Arlene Brewster, PhD
Arlene Brewster, PhD


What Does It Mean: How Does a Couple's Therapist Look at Relationship Problems?

It takes some time for a couple whose relationship is going through difficulties to come to a couple’s therapist. First the couple tries to solve the problem without any intervention. When that does not work, the couple is still very hesitant to expose their issues to a stranger. Often there is the fear from each member of the couple that the therapist is going to blame them for the couple’s problems. Some of that fear comes from the couple’s blaming each other for a while. We all tend to blame our partner and to fantasize that if our partner would really shape up and see it our way, all the problems would be solved.

So how does a therapist think about the couple’s problem?  Therapists tend to first look at the rigid, destructive cycles the couples report. These cycles are repetitive patterns that both partners participate in over and over again around areas of conflict. Although the cycles do not work in solving anything, and both partners know the moves and the outcomes before-hand, couples engage in the cycles with increasing frequency. In troubled marriages, these cycles take over, and other behaviors such as having fun together, talking intimately, sex, and being playful often drop out of the couple’s interaction.  

These cycles involve combinations of pursuit and withdrawal behaviors. Ususally one partner pursues often by nagging, yelling, accusing, and starting arguments. This behavior is often labelled by the partner as needing to “talk the problem out”. The other partner withdraws into angry silence and refuses to talk, or withdraws in other ways from the partner.  There are variations of this cycle where both partners withdraw or both pursue. In fact the steps of this cycle are so familiar, and so ritualized, that therapists often refer to it “the dance”. (See Harriet Lerner's The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships). 

Why do we do these cycles over and over again when we know they don’t work? It is because we are reacting to some emotional wound we feel has been imposed by our partner. We feel betrayed, hurt frightened, ashamed, attacked, or some combination of all of these. Our pursuit or withdrawal is an attempt to protect ourselves from these threats to our sense of self.  That is why these cycles are not effectively dealt with by being nice to each other, “putting the past behind us”,  having date-night, or some of the  many things that couples try to improve their relationship by avoiding the areas of conflict. The people close to us are the ones who can activate these powerful feelings most easily, because their behavior towards us matters so much.  So the first major task of therapy is to deal with these cycles and begin to give psychological space to the couple to deal with conflict in a more productive and less reactive way.

Much of this information comes from the theory of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFCT). You can find lots of information about it by searching the internet for EFCT or its founder, Sue Johnson.


© Arlene Brewster, PhD. All rights reserved.