Couples Therapy Myths (Part 1/3): Couples Therapy Can’t Heal Trauma
Couples therapy, also referred to as couples counselling, marriage therapy, marriage counselling, relationship therapy, or relationship counselling is therapy that happens between a couple and a therapist. In couples therapy, the client is the relationship, and the purpose is to unite both partners into solving the problem together. It’s really an us against the world approach.
There are some myths circulating about couples therapy and this is the first of a three-part blog aimed at setting each one straight. This week we focus on the Myth that trauma is an individual problem and cannot be healed relationally.
The reality is that many survivors can benefit from individual therapy and even group therapy for support around their traumas. However, many survivors, as part of their healing journey will begin seeking a couple’s therapist with their partner and this can strengthen their healing process. Here’s why…
Trauma can have a profound effect on our relationships. Relational traumas (those involving other people) change our brain to make us believe that others can’t be trusted that people aren’t safe, that we’re not good enough, and that our needs don’t matter. These beliefs impact our emotions by making us hypervigilant or withdrawn. Our emotions then change our behaviour – we’re quick to anger, more easily triggered, or withdraw to avoid conflict. We might also have a hard time expressing our needs and desires (particularly if we believe we don’t deserve it or that our needs don’t matter).
In the context of a romantic relationship, this can make it hard to connect and maintain the intimacy and connection necessary for a successful relationship. So how exactly can couples therapy help? In many ways!
Perhaps most significantly, couples therapy helps the survivor and their partner understand why they’re reacting the way they are. Instead of looking at the reacting partner as flawed and creating conflict, couples therapy helps partners connect and together understand what is being triggered and in what way and encourages them to work together to come up with a strategy for how it can be avoided or better supported in the future.
Approaching it in this way can be empowering for the survivor because it’s truly a team effort and they’re not the only ones responsible for change. This reduces shame, increases trust and creates safety – who doesn’t want that!
Couples work can be particularly helpful for survivors of sexual violence. When we say survivors of sexual violence, we mean survivors of sexual abuse, assault, rape, and harassment in childhood or adulthood. Among individuals who have experienced this, intimacy, and touch (sexual or otherwise) even with a loving and safe partner, can become a trigger. This can be true even when the survivor has done individual work to process and heal the trauma or if there haven’t been any reactions in the past – trauma has a way of sneaking up on us sometimes.
Trauma memories tend to be encoded on a sensory level so certain sensations of touch can increase the incidence of emotional or visual flashbacks. When a survivor sets the goal of wanting to introduce or increase safe touch, intimacy, and/or sex, in their relationship they will need their partner’s support. An important note here, is that couples therapy should not focus on this unless the survivor has explicitly set this as a goal.
Couples therapy can help increase dialogue between partners and provide a safe space in which survivors can explore and share their desires and limits. Partners can be supported in understanding triggers and how to react to them.
As an example, a topic of discussion can be what the survivor needs if they begin to experience a flashback and what the partner can do to support this need. For example, can the partner say something to ground them or should intimacy continue without sex.
A safe relationship is necessary for healing to occur and a safe and trusting relationship can only happen when difficult and uncomfortable topics are discussed. A couple’s therapist can provide you with the tools to have the discussion and ask the questions that will help you explore what needs to be explored.
There are many ways of healing from trauma and if trauma is impacting your relationship, couples therapy can help. I will add one caveat – that you reach out to a couple’s therapist with a background in trauma and experience treating couples who experienced trauma. This will ensure that your specific challenges are understood and that you are provided with the safety necessary for healing.
At New Moon Psychotherapy, this is what we do <3
Watch out for the next blog focusing on another couple’s therapy myth – couples therapy is only for “failing” marriages (whatever that means).