Most of us have some problems with our relationships. While often these problems can be worked out between the people involved, sometimes resentment can grow, and a relationship can struggle. In these cases, couples therapy is a good way to get some outside perspective on the situation and come to a resolution. With couples therapy, many people find that their relationship problems become much clearer and easier to solve. If you are having relationship troubles, couples therapy may be the right solution for you.

So, what is couples therapy? In its earliest form, couples therapy was invented in 1920s Germany as a part of their eugenics movement. It made its way to the United States in the 1930s, and continued in much the same way for a few decades. However, as culture became more enlightened and after the fall of the Nazi party, couples therapy became a more benign form of aid for couples. In the 1950s, the practice shifted dramatically and what is couples therapy shifted toward the way we know it today. The current iteration of relationship counseling bears little resemblance to its initial roots.

Marriage counseling in its current form, then, is a relatively new science. While friends and family have long filled the informal role of helping to mediate relationships, formal therapists and counselors typically were only equipped to treat one person in the context of a mental illness or disorder, rather than a problem contributed to by both people. Relationship therapy is distinct from other forms of psychiatry in that there is not necessarily anything wrong particularly with either member of the couple. Rather, it is the relationship itself that is ailing because of incompatibilities between the two people, even if individually they are perfectly healthy.

This uniqueness meant that, historically, a formal academic framework for couples therapy, marriage counseling, and the like did not exist until recently. Early psychiatry was concerned chiefly with illnesses of the mind, and relationship problems fall squarely outside of this narrow viewpoint. It was not until the late 20th century that professional certification and regulation of couples therapists became commonplace.

Couples therapy, at its core, is about fostering empathy and understanding between parties. The basic principle at work is that each person involved in a therapy session, including the counselor, has a unique history, which results in distinct personalities, values, and point of view. Most misunderstandings stem from a difference in one or more of these attributes. For example, what may be a small, throwaway comment made in jest by one party may come across as an insult that opens old wounds to another. If neither party realizes that there is a difference in perception, this can lead to greater misunderstandings and cause deep resentment.

Over time, differences in values leading to conflict can become habit forming. What was at first a simple misunderstanding becomes a negative interaction cycle, which escalates as long as it is allowed to continue. With neither party being able to see in what way they are in the wrong or escalating the situation, both parties feel attacked and hurt, and respond in kind. Negative interaction cycles are responsible for many problems in relationships.

Couples therapists work to identify and reveal the basic differences at the heart of these interactions, and bring them into the light. Since negative interaction cycles stem from a couple’s inability to understand the source of the misunderstanding, fostering empathy is an effective way to diffuse the situation.

Often, differences between couples are aggravated by external sources of stress. Medical problems, financial troubles, difficulties with relatives, and other external forces create initial sources of conflict that can magnify differences and escalate into ugly confrontations. Most of the time, a problem in a relationship is not one single linchpin, but a system of sources of conflict built upon one another.

The solution to these situations is to learn to see and react to situations differently. Many people navigate relationships in an emotional, unconscious way. By not examining the way one views a relationship, the unconscious mind is free to lash out, take offense, and harbor resentment without being aware it is happening. Allowing the mind to navigate a relationship on autopilot means that problems become impossible to solve because neither party is aware of what the specific problems are, only that they exist.

Becoming actively aware of the process of taking offense and lashing out or holding a grudge in response is the key to solving this problem. Examining emotional responses carefully and looking for their causes is extremely important to avoid unnecessary hurt feelings. Openly discussing hidden triggers for negative interaction cycles helps to reveal the true roots of disagreements and dispel them. In virtually all cases, both parties in a relationship are coming from the position of wanting to get along, and understanding the things they do to trigger the other party means that they can avoid unnecessary conflict.

Because most causes of relationship strife are unconscious, making purposeful structural changes to how one reacts to situations is key to reducing conflict. Relationship counselors identify the fundamental roots of conflict; the insecurities, vulnerabilities, and hidden levers that are pulled to create negative emotions; and invent practical ways to avoid hitting these triggers. Then, it is up to the couple to be mindful in their interactions to avoid these patterns of behavior that cause conflict.

