding them through the tougher work as they map the “relationship of their dreams.”

We have to decide that we deserve something more than an imitation of The Donna Reed Show, with a behind-the-scenes reality that looks more like Married…with Children. Once we decide we deserve it, then we need to take ourselves off the hook for making it happen all by itself. Shop around for the right counselor or relationship education program. We therapists must make this process comfortable – offering the predictability and positivity that make our clients feel safe.

Meanwhile, couples, for their part, must show up and do the work in the session, and then give each other the time and room for it to sink in at home. The good news is that you don’t have to announce it to the world when you are in couples therapy. While some of us are living our lives more publicly thanks to social networking, there’s no Facebook “like” icon on my office door. You don’t even have to tweet about how a particular session went. But who knows? After a while, you might find yourself wanting to let others know how much can change when two people make a commitment to being open and hopeful about the possibilities.