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Transitional Couples Therapy – When Couples Have Conflicting Goals

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Transitional Couples Therapy 

One issue that frequently comes up in working with couples, especially when separation/divorce is a possibility, is that they often are not on the same page. How should a therapist effectively counsel couples who have conflicting goals? When working with an individual there is only one person and one set of goals, so it’s easier to have a direction of what we’re trying to accomplish in therapy. With a couple though it’s often not that simple. Sometimes it is easy to set goals for a couple – for example if they are having a lot of conflict in the relationship and want to get along better – that’s a goal we can work on. Or if they both have a goal of improving communication and learning strategies to be more empathetic to each other, that’s something we can address. 

But what if one person wants to improve communication but the other is not sure if they want to stay married? That requires a different approach, which I call Transitional Couples Therapy. At that point in the therapy process, working on improving communication will not work, because one of the spouses/partners is not interested in that. It’s impossible to work productively with a situation where one person wants to work on a specific goal and the other person has no interest in it and or is considering ending the relationship.

So at that point the focus of the couples counseling needs to shift from trying to fix the relationship to getting everyone to a place where they’re on the same page and have goals that are compatible. This is a crucial part of any couples work where there is doubt about which direction things should go in. This phase of the process is by definition short-term; it’s about getting the couple to a place where they either can agree on a goal or at least recognize that they must come to agreement in some form if they are going to move forward in any way.

Since I am also a Divorce Mediator, this transitional part of the therapy process is something I am comfortable with. This does not mean that every couple that has differing goals will definitely get divorced – to the contrary, talking about this difference in goals often reduces conflict and allows the couple to move forward towards improving their relationship. When this happens, we switch back to regular goal-oriented Couples Counseling, restate the goals for improving the relationship, and resume focus on making progress towards those goals. 

Sometimes the couple does end up deciding to separate or divorce. If this happens the focus then switches to mediation and making that process as smooth and conflict-free as possible. Either way things go, I believe Transitional Couples Therapy is a crucial tool to have available and one that I believe any therapist who works with couples should be sensitive to – because a couple must be on the same page about what they want, if therapy is to be helpful to them.  

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