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REBT can be an effective approach for couples who are having difficulties in their intimate relationship. I will discuss the REBT approach to couples counseling.
As I listen to a couple the first order of business is to distinguish between relationship dissatisfaction and emotional disturbance. One or both partners may be dissatisfied in the relationship but what needs to be determined is the extent each individual is emotionally disturbed about the dissatisfaction they are experiencing in the relationship. A person may be not getting enough of what he or she wants in a relationship but when that person then gets emotionally disturbed about their insufficient satisfaction, it is important to show them that the initial step is to work on their emotional disturbance about their unmet desires.
Partners are perfectly entitled to want what they want from their partner and the intimate relationship. As an REBT therapist, my goal will be to help each partner get more of what they want in the relationship until one or both partners concludes they want to pursue what they want in a relationship with someone else. Couples who get angry, depressed, and anxious about their relationship dissatisfaction have greater difficulty negotiating for what they want because of these emotions. For example, if a man gets angry with his wife because she is unwilling to have sex with him in the way or frequency he desires he has two problems. One problem is that he is not getting what he wants. The second problem is he is angry about not getting what he wants. Anger is never an aphrodisiac so this strong emotion will actually be counterproductive in getting more frequent or more interesting sex from his partner. People are naturally inclined to attempt to fix their partner as the first step they take in resolving their relationship difficulties. In REBT, I show people they will more skillfully negotiate and problem solve with their partner if they first change themselves and rid themselves of two things. The first is unrealistic beliefs or myths about what their partner can and cannot do for them and rigid beliefs that lead to unhealthy negative feelings that interfere with fair-minded problem solving. For example, people often believe the cause of their emotional upset lies outside of their control. Therefore, in my earlier example a man may believe “The cause of my anger is my wife’s behavior”. I try to show people that this is not completely true. His wife may be not giving him what he wants but he makes himself angry and enraged by thinking “My wife must give me what I want when I want it and I cannot stand it when she does not do this.” This is a better way to think about emotional upset because we cannot control others but have a far greater degree of control over ourselves. REBT points out that one’s partner may disappoint them but when we get very upset and angry it is because we are holding a rigid demand about getting our wants fulfilled. Therefore, during the course of my work with couples I try to get each person to assume responsibility for their emotional reactions. I distinguish between unhealthy anger, which blocks negotiation, and healthy feelings of disappointment, annoyance, displeasure and sadness. When each partner sees that their partner may very well give them, an opportunity to get upset but that they also play a critical role in their own upset then the stage is set for relationship improvement. When a man thinks “I really wish and want my wife to be sexually available to me at all times in all ways that I want but I see that she is an independent person who does not necessarily have to be the way I want her to be” then this man will experience healthy feelings of disappointment. This disappointment is good because it will motivate him to be nice to his wife and motivate him to try to persuade her to meet his desires. However, if he thinks “She absolutely MUST be sexually available to me at all times in all ways and I cannot stand it when she is not” he will be angry and not be as graceful in his attempts to negotiate for what he wants. The probability of getting what he wants is reduced by his feelings of anger. Also if he has a strong preference and it goes unmet he is in a better position to be happy in general with his partner despite having an area of dissatisfaction. Conversely, if he holds a rigid and absolute demand which goes unfulfilled it is likely he will have greater difficulty being happy in the relationship given his area of dissatisfaction. Being emotionally disturbed about his dissatisfaction may lead him to do something that is impulsive and not necessarily in his long term best interest.
Therefore, my approach to couples counseling is to encourage each partner to avoid blaming the other for the emotional upset each feels and to stress that if they want their partner to change one of the most effective ways of achieving this is to change their own behavior first. Once people see the beauty and usefulness of this approach I show them how to work on changing themselves. I teach each partner skills for maintaining healthy emotional responses that lead to productive behavior even when their partner is misbehaving or just disappointing. When both partners change by taking responsibility for their own emotional upset over relationship dissatisfaction then they are in a better position to negotiate, problem solve, and meet each other half way. Relationship improvement is more likely in partners who are implementing the REBT principal of emotional responsibility.
I will sometimes see each partner individually if that speeds things up. The idea is to get people to overcome their emotional disturbance about their dissatisfaction as quickly as possible so that we can move to the phase of therapy that helps them get more satisfaction from the relationship. REBT is a problem solving and efficient approach. It teaches both partners skills for dealing with their fallible lover. When each partner comes to appreciate the benefit to him or her of emotional responsibility and implements this idea, each can then objectively evaluate if this relationship is worth working on. I remind couples I work with that all relationships are between fallible humans and as such, there will inevitably be disappointments and disagreements. Couples effectively address their disappointments and disagreements when both partners are not acting in a neurotic or immature way and have learned through their REBT sessions to embrace the principal of emotional responsibility.
Phone: 212-750-2826 to schedule an appointment.
Ellis, A., & Dryden, W. (1987). The Practice of Rational Emotive Therapy. New York: Springer.