In Couples Counseling We Address the System

How Couples Counseling is Effective: Treating the System

Couples counseling is a very different experience from individual counseling.

For starters, there are more people in the room, and that can be a very helpful thing. Both partners get the chance to express their lives, perspectives, and emotions. Instead of hearing one person's view of the relationship, couples therapy is a chance to view the couple from both sides and witness interactions first hand. When working with couples it is important to view the relationship as a system with each partner playing a role in the maintenance of the system (or playing a role in contributing to its breakdown).

Couples and Families as Systems

Marriage and family therapists (MFT's) differ slightly from other counselors and psychologists in that we not only have training in individual psychology and practice, but we also receive training in viewing the world from a systems perspective.

Individual psychotherapies focus on direct causes of depression, anxiety, or other illness.  For example, in the very popular and effective practice of CBT the therapist focuses on the client's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and how they impact feelings of depression or anxiety.

In a systems focused therapy, like MFT, consideration is also given to the interactions between people sharing an environment.  In a romantic relationship, both members of the couple are interacting with each on a fairly constant basis. The actions and inactions of one partner impact the feelings, emotions, moods and influence the reactions of the other partner. 

Over the course of a relationship, certain patterns of interacting with each other often become habits. In other words, the couple forms a system, with each member of the system giving feedback to and receiving feedback from their partner.  

Identifying and Treating Systems

In individual therapy there is the chance to change one member of the system. By addressing the automatic patterns in one person a change is introduced to the whole relationship system and new ways of interacting are learned. 

With practice, the both individuals in the relationship learn how to identify their cycle and interrupt it before things escalate out of control. After identifying their patterns, new habits of interacting that promote cooperation and bonding can be introduced and practiced. 

six concepts that explain what makes couple therapy effective:

  1. Partners become aware of the circularity of their interactions and the contexts in which the patterns occur.
  2. Partners understand together the ways they each contribute to and bear responsibility for the quality of their relationship. 
  3. Partners develop a greater understanding of one another through therapist moderated sharing of individual viewpoints and emotions during conflict. 
  4. Partners experience interruptions in the automatic patterns of relating and can then learn more adaptive ways of interacting. 
  5. Partners work together to refine communication and problem solving skills. 
  6. Partners learn together what conflict is, how it develops, and how to manage it effectively. 

With the right perspective, the couples therapy experience can have real benefits for the health and well being of both partners.  We all want a partner, mate, or spouse who we know is there for us when we need help and we want to be reassured we are an important part of that person's life.  When we feel confident in our relationship and communicate effectively the  benefits spread out to all the other areas of our life. 


Gurman, A. & Burton, M. (2014) Individual perspectives for couples problems: Perspectives and pitfalls. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 40(4), pp 470-483. doi: 10.1111/jmft.12061

Johnson, S (2012). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy: Creating connection. New York, NY: Routledge.