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Couple therapy is hard because couples wait for their partner to change.

Shifting Perspectives in Couple Therapy

Picture this: a couple walks into therapy, each harboring a laundry list of grievances against the other. "If only he would stop being so controlling," she moans, while he wishes, "she's got to learn to control her anger."

Sketch of African American couple angry with each other. .

Beneath these complaints lies a common thread — the belief that everything would be better if only their partner would change.


As a counselor, If there was one thing I wish I could convince couples of, it would be that you can't wait for your partner to change.


I know that sounds really harsh. Shouldn't clients expect to go to therapy and their partner change? I mean, what else is the therapist doing if it's not helping couples change?


Trouble is this ultimately leaves clients powerless.


Sure, if one partner stopped attacking the other, it would be easier to respond well. But that means all possibilities for change rely on someone else doing something.


Our job, as therapists, is to help clients shift the focus back to what they can actually control. This shift is transformative. It places the locus of control back in their hands, empowering them to make choices that serve their well-being. It means when confronted with unkindness or controlling behavior, they learn to set boundaries and manage their own reactions.


Personal Growth and Couples Therapy

This also opens the door to true, radical change in couples therapy.


When we shift a client's focus to their own triggers and emotional needs, in the presence of their partners, we help them embark on a journey of self-discovery and healing. As they address their own insecurities and wounds, their relationships with their partner inevitably changes.


How could it not.


If he was calmer when his partner attacked him, he'd have a different relationship.

Sketch of African American male reaching enlightenment.

If she were more present when her partner was stressed and flew into a panic, she'd have a different relationship.


If you were more patient when your partner was controlling, you'd have a different relationship.


It's a paradoxical truth: by relinquishing the expectation of our partner's change, we gain agency over our own lives and relationships. We cease to be passive bystanders, waiting for others to change our circumstances, and instead become active participants in shaping our own destinies.


Empowering the Individual in Couples Therapy

When we therapists take this stance some clients will assume we're saying, "Your partner is going to act crazy and you just have to take it."


Especially in cases of abuse, this is a very dangerous misunderstanding. In those cases we of course would need to help our clients set boundaries and create safety. However, still notice that we're focusing on what the client can do.


We can't wait for abusers to change.


Other clients will feel like we're blaming them for being the victim and not changing sooner. Sometimes clients will feel that way because we are victim blaming. We need to monitor ourselves and make sure that doesn't happen. Other times clients will feel that way because we've pricked their underlying shame. In those moments we need to marshal all of our therapeutic skills to untangle the lies shame uses to keep them trapped.


This isn't about permitting abuse or blaming clients. Is about helping them find their own power and agency.


The Promise of Couples Therapy

Ultimately our job as therapists and counselors is to help clients.


Whether that means finding the courage to leave an abusive situation, setting boundaries, or embarking on a journey of self-discovery, the power to transform our lives ultimately resides within us. Our job is to cultivate that in our clients, and draw it out of them.


So, the next time a client comes into counseling asking for their partner to change, pause and see if you can reorient them to the questions: What can you control?


In that simple yet profound question lies the key to unlocking a future of growth, resilience, and maybe even authentic connection in their relationship.


Sketch of an African American couple in love.

Best,


Jordan (the counselor)


-Fin-


 

If you liked this post, consider reading this next. It's more about the difficulties of being a couples counselor.

 

Jordan Harris, Ph.D., LMFT-S, LPC-S, received his Doctor of Philosophy in Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Louisiana Monroe. He is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist in the state of Arkansas, USA. In his clinical work, he enjoys working with couples. He also runs a blog on deliberate practice for therapists and counselors at Jordanthecounselor.com.

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