Is couples therapy really about creating better communication?

Is couples therapy really about better communication? No! It is not. This is a commonly held misconception. A therapist named Linda Engelman wrote an excellent article on her blog called, “Four Reasons Communication skills wont save your relationship.” The gist is that the best communication in the world won’t heal the wounds that partners in distress cause each other. Engelman beautifully describes what is really necessary for healing. It often involves individuals being able to touch real vulnerable emotions and hear one another. It is through that process that healing happens.

One of my favorite parts was her discussion of couples exploring their pasts together. Engelman states, “Suggesting that couples not bring up the past is intended to help them stay in the present, and move toward the future. It’s to help them circumvent awful rehashing of old arguments. A reasonable proposal, but one fraught with problems. In the past is where many couples have experienced hurt and pain. In the past is where your partner may have needed you and you weren’t there. The past is where your brain registered something such as “this is dangerous…I’m not worthy…no one is there for me…I can’t trust my partner…I’m all alone. So yes, individuals must bring up the past. Then spend time laying down some new neural pathways. With a good Emotionally Focused Therapist, you can safely go back into the past with your partner there to hold your hand. He/she can let you know that finally, here and now, your pain, as it existed back then, is registering, that it matters, that it’s having impact, just as you always hoped it could. The way to bury the past is to share it together in an intimate and vulnerable way with the person closest to you in your life. When you’ve truly accomplished that, the past finally does become the past. Not trying to imply that this is easy, or a quick 50-minute fix, but it’s a process well worth your time when you consider the payoff at the end — a lifelong intimate partnership, filled with connected moments.”

As she said this is not easy. Often the hurt caused in the past create escalated angry interactions but if you can wade through all that and slow it down this other process can emerge. I have seen it happen and I believe in its power. I think it requires quite  a bit of self-awareness on the part of each individual but with patience and guidance I think it is possible.