Air, water, food, and affiliation --- without any one of these, we couldn't exist.  Relationships are central to our lives, and our intimate relationships are often our most challenging ones.  They require the most work.  Whether a couple is married or unmarried, straight or gay, romantically involved or best friends, therapy can help two people overcome hurdles in how to become closer and get more of what they need from their spouse, partner or friend.

I'd like to share with you how I have worked with Steve, Carla, and Emily to help each of them derive more satisfaction from their primary relationships.  I've of course changed their names and identifying information to protect their confidentiality.

Steve and Carla had been married almost ten years when they came to see me.  Steve only agreed to come to couples therapy reluctantly, after much insisting on Carla's part.  Carla started their first session explaining that she found Steve to be work obsessed, distant and unfeeling.  She said if only he'd talk more to her, they would have a better relationship.  And Steve pretty much agreed with Carla that it was his fault that things weren't better between them.  I explained to Steve and Carla that while they both agreed that Steve was the primary problem, I believed that it was never just one member of a couple who contributed to their difficulties. 

As Carla and Steve talked more, it became apparent that Carla --- whom they both said was very connected with her feelings --- in fact was able to express her hurt and sadness easily, but her not anger.  It appeared indirectly with her put downs and sniping toward Steve.  While Steve certainly invited her anger through his silences, Carla had little experience expressing her anger directly.  And as we discussed this, Steve came to understand that Carla's submerged anger played a significant role in his own withdrawal from her. 

The three of us worked together on a weekly basis for some nine months, helping each of them connect with and share their feelings more fully and in a more straightforward way.  Their relationship became more intimate and less contentious, and they decided to start coming to therapy just once a month for check ups.  They both agreed that they were now turning to each other much more frequently when either had a problem, and they more quickly discussed problems without letting them fester.

Emily had been in therapy with me for a year, and she would regularly complain about her relationship with her partner Sophie, whom Emily described as bossy and controlling.  Emily was particularly frustrated because, while Emily was working on her own issues in therapy, Sophie refused to consider therapy for herself.  And no matter how Emily approached her, Sophie wouldn't consider couples therapy.  This left Emily angry and feeling like a victim.

As we talked more about her relationship with Sophie, Emily came to recognize her history of being attracted to women who were similarly controlling.  This reminded Emily of her relationship with her father when she was growing up.  Emily often felt hurt and misunderstood by him because he was frequently critical of her and would constantly tell her how she should run her life.  Emily realized that being with Sophie was an act of hope on her part: maybe this time she could get a bossy person to accept her more for who she was.  We began working on new ways that Emily could react when she felt Sophie was starting to control her.  At first, Emily found herself too anxious and scared to be more assertive.  But slowly over time, she started setting limits with Sophie, which resulted in Emily feeling better about herself and proud of her new coping strategies. 

No one should feel that they're incapable of improving an intimate relationship.  As with Steve and Carla, couples therapy can be very helpful in bringing each partner more satisfaction.  Even when a spouse or partner refuses to seek help, we can see through the example of Emily that there are still ways to achieve more contentment.