Overseeing the End of a Relationship as a Couples’ Therapist

As a relationship therapist, I know I have a few beliefs that are a bit controversial for my field. One of those beliefs is this: the end of the relationship can be a perfectly good resolution to a couples’ therapy.

Let’s say that, after a long and complicated therapy, the partners look at each other and decide that the relationship is over. This is a painful result for both partners and often also for the therapist, but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure.

Consider the goal of increased differentiation of self. Here are the 3 parts:

  • Become able to look inside yourself and identify what you think, feel, prefer, and desire.
  • Develop the skill of holding steady while communicating those thoughts, feelings, etc. to your partner.
  • Develop the skill of holding steady when your partner communicates to you about their feelings and desires…even when you are uncomfortable with what they are saying.

I truly believe that, in order to be happy, live fulfilling lives, and build strong, stable relationships, we all need to continue to develop this skillset. This is the road to congruence, or the experience of having your internal reality (that of feelings and desires) match your external reality (that of actions and words). Without congruence, you can’t have a strong, stable relationship. And without differentiation of self, congruence is just an idea.

Imagine this: a couple in therapy is working toward the three aspects of differentiation of self. They are getting to know themselves and one another more deeply and authentically than ever before. They are discussing the hard truths—the secrets, the unacknowledged differences, the difficult emotions. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of this process, and most often the experience of seeing one another through new eyes offers fresh energy or even a complete rebirth for the  relationship.

However, sometimes this process results in a realization of incompatibility. What then?

In my experience, people then decide to stay together despite the incompatibility, for any number of reasons, or they decide to end the relationship and go their separate ways.

In either case, I strongly believe that the deeper goal of knowing oneself and showing up authentically in relationship is more important than exactly what happens with the relationship outcome.

I love to help my clients get to the point where they have the clear eyes, the self-knowledge, and the understanding of one another to make the right decision for themselves–even if that decision is to end the relationship.

When partners decide to split up, that doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship therapy is over. The process of disentangling a life together—including shared finances, property, friends, community, and children—is complicated, and can be fraught and painful. A relationship therapist can be a wonderful resource to help facilitate stronger communication and better agreements throughout the transition.

Facts About Anatomy that Your Clients Need (Part 2)

Last week, I shared some useful facts about anatomy that your clients are likely to benefit from. This week, I’m back with more–this time focusing on orgasm and ejaculation for people with penises.

  • Many people with a penis can have more than one orgasm (with ejaculation) in a day. Some can have more than one orgasm/ejaculation in a sex session. If your client is distressed about reaching orgasm “too quickly,” they should know that for many, this is a possibility!
  • It is also possible to separate the orgasm from the ejaculation, and have LOTS of orgasms before ejaculating. This is an interesting mindfulness project involving awareness of levels of arousal, and there are a couple of very good books about it if you know someone with a penis who would like to explore this: The Multi-Orgasmic Man, by Mantak Chia and Douglas Abrams, 1996, and Male Multiple Orgasm, by Somraj Pokras, 2007.
  • Sometimes people use numbing agents in an attempt to avoid ejaculating “too quickly.” I’d never recommend this, as numbing agents don’t promote pleasure. They can also be passed to the partner, which completely defeats the purpose.

You may have a client who struggles with shame or embarrassment about ejaculating too quickly, or too slowly. Anxiety about sexual “performance” is very common, and anything you can do to lower anxiety and decrease any sense of “performing” will be very helpful. Focusing on intimate connection with pleasure, rather than penetration or orgasm, is an important part of lowering anxiety about sex. Normalize the fact that there is no rule book about how to have sex “right”, and that there are many ways to explore pleasure besides PIV. I’ve written many times on this blog before about building a flexible sexual relationship that doesn’t collapse when things don’t go as planned. You can read more about that here:

When Sex Doesn’t Go As Planned

Unscripting Sex for More Connection and Pleasure

Flexibility is the Key to a Satisfying Sex Life

When Partners Encourage Each Other To Lie

Of course, we all want our partners to be honest with us. But, at the same time, there may be some things we just don’t want to hear.

There’s a concept in the Developmental Model of Couple Therapy: “lie-inviting behavior.” What this means, basically, is that if you flip out when your partner tells you something uncomfortable, you’re sending them a message. Without meaning to, you’re saying “Next time, either don’t tell me at all, or don’t tell me the truth.”

Flipping out in any of its forms–yelling, crying, storming out, shutting down, name-calling–probably won’t stop your partner from doing or thinking the thing you don’t like. It will almost certainly stop them from bringing it up to you, however. That leaves you with a choice: would you rather do your best to withstand the discomfort in order to be able to hear the truth? Or would you rather push your partner to go underground, in exchange for feeling more comfortable?

If you want to truly know your partner, then you will need to be prepared to hear them talk about what is true for them, and what their perceptions, feelings, and desires are. If this is what you want, you will need to show your partner that you’re capable of handling hearing their truth. It’s your partner’s responsibility to be honest–but you can make that more likely by listening without judgement, holding steady through difficult emotions, and framing your responses as being about you, your feelings, beliefs, and the meanings you have learned to make. It’s particularly powerful if you can find it in yourself to thank your partner for telling you the truth even if it was hard for you to hear.

If you’ve been very upset in the past when your partner has told you a difficult truth, you may want to take the time to make a repair. You can go back to your partner and say, “I realize that my reaction to what you said may have made it hard for you to talk about this topic. I want you to know that, regardless of what I said in the heat of the moment, I appreciate that you trusted me enough to tell me the truth. I want you to be able to be honest with me, even about difficult topics, and next time I will do my best to take it in stride.”

If you’re a therapist, keep your eye out for lie-inviting behavior. Holding steady through a difficult conversation is a real differentiation-of-self challenge. I like to tell my clients that their efforts will be rewarded with the deeper intimacy that comes from truly knowing one another. Most of us want that, and being able to tolerate the discomfort of having differences is a big part of creating that closeness.