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Debunking the myth of couples therapy: What if it is the first step towards separation?

In many relationships, seeking psychological help is what comes before making the decision to separate for good

A couple holding hands.
A couple holding hands.AsiaVision (Getty Images)

It is the chronicle of a death foretold. Although the intention with which many invest time and money in going to a couples therapist is to fix a marriage or a relationship that hangs by a thread, and there is a widespread belief — stoked by popular culture — that this is actually possible, the reality is that this is not always the case. “You don’t do couples therapy to save the relationship at all costs,” says psychologist Ángel Guillen.

“However, sometimes the relationship is so destroyed, or there is so much resistance on the part of one or both members, that it becomes very difficult to settle,” says psychologist specializing in couples therapy and sexologist Silvia Cintrano, who explains that therapy often serves as a means to take the final step to a breakup, as this is something that people do as a last resort. This is known as the last-ditch effort: if it does not work, everything is over. The problem, says Cintrano, is that this last solution usually arrives too late.

Psychologist María Moragón explains that throughout her career she has seen many couples for whom therapy was a way to end their relationship, and that this is not bad by any means. “They are relationships that hadn’t been working for a long time, neither party was happy, but they were not capable of finishing it by themselves,” she says. Psychoanalyst Bruno Betelheim agrees: “The couple sometimes goes to therapy so that the therapist gives them permission to carry out a decision that they have already made.”

There are many reasons why a couple may go to therapy, but most, experts say, revolve around one thing: they want to stop being unhappy. “This lack of harmony in a relationship can be the result of infidelities, differences in sex drive, problems with their families, big decisions or a conflict,” explains Moragón. Psychologist Patricia Gutiérrez expresses herself along the same lines, stating that some of the most common variables she has treated are a deficit in communication and a lack of expressive resources and skills to solve problems.

The final goal in couples therapy, the specialists point out, is that both members of the couple manage to connect with their own individual well-being and emotional stability, and that they do so by either rebuilding their bond or ending it for good.

Health psychologist and psychotherapist Raquel Tomé López explains that the key to therapy, on the other hand, is “to create a safe space to explore and understand a little better what happens to patients as a couple.” Thus, she explains, they gain the ability to reflect on themselves and their psychological mechanisms. “They learn to put some thought into what was initially only emotional, especially when the feelings are as uncontrollable as they can be in a relationship,” she says.

Although it is understandable that couples only seek this type of external help when problems arise between them and they are not able to solve them, it is also common for them to stop going once the situation is resolved. However, experts recommend considering occasional reinforcement sessions. “This helps to consolidate goals in a more favorable emotional situation, which is much more effective, or to seek individual therapy to face the breakup.” Because, no matter what the popular stories say, nowhere is it written that the best thing that can always happen to two people is to stay together forever.

American scientists have demonstrated a certain effectiveness of couples therapy in those relationships for whom it is not too late for another chance. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, three out of four couples who attend therapy admit improvement in their relationship; specifically, the report states that between 70% and 73% of couples recover from the unease that makes them go to therapy, and they usually do it in the first 10 to 12 sessions. One must not forget, of course, that these data come from institutions interested in demonstrating the effectiveness of couples therapy.

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