Some people come to couples counseling seeking symptom relief; they just want the pain to go away. Other people want to go beyond symptom relief and learn how to succeed together. Couples in a third, smaller group want to build a growth relationship, meaning a relationship that prospers and grows and both of them growing right along with it. Let's look at each possibility.
Symptom relief. Imagine a couple that fights a lot. During these battles they say awful things to each other. They are in real pain and go into counseling to make the pain go away. Each is deeply relieved to discover in counseling that the other wants the marriage to continue and wishes to stop fighting.
Their shared sense of relief carries them into the "honeymoon" phase of counseling; the fighting diminishes, and the pain begins to go away. Unfortunately, the honeymoon is brief. Mistaking symptom relief for genuine change, the couple quits counseling after a few sessions. Soon the fighting resumes and with it the old pain, because the couple didn't work together long enough to figure out what real change would involve.
The people who come to counseling to learn how to succeed together generally do better than the symptom-relief folks. Those who succeed come to understand the dysfunctional behavior that caused their relationship to flounder. They develop ways of doing better and eventually end counseling knowing, more than before, how to succeed at their relationship.
Success doesn't necessarily mean a dynamic, expanding relationship, however, nor does it necessarily mean that partners grow, individually or together. Much depends on how "success" is defined. For example, a couple might say, "We have a successful marriage. I live my life, he lives his life, and we don't bother each other." Success on their terms - but not personal or relationship growth.
The richer your sense of what constitutes a good relationship, the greater the skill and discipline you must bring to achieving it. Based on my experience working with couples, I see nine different areas of skill, attitude and commitment that are involved. I'll begin to describe those areas in my next blog post. Meanwhile -
Please comment: What do you think it takes to build a growing relationship?