"So, what do we do next?"
He is tapping his foot, hands clasped, leaning towards me. She is leaned back, shoulders slumped. After forty minutes of our first session, they've let a lot of energy loose in the room - all of their hopes, their fears, their deepest frustrations with each other. As a therapist, I've been to my own therapy, and I get it - it's exhausting. Once all of the Truth is floating in the air, the only thing you need is some reassurance. Are we going to be okay? How?
When I was five, I began learning to play the piano. At the time, my sweet little mind couldn't comprehend why Mrs. Dowdell would want me to practice at home for twenty minutes every day! After all, wasn't our weekly lesson enough? Why did I need to do scales, up and down, down and up, octaves, black keys, white keys - all of that repetition! For what?
The point wasn't perfection. It was muscle memory. Language-learning. My very (very) patient piano teacher understood what I did not; that learning with her by my side was simply not enough to turn me into a concert pianist. I needed to go home, feel my fingers against the keys, engage my body and mind in learning the language of music. Only then could I move forward, absorb new skills, and eventually produce melodious sound. Homework in therapy works just like this.
You need to practice at home. Without it, you'll be limiting your growth.
When you first enter therapy, you are out of sync. The "music" of your marriage is choppy, off-key, difficult to enjoy. In our room, I'll give you the experience of a new type of interaction. I'll coach you as you talk through tough topics. I'll help you recognize your body's cues - when you are heating up and about to attack, or shutting down and becoming a wall. I'll interpret what you and your partner are saying so that you can finally understand one another.
You'll breathe a sigh of relief after an hour of work. Somehow, these conversations will feel different. You may get a bit bothered, sure, but they won't escalate as they normally do. You may even feel that there is no way you could have a conversation like this at home.
And, likely, that is exactly the homework I will assign to you: have a conversation like this at home.
I tell my couples in the very beginning that I want them to get to a place where they don't need me anymore. I want them to take our in-session tools and practice them over and over and over again. I want him to feel anxious, feel like he's about to yell or curse - and then learn what it feels like to choose to remain calm and centered. I want her to feel that "trapped" feeling again, like she wants to threaten divorce and run away - yet push past the fear and remain open, explaining to her partner what's going on. I want them to experience conflict resolution in real life - not just when a trained professional is in the room, potentially able to rescue them.
In due time, six arguments a week somehow turns into only one on a weekend. A screaming match turns into a brief flare of annoyance, then getting back together and apologizing. A week of cold silence turns into a few hours of slightly awkward cooling down.
How? Because of you. The success of therapy depends entirely on your willingness to be brave and practice new styles of communication at home. I can't monitor you there, and I'm not willing to become a live-in conflict mediator. It is your choice to decide if your relationship is worth trying something different - or if you are fine with your current routine. If you decide to try something different, it will take time - but practice, practice, practice, soon becomes muscle memory. It becomes a learned language. It becomes beautiful music (sorry to be cheesy about it, but I believe in this stuff!).
Maybe you are considering therapy right now. Or, perhaps you tried before with a partner and it didn't work as well as you'd hoped. Before diving back in, I'd invite you to ask yourself - are you willing to dedicate at least a couple of months to practicing more productive communication? (Notice that I didn't ask about your partner: I'm asking about you).
If you are willing to try a change, therapy may be an excellent choice for you. If the thought of doing something different brings up resistance or push-back within you - you may need more time.
Just know that your at-home practice will be the difference between "the same old routine" for the next fifteen years, or "wow, I can't believe how much we've grown!"
Decided that you're ready? Let's book your first session!