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What is relationship therapy?

By Rachel Parodneck, LMSW

Many people may hear the term “relationship therapy” tossed around haphazardly but what exactly does relationship therapy entail? And who should go?

All approaches focus on open communication and making sure each partner feels heard in a safe space. You do not need to be married to go to relationship therapy. Simply wanting to work on and improve your relationship with your partner(s) is reason enough. However, relationship therapy may be less successful if certain types of abuse are present in the relationship or if there is an on-going affair. Some relationship therapists would not even consider seeing clients for relationship counseling where either of these factors are present.

A very helpful article for those interested in seeking relationship therapy is in New York Magazine’s The Cut: A Beginner’s Guide to Couple’s Therapy, which can be accessed here: https://www.thecut.com/article/couples-therapist.html.
In short, the focus is on the three most common and established approaches to relationship therapy: The Gottman Method, Emotionally Focused Therapy (or EFT), and Imago Relationship Therapy.

The Gottman Method: The basic idea is that unresolved conflicts are a norm, and those in relationships must learn to manage them through positive communication rather than “criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling” — also known as “the four horsemen” (of your relationship’s apocalypse, in Gottman’s context).

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT): focuses on the idea that people in relationships must establish an “attachment bond” — a feeling of emotional safety with each other. An EFT therapist will focus on helping you map out your specific emotional needs and how your partner(s) can meet them.

Imago Relationship Therapy: This philosophy hinges on the idea that most people pursue “familiar” relationships — a romantic partner who reminds us in some way of our early caregivers. This involves a script-like method of engaging your partner(s) in conversation during conflict by repeating what they’re saying back to them in a way that makes them feel understood.

Refresh Psychotherapy’s Melissa Weisel, P.h.D., LMSW, specializes in treating people in relationships. She is trained in both the Gottman Method and EFT. She enjoys using the Gottman Method because “The approach is to help people recreate their foundation of love and friendship for each other.” In terms of EFT, “You’re trying to access the emotion behind where they get stuck in their conflict and creating a moment where they feel safe and secure with their partner(s). EFT is about establishing a secure attachment.”

The Gottman Method’s article How to Find a Relationship Therapist Who Can Actually Help You outlines a list of steps to utilize when looking for a relationship therapist:
Step 1: Search for Therapists with Specialized Training in Relationship Therapy
Step 2: Interview Potential Therapists During the First Session or On The Phone
Step 3: Couples who Stick with Therapy, Improve
Step 4: Remember, This is Your Therapy and Your Relationship

The details can be found in the article here: https://www.gottman.com/blog/how-to-find-a-couples-therapist-who-can-actually-help-you/.

Unfortunately, most insurance companies do not cover relationship therapy, although some may reimburse part of the cost. Seeking relationship therapy is by no means a failure of any relationship. It shows strength that both or all people in the relationship have the desire and are willing to take action to improve the relationship.