Relationship therapy focuses on how individuals impact those close to them and vice versa. It is also used to work with people who want closer relationships than they have or who want a committed relationship but aren’t able to make one happen. Often, when there is psychological and emotional distress within an individual, there is a relationship challenge at the core of the issue.As an example, Beth feels depressed because when she tries to communicate with her partner, it doesn’t go well. Instead of connecting with each other they both feel attacked and misunderstood. Their respective defensive strategies are for Beth to withdraw and for her partner to pursue Beth in order to work it out. The more Beth’s partner tries to talk to her, the angrier Beth gets. After a while, in frustration, her partner gives up and both go their separate ways. They stay together but, because of this pattern, never effectively address their issues. Over time, both Beth and her partner feel isolated and alone. These feelings contribute to Beth’s depression and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness (that things will improve).

A relationship therapist working with Beth alone might explore the feelings Beth has when her partner tries to talk about difficult things. Beth may discover some things about her history that make it particularly challenging for her to stay engaged when it’s a hard conversation. Beth grew up in a family where her parents had volatile interactions and weren’t able to work out differences. Now, in Beth’s relationship, when things get tense, she is sub-consciously reminded of what happened with her parents and she unintentionally shuts down and withdraws. If Beth, with the help of her therapist, connects the dots, she will be able to make sense of her tendency to withdraw when her partner pursues her. With this understanding and some tools, she could self-sooth and have a challenging but productive discussion with her partner. As a result, she would feel more in control of herself, less depressed and more hopeful.

A couple’s counselor working with both Beth and her partner might reframe what Beth says to better communicate her underlying feelings. The therapist would help her partner stay in a state of receptivity as he receives Beth’s words. The psychotherapist would likely help both Beth and her partner express feelings in a more relational and non-threatening way. As is often the case, when Beth’s partner learns that Beth’s pain stems from witnessing volatile interactions between her parents, he would likely become more empathetic and open to changing his approach to accommodate Beth’s needs. This is one form of couples counseling or relationship therapy.