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Kerry Gordon Ph.D., Clinical Member OSP


Kerry Gordon, psychodynamic therapist Toronto, Canada

What is Couples Therapy?

Marriage is not a simple love affair, it's an ordeal, and the ordeal is the sacrifice of ego to a relationship in which two have become one.

Joseph Campbell

Most of us have no trouble accepting that we are not born knowing how to play the piano. We understand, however, that with discipline, effort, practice and a sympathetic teacher we can learn. And yet for some reason we don't regularly apply this same understanding to the art of relationship. Imagine how frustrating it would be to sit down at the piano for the very first time without any instruction or guidance, and expect to play a Chopin Nocturne. We wouldn't be able to read the music much less move our fingers across the keys. And yet in almost every case, couples that come to see me for therapy believe that they should automatically know how to build and sustain healthy, loving relationships. And often they are filled with a deep sense of failure, that there is something wrong with them or their partner because their relationship is not what they feel it should or could be. But there is nothing wrong - why should we expect to know how to do something that we've never learned? Building healthy, intimate, enduring relationships isn't magic. Like any other art or skill, building a relationship depends first, on our willingness to learn and second on our commitment to continuing practice.

When we first get together as a couple we don't come alone. We bring with us a system of beliefs and embedded patterns of behavior that we have learned over a lifetime of relationships. As children these patterns of behavior act as survival strategies designed to win love and approval. And over time these patterns gradually become embedded so that by the time we are adults they are totally unconscious. At a deep level, at a level outside our awareness, we come to believe that our survival depends on these adopted patterns of thought, feeling and action. And so we continue to act out these patterns even though as adults they no longer serve us and indeed may actually inhibit our ability to engage in lasting, intimate relationships.

So each of us, as we enter into relationship, bring our habitual patterns, of which we are largely unaware. And out of these habitual patterns come the roles we play out endlessly with each other. But after a while the limits of these roles begin to grate on us. We can't really identify the problem. Usually it manifests as boredom or endless bickering. Sometimes it results in an affair; sometimes in the breakup of the relationship, and sometimes in the desperate resolve to just endure. But more often than not there arises in us the certainty that if only that person sitting opposite me would change, then things would be right and we could live happily ever after.

Relationship is a co-creative process far greater than the sum of its parts. It is a dance that we do in which we are simultaneously leading and being led. To a large extent couples therapy is about bringing into awareness the dance that we are doing, a dance whose steps are comprised of the patterned beliefs that we bring to the relationship.

Couples therapy starts with becoming aware of our patterns, how we persistently engage them with each other even though they inevitably fail to bring us the results we want. The problem is that our patterns are so deeply embedded that we blindly accept them, not merely as beliefs but as the unvarnished truth of who we are. To see our patterns as they are, not as our fate but rather as choices, is a liberating experience that opens the door to change. Suddenly the possibility for who we are and who we can be within the relationship expands and blossoms. Through the therapeutic process we begin to discover that we need not be restricted by old habits and past experience; that we can actually choose how we want our relationship to grow and evolve. Instead of being a mere character trapped in someone else's play we become the author in our own story of relationship.

Couples therapy is not about fixing something that's broken. It's about letting go of what was, so that something new and vital can arise. It's about a compassionate commitment to the sacred marriage, the dialectic dance of opposites where two become one. And so couples therapy teaches that first its awareness, then choice and finally practice, practice, and more practice as we begin to let go of our rigid beliefs and come home, falling into each other in the service of love.

If you have questions about this article or would like to read more please feel free to contact me.

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