During my training in Imago Relationship Therapy, one phrase has always stuck with me:
“No one teaches us how to be in relationships.”
If we have parents with a good marriage, modeling can be a great teacher but it’s still not the exact same thing as what it truly means to learn relationship skills. Intimate relationships are some of the hardest work we will ever have to do in our lifetime. People are complex and relationships are complex, and navigating it all can be quite tricky. There are no classes in school that teach the art of relationships. However, over the past few years I have come to look at couples therapy and learning about relationship theory as a relationship class. Since I believe positive relationships are the core root of our happiness, I think all couples can benefit and increase happiness through (good) couples therapy or a couples workshop.
I work with couples in their 20s and 30s so a lot of what I see in my practice is (a) Couples who are struggling with taking the next steps of relationships (life-long commitment, engagement, marriage, etc.) (b) Couples who want to work on healthy communication and changing conflict to connection (c) Couples who are doing well but want a tune up (d) Married couples in the earlier years of marriage. It’s probably no secret why I enjoy working with these couples… most of them don’t have years and years of built up resentment and teaching them effective communication and how to effectively validate and empathize with each other is highly rewarding. It makes me so happy to see couples build safety and true connection in their relationships. I also think it’s so wonderful they will be able to model this for their children if they have them or are planning to have them.
For full disclosure purposes, I previously didn’t think I needed any kind of therapy. I felt like a pretty well adjusted person with a good childhood and good parental modeling. However, when I went to grad school I had to go through 20 hours of my own therapy in order to graduate. When I did my Imago training, my husband and I had to complete a 22 hour couples weekend workshop (Imago Getting the Love You Want Workshop). We were newlyweds at the time and totally gaga over each other so I went in there pretty confident that this was something we didn’t need but something we had to do in order for me to become an Imago Relationship Therapist.
I was totally wrong.
The workshop was a completely transformative, eye-opening experience for me. I am so glad we did it early on in our relationship because even though it’s been years I still think about everything I learned in the workshop. I think it helped us work through things that we may never have even thought of before we had children. I think we learned really important things about each other that we wouldn’t have learned otherwise. Spending time with someone talking about your relationship for 22 hours is something that never really happens but the connection built from that is something I will have with me forever.
I am constantly learning about relationships. They are fascinating. I learn so much from the couples I work with and am so grateful and humbled by them as they let me in to their journey. I am in constant admiration of the hard work they do to stay connected and empathic with each other.
A lot of couples often hear that if you have to go to couples therapy before you get engaged or married then you probably shouldn’t be together. This is the biggest fallacy in the couples counseling world.
Going to couples therapy at any stage in your relationship is your class on learning relationship skills that most people aren’t really that intuitive about. What is the shame or harm in wanting to be better at something or more knowledgeable and educated in the things that matter most?
Finally, I would like to state that not all therapy or couples therapy is effective or good therapy. I have worked with people who have had prior bad experiences in therapy. It’s important to find the right fit in a therapist and to also make sure the theoretical orientation of the therapist is in line with you and your partner agree with.
First published in the Imago Center blog June 6, 2014. Lena Aburdene Derhally is a psychotherapist who works with individuals and couples in their 20s and 30s in downtown Washington DC. She specializes in anxiety and relationship issues and is a certified Imago relationship therapist.
Lena also runs a group for professional women in their 20s and 30s called “Quarter Life Crisis plus Ten” and is the founder of the blog, Type Z Moms, which addresses issues related to “mom guilt” and anxiety. She lives in Washington DC with her husband, a rambunctious toddler and a 14-year-old cat.