Image representing couples counseling service offered by Jenai Wu Steinkeller.

Couples Counseling and Relationship Therapy

Working to Foster a Healthy Relationship

Whether a couple has been together for many years or are just exploring the possibility of a future together, what couples want most is emotional intimacy, harmony and trust as the bedrock of their relationship.  Relationships where couples have a deep connection and emotional availability allow both partners to express their thoughts and feelings frequently and clearly; simultaneously have differences yet feel assured of mutual respect; and maintain vital emotional and physical intimacy.

Yet many obstacles would seem to thwart that desired state.  One of the most frequent obstacles mentioned in my Boston practice is the challenge of maintaining a work-life balance.  Jobs can be all-consuming or all-demanding, with many individuals fearing they will fall behind or jeopardize their standing in their employment if they are not “plugged in” and available all the time.  People in the Boston area also seem to spend more and more time commuting as the real estate market becomes prohibitively competitive.  Raising children involves a quantum leap of complexity as dual-career couples juggle it all while attempting to secure a happy home life for their families.

Representation of Dr. Jenai Wu Steinkeller's psychologist office where she provides couples counseling.While such external challenges are all-too real, even more challenging can be friction in the relationship itself.  The causes of conflict between two separate individuals creating a partnership are myriad:  they may have different priorities around finances,  parenting styles, in-laws, division of labor, sex and intimacy, emotional needs, or how to spend leisure time.  How a couple handles these all-too-natural differences is where the relationship stays on the rails, or goes off.  Some couples find it easy to get caught up in the day-to-day negotiations and reporting around surface and external issues that admittedly need to be shared.  But it can cause them to avoid having the harder conversations about potential conflicts.  One or both partners may shut down when these subjects arise.  One or both partners may resort to unconstructive diversions out of fear that they won’t be able to work through their differences, such as retreating or controlling.  Dynamics such as blame and mutual criticism, controlling behavior, jealousy and insecurity, escapism, unfulfilled promises and disrespected boundaries such as infidelity may prevail.

Alternatively, many couples report that their relationship isn’t “that bad” and prefer to focus on the positive, expecting that the relationship will bobble to the desired state sooner or later.  For many people this is a fine approach.  Sometimes time and patience are the very best medicine.  Yet it can be useful to distinguish when to leave it alone, and when a couple has fallen out of tune, causing drift, loneliness, and loss of intimacy.  While some prefer this to a state of bickering and conflict, emotional distance comes with its own hazard.  As individuals lose faith that they can feel loved, desired, and emotionally connected, they make moves psychologically or behaviorally to protect themselves from this painful state.

Every Couple Faces Relationship Challenges

Couples have to work through individual differences in many areas in order to get along and function smoothly as a team.  That is not to say they should be the same – differences often enrich rather than divide.  Couples have to work through many decisions, such as how to spend their recreational time, how much time to spend together or apart, money issues, running the household, and for multicultural couples, decisions about social customs and cultural values.

Although ironing out differences can be challenging, it can also form the foundation of the relationship.  Struggle can be constructive and contribute to the health of the relationship.

In the service of making it more likely that working these things out will support the couple’s relationship instead of diminish it, couples counseling can help explore the assumptions and expectations each individual brings into the relationship from their personal histories.  Relationship patterns such as how people communicate or respond to each other, when they open up and when they shut down, which emotions they are comfortable with and which ones are pushed away — are part of each individual’s package.  Knowing what a couple shares and in what ways they are different can go a long way to minimizing frustration.

Couples counseling can help people figure out healthy and caring ways to honor each other’s individuality, to communicate to cross the divide, and to know when to compromise.  Like labor and delivery, a couple as a caring and committed team does not usually emerge effortlessly but can be helped along with professional guidance.

