Breaking Through Resistance in Couples Therapy

5 min read

The concept of therapy resistance was initially introduced by the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Freud described it as an unconscious unwillingness to bring the unknown into the light and to make the unconscious conscious. In essence, the psyche often perceives change as perilous, striving to maintain the status quo. This innate resistance arises from a perception that changes are dangerous, as they challenge the known, although often unpleasant, yet familiar and predictable reality. Expanding upon Freud’s work, his daughter Anna categorized resistances into primitive and advanced types, with primitive resistances akin to those a child would unconsciously use when dealing with something unpleasant. Exploring these resistances and the emotions that lie beneath them, such as anxiety, fear of the unknown, reluctance to revisit traumatic experiences, and so on, is a pivotal facet of individual psychoanalytic therapy.

In addition to the resistance encountered in individual therapy, couples therapy also grapples with its own unique forms of resistance. Couples often unwittingly merge into a singular entity, and although they seek couples counseling with the genuine intent to improve their relationship and ease their life together, they may still exhibit resistance to the counseling process. If left unaddressed, these resistances may eventually become obstacles that potentially undermine the progress of therapy altogether and make the couple ditch it. So, let’s delve into some of the common forms of unconscious resistance encountered in couples therapy, illustrated by real-life examples:

1. Being Overwhelmed With Emotions

Couples often enter therapy with a wellspring of emotions with the goal of learning to deal with these emotions. Especially as it often happens with the emotions triggered by something that the partner says and does. Effectively addressing these emotions requires the ability to eventually articulate them and be able to talk about them without having them take charge of you.

Let’s take imaginative clients John and Sarah, a couple married for 10 years. In their counseling sessions, their unresolved anger often leads to shouting matches directed at each other, and sometimes anger unites them together against the counselor, effectively preventing productive communication. Letting oneself feel and be free to feel whatever occurs during the sessions is actually good for working around these feelings; however, only feeling them and acting upon them in the form of a quarrel instead of also talking about them can be a form of resistance to a change. When John and Sarah resort to emotional outbursts instead of discussing their feelings, they further entrench their emotional distance. Emotions are the lifeblood of a relationship because partners want to feel comfortable around each other, and addressing them through dialogue and discussion about them is crucial for a positive change.

2. Refusing Dialogue

A fundamental aspect of any couples, individual, or group therapy is fostering open and honest dialogue. In this case, resistance can manifest as a reluctance to engage in meaningful conversation. John, for example, stonewalls his wife, Sarah, during therapy sessions, responding with silence or monosyllabic answers when confronted with difficult topics. Sarah feels frustrated that she has to do twice the work.

In a similar fashion, interrupting each other repeatedly during counseling, not letting one another finish a single sentence, and often interlacing it with the above-mentioned point of being overwhelmed with emotions shuts down meaningful dialogue and the gateway to resolving conflicts, something with which therapy aims to help. Whatever we do in the relationship, we need to sustain the dialogue.

3. Denying Personal Responsibility

When a couple comes to therapy, they often blame one another for their troubles. It is rather natural, and in the process, we are studying each partner’s responsibility. Yet, unilateral blame and denial of the possibility of any personal responsibility for what’s going on in the relationship often become a common defense mechanism in couples therapy. Sarah consistently blames John for their relationship problems during therapy sessions, absolving herself of any responsibility. “My role,” she says, “is minimal. I only react to what John is doing, and he’s been doing a lot of wrong and hurtful things for a long time!”

It is important to remember that a couple consists of two people, and they both create the space between them. Acknowledging one’s role in relationship dynamics is essential for lasting change and growth.

4. Lack of Hope for Relationship Improvement

In moments of despair, it’s easy to lose sight of hope. John decides to stop attending therapy sessions after several sessions, or he is suddenly too busy at work to attend sessions or come on time, or he just does not trust therapy or Sarah or their future together, so why try? Success in therapy can be predicted by two partners giving hope in the process.

Sarah and John attend sessions reluctantly, showing up only to appease the therapist or to tick off that they are doing what is necessary, to later give an account to their family or friends—sure, we tried therapy—without actually being committed to the process. Their underlying belief that their marriage is doomed hampers any genuine progress. Even in the face of difficulties, maintaining a glimmer of hope is essential, and unremitting pessimism can be considered a form of resistance. In cases where separation seems inevitable, there are still ways to part respectfully and amicably and continue productive communication after separation, which is indispensable when children are involved. Co-parenting and fostering an amicable post-relationship dynamic can preserve a sense of continuity for both adults and children.

In conclusion, when does couples therapy fail to work? It is often when unconscious resistance occurs and remains unaddressed. Recognizing and confronting these resistances is a critical step in the journey toward relationship revitalization. In couples therapy, it is through empathy, communication, and self-awareness that couples can begin to break down these barriers, allowing for genuine progress and the potential for a healthier, more harmonious partnership.

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