Over time, the goal is for couples to form new habits that avoid starting conflict. Remembering that their partner is sensitive about their weight, or their ability to earn money, or their relationship with their parents, means that one can consciously avoid making off handed comments that come across unintentionally as deep insults. By consciously examining the habits that lead to negative interaction cycles, couples can replace these habits with new, positive interactions that strengthen rather than damage the relationship.

So, what is couples therapy able to do to solve this problem? To accomplish this, couples therapists use methods that have a particular focus on communication. One such method is called active listening. Active listening is used in many fields, usually by therapists involved in any form of conflict resolution. Active listening means concentrating on what is being said, understanding it, and then responding while remembering what has been said.

Active listening requires training to understand all forms of communication. An understanding of nonverbal communication, or body language, allows a therapist to understand the full thought process of the speaker. Being able to understand when a speaker is emotional, tense, or under stress can paint a fuller picture of the message. When active listening, the therapist observes interactions between the two parties, and can suss out the subtle triggers that form the foundation of negative interaction cycles, and thus suggest solutions.

Active listening between feuding parties is also used, but is much more difficult. Because most couples do not have training in understanding subtle nonverbal communication, the full meaning of a message may not be conveyed. It is also common for parties to become defensive or upset when confronted with criticism. Most people are very bad at taking criticism, especially from people they love and trust. It is important to try to keep a mindset of cooperation in mind, and to look for opportunities to reduce conflict rather than try to assign blame.

It can be helpful in active listening to listen reflectively. This means listening attentively, and then trying to state the content of the message in one’s own words. This can help to clear up misunderstandings but allowing the speaker to correct the perception of the listener and get the message across as clearly as possible. By learning the exact triggers that lead to conflict, a couple can make greater steps toward avoiding these triggers and breaking negative interaction cycles.

Active listening is best done at a time when both parties are relaxed, focused, and at their mental best. Hunger or tiredness make active listening much more difficult, since these conditions make people quicker to become irritated or angry. External conditions that cause stress, like deadlines or looming responsibilities, can also impede active listening.

Another boundary to active listening is called shift response. Shift response is the academic term for a person’s tendency to frame a conversation in relation to their own position. By turning a speaker’s message into being about themself rather than about the group, the meaning of the message may be twisted or lost. An example of this would be taking an explanation of how a person’s feelings get hurt, and interpreting it to be about blaming the other party for hurting their feelings. This shift response makes clear communication impossible, and must be overcome for active listening to take place.

Improper understanding of nonverbal cues is also a big barrier to proper active listening. While certified therapists will have been trained to understand body language, most people are not. When participating in active listening, the listener may interpret a gesture like pointing as an attack, while the speaker only means it as an emphasis. In these cases, it can be best to try to limit gestures and focus on communicating with words as much as possible in order to communicate a more clear point.

To overcome these and other barriers in active listening, it is important to limit emotions and attempt to think calmly and rationally about what is being said. Emotional responses are rarely useful for understanding another person, since emotions shut down the rational mind and emphasize the self. Active listening must be punctuated by clarifications and rephrasings to ensure that the message received is as accurate and unbiased as possible.

So, what is couples therapy? Couples therapy is any of a number of methods that professional therapists may use to treat sources of conflict in relationships. Couples therapy is a relatively recent invention that stems from traditional therapy, and focuses primarily on active listening techniques to identify triggers for conflict. When left unchecked, these conflicts often escalate into negative interaction cycles, in which one offense is met with another until resentment forms.

Couples therapists avoid assigning blame or treating one party as the problem, and instead focus on creating an environment of mutual cooperation between the two parties. By examining the roots of conflict in a calm, rational, and unbiased way, couples can find ways to avoid conflict and interact in healthy, affirming ways instead. If you are having trouble in your relationship, couples therapy is a healthy, effective way to resolve them.