Rachel’s distress reached a tipping point and she wanted to go to couple’s therapy. However, her partner refused to go. Rachel was frustrated with his unwillingness to change and didn’t know what to do. Her list of complaints included being blamed for all the family problems. Her partner didn’t hold a steady job and rarely took responsibility for his behavior. He was constantly late to family events, formed unhealthy alliances with their children and responded to confrontation with anger and entitlement. Even with all of these issues, I told her we could do couple’s therapy without him. She looked surprised.

While I prefer to see both partners to work on relationship issues, couple’s work with one person is possible and can be effective. In practice, not all spouses are motivated or willing to attend sessions. Thus, one option is to do the work with one person. To do so, the therapist must have a systems mindset and be trained in systems theory. This systems mindset it key in that it focuses on the dynamics between two people, not just the individual.

With Rachel, the work involved observing her role in the couple relationship and identifying her responses to her partner’s actions and words. For example, when her partner blames her for something he does, how does she respond? Does her response repeat the same old pattern leading to little change? If so, what happens if she changes her response? Since she can’t change him, she can change the way she responds to him. Ultimately, this change in her behavior will change their pattern of interaction. In other words, she can change unhealthy patterns by changing her step in the couple’s dance.

Ever since Adam first blamed Eve and Sarai accused Abram of being the cause of her suffering (Gen 16:5), people continue to stubbornly avoid personal responsibility in the context of relationships. Our natural bent is to blame others rather than “take the beam out of our own eye.”  Couple’s therapy with one person helps people take personal responsibility for their part of the couple interactions. It also focuses on \\the heart and mind when it comes to responding to difficult issues. And it emphasizes responding in a new ways and not returning to old, unhealthy patterns of behavior.

This work is not easy in that the other person will try to pull you back to old unhealthy patterns. But when you learn to respond in a new way and not give in to old patterns, the dynamics of the relationship change. When a person does this, the other partner becomes uncomfortable and is often is willing to attend couple sessions.

Ultimately, God holds each of us accountable for our part in all of our interpersonal relationships. He does not excuse or justify our behavior based on the unhealthy reactions of others. Thus, this type of therapy, which focuses on your reactions to unhealthy patterns, fits beautifully with the biblical frame of personal accountability and responsibility.

So if your partner refuses to go to couple’s therapy, you go. Work on your behavior. Learn better ways to respond to conflict. Refuse to give in to blame and learn how to effectively respond to problematic patterns of behavior. Change your step in the dysfunctional dance. Then, see what a difference this type of focus makes in the relationship.

You can’t change another person but you can change you. And when you change you, the relationship does change. However, you need to find a therapist who understands this systems approach to couple work,  not a therapist who only deals with individuals. Usually, someone who is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) has this type of systems training. But don’t be afraid to ask because the success of the work depends on a systemic focus.

 

More couple help, I Married You, Not Your Family by Dr. Linda Mintle 

 

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