Similarities or differences between a couple may include:

  • how they like to spend their leisure time
  • comfort with conflict and expressing strong feelings
  • psychological habits like how they cope with stress
  • the degree of independence each want or need from the other
  • degree of empathy and comfort with emotional intimacy
  • motivations and commitment to the relationship
  • life style priorities
  • cultural or social customs and values

Situations that trigger a couple to seek couples therapy

  • frequent conflict, bickering and strife
  • emotional avoidance or distancing
  • conflict over money and finances
  • difficulties in trust or intimacy
  • controlling, domineering, or manipulative behavior
  • invasion of privacy
  • feeling insufficiently valued or appreciated
  • household division of labor
  • childrearing
  • decision to have children, fertility, or adoption
  • stepfamilies
  • illness or disability
  • alcohol, drug, or other addiction
  • breakup
  • lack of sexual satisfaction
  • life changes, retirement, career change, relocation
  • anger, criticism, blame
  • betrayal, infidelity, jealousy
  • not following through with commitments

How Dr. Wu helps couples:

Dr. Wu works with you as an impartial, non-judgmental, respectful, neutral voice, encouraging each party to be open to learning about themselves.  She helps couples look  beneath  surface issues and find the deeper emotional “music” of a couple’s relationship.

She helps couples connect to their strengths while offering insight and inquiry to help them explore their emotions and patterns of relating.  In doing this she keeps in mind fundamental drivers and motivations in a couple’s needs for love, respect, mutual dependence and appropriate independence, and the variations in how people work out these basic needs.  She looks at boundaries, power, dependence-independence, flexibility and the ability for individuals to deal with change. She works to understand the roles that the individuals take in the relationship, their ability to communicate, to solve problems, and their ability to cope with life changes and events such as illness, growth of family, and death. Areas covered may also include issues like trust and intimacy, co-dependencies or maintenance of maladaptive symptoms, triangles, communication problems, commitments, betrayals, infidelity, arguments, conflict, sex, and control.

Sessions are tailored to the particular personalities, background and goals of each unique couple.  While the important process of establishing mutual understanding and learning new skills unfolds step by step, Dr. Wu may augment conversations with practical exercises to break out of old patterns and shift how people relate, respond, understand, and attune to one another.  Helping couples identify key differences between them and working on reconciling them helps each to appreciate  one another’s perspectives and understand the other’s words and actions, leading to a reduction of anxiety and conflict.  Helping couples take greater responsibilities for each of their own  emotions and behavior helps them to  develop appropriate boundaries and healthy levels of interdependence most likely to lead to a healthy relationship that honors each partner and their commitment to one another.

Goals for couples and relationship therapy:

  • Increased capacity for mutual emotional attunement
  • Increase capacity for trust and intimacy
  • Increase sensitivity and attunement to each another’s emotions and communication
  • Greater capacity to appreciate each other’s perspectives
  • Identify key differences between couple and work on reconciling them
  • Reduce anxiety and conflict within a relationship
  • Improve accuracy of perceiving and understanding each other
  • Improve communication patterns within the relationship
  • Improve options for better functioning both with each other and as a couple
  • Improve problem-solving
  • Take responsibility for one’s own emotions, psychology and behavior
  • Develop appropriate limits and boundaries
  • Promote growth and overall well-being in couple

Additional Concerns about Couples Therapy

Attending couples counseling means there’s something wrong with us.  What if it makes things worse? 

Many people have internalized the message that going to therapy means there is a problem.  It can also be  intimidating to imagine opening up completely with your partner, let alone a stranger.  Yet therapy can also offer a safety net and “neutral zone” to explore what feels uncomfortably sensitive, and to learn new ways to grow.  Although people often come to couples therapy to improve their relationship, sometimes they come to get help saying goodbye.  They may need help exploring this as an option as an alternative to “making it work.”  Either way, couples counseling is intended to help explore relationship patterns and help individuals gain insight into themselves.

We need couples therapy but my partner doesn’t want to go

For couples therapy to be helpful, it’s very important that you and your partner share both the commitment to make your relationship work, and the means to improve it. If one of you  feels eager to give couples therapy a try and the other doesn’t, it could be due to different reasons.  Perhaps your partner feels uncomfortable expressing his or her emotions to a 3rd party.  Perhaps they view counseling as shameful.  Perhaps your partner’s ambivalence points to a misalignment in your relationship.  A few sessions might help you clarify the source of that misalignment and see if it’s possible to get back on track.

It’s not that bad. We can just continue as we are.

 Everyone has to decide whether the work and expense of finding and engaging in couples counseling is merited.  However in some cases it may be easier to do relationship work upstream before unconstructive patterns harden.  Like with automobile maintenance, preventive medicine may pay off.

Dr. Wu sees hetero- and LGBT couples, multicultural or biracial couples, and couples for relationship and marital counseling.

Read more about Improving Relationships.