When Is Couples Work Most Helpful in the Recovery Process?

Oftentimes, when I am contacted for couples counseling with a couple who has sex or love addiction issues, and we have the couple’s first session, it usually becomes very clear, very quickly, that couples counseling is not going to be very effective early on in treatment. Some of the ways that we can determine this is if the couple is stuck in their relationship’s toxic cycle, or if one of the couple ship is not able to maintain sobriety.

How do we know if the couple is stuck in their relationship’s toxic cycle?

One of the ways we can see if a couple is stuck in their toxic cycle is if there are frequent boundary violations, constant arguing, not accepting one another’s feelings and beliefs, not listening to each other, and very little, or no, empathy occurring during the session. Also, this very unhealthy type of communication and negative connection creates a cycle of each person triggering the other, over and over again. For instance, in a couple where sex addiction is present; the addict is usually triggered by the partner’s trauma response, which can be in the form of anger, sadness, control, or criticism. And, in these types of relationships, the partner is usually triggered by the addict’s continued acting out, untrustworthiness, lack of empathy, and blame he places on the partner….for example, ‘If you didn’t do this or act this way, then I would not have to watch porn and masturbate,’ etc.  As you can imagine, this cycle does not stop very easily, and what can happen in therapy is that the couple is paying for an argument they can do for free at home.


What next?

One of the ways we therapists deal with this cycle of dysfunction in therapy sessions is to stop regular couples work and have each person focus on his/her own issues in individual counseling. Individual counseling is where the real work happens to prepare a person for effective couples work. For example, the addict can focus on his/her own sobriety and recovery, and the partner can focus on healing and strengthening herself. When people do their work in individual psychotherapy, there is no one left to blame or criticize; there is only the self, his/her feelings and behaviors, and what he/she chooses to do next. It is during this very special time in individual therapy that trauma is healed, awareness increases, healthy boundaries are created, responsibility is taken, healthy behavior choices can be made, and recovery can really begin.


So when do we start couples work?

In my practice, while we do not see couples on a weekly basis who are stuck in their toxic relationship cycle, we still believe there are benefits to monthly sessions. During monthly sessions with couples who are very toxic, it is critical for each person to come prepared with an agenda, so they do not fall back into their old, toxic patterns during the session. The individual therapist can work with his/her client to help determine what needs to be discussed and how best to introduce the discussion. We also coach our client on the ways to not fall back into old and unhealthy communication and/or behavior patterns during the couple’s session. It is very important for personal boundaries to be the focus, so the toxic cycle does not begin again. During these early couples sessions we try to help the couple generate ideas for how they can live more easily together, while not engaging in serious and triggering arguments at home. We also help them learn how to take ownership for his/herself in the relationship, and learn how to meet his/her own needs while not looking to the partner to ‘fix’ everything.


If you think you and your partner are ready for couples counseling, please contact Bull City Psychotherapy at 919-382-0288. If you think individual work is best for you and/or your partner at this time, still contact BCP. We have the therapists who can help with your individual, couple, and family counseling needs.