The place of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in relationship counselling


In simple terms, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT tackles normal human problems by trying to change the way we approach life, how we think and behave.  Sometimes the problems we face in our lives are not easily solved or changed – sick elderly parents, difficulties with children, redundancies, money worries – but a good coping mechanism is changing the way we view these problems and how we react to them.

CBT has been very successfully used to treat anxiety and depression when other interventions such as medication are undesirable or not possible.  Now Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is being considered an invaluable tool to help resolve other problems such as relationship difficulties.

How does CBT work?

CBT is based on the premise that as human beings, our emotions, rational thought and physical feelings are all inter-connected.  Once negativity enters the circle, it becomes a vicious circle and it is almost impossible to break out of the never-ending roundabout.  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy aims to dismantle this circular problem by taking apart the issues and problems, breaking them down into smaller components and stopping the endless downward spiral of negative thoughts, depression and anxiety.

CBT does not look for resolutions from earlier problems in people’s lives, rather it focuses solely on the here and now.  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is also not about complicated and long-winded solutions, pathways towards some mythical better place.  CBT is about making immediate changes to someone’s current state of mind.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has a lot of relevance to any problems which are behaviour orientated, these include:-

  • Eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia
  • OCD – Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Panic attacks
  • PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Phobias such as claustrophobia and fear of flying
  • Insomnia

It is not surprising therefore that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is now being used successfully in relationship counselling and guidance.  Many enduring problems in relationships centre around ingrained behavioural patterns and so it seems only common sense to use CBT as a tool to help resolve these.

How can CBT help in overcoming difficulties within a relationship?

Coping with our own behaviours can be challenging enough but trying to sort out the complexities within a relationship where there are two people to consider is challenging to say the least.  CBT helps couples understand and identify why they behave as they do and hold certain beliefs both about themselves and their partner.  Through this, it is possible to identify the triggers which spark off these behaviours which in turn lead to conflict. By dismantling and understanding established patterns of behaviour, it is possible to alter these and heal a relationship, taking it to a whole new level.

CBT has the merit that it strikes to the root cause of problems and, if couples are really committed, fairly rapid progress can be made.  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can therefore offer a lifeline to those who have struggled endlessly to resolve their relationship differences without success.  CBT is not without its challenges and the process can be upsetting and emotionally disturbing but, as most couples will readily admit, something has to change and no-one wants to carry on as they are.

What to expect from a CBT therapist if you seek couples counselling for your relationship

CBT is about changing established patterns of behaviour which can cause problems individually but can be particularly potent in a relationship.  Breaking down and mending entrenched behavioural patterns will have a big impact within the couples setting.  Often these two people have reached an impasse where they can neither go forwards nor backwards, they are trapped by the repetitious nature of their established behaviours toward one another.

Rather than feeling you are on track to head over the waterfall in an out of control manner, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy allows couples to take back some control, empowering them to put positive input into their relationship rather than negative.  CBT offers a system to allow couples to move forward with positivity.  Having said that, it is not a wand-waving exercise and requires determination and commitment from both parties to be beneficial.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy orientation

One of the first things a therapist will seek to do is to orientate the couple to the concept and journey that is CBT.  It is important that the process of CBT is understood at a rational level before the couple tries to engage with it.  Most couples want to understand the journey they are about to embark on.

The therapist will explain the concept of how you can change the way you feel which is achieved by altering your thoughts and responses to a situation.  He or she may use examples of this in a context away from relationships specifically so it might concern someone who has panic attacks when they fly or is suffering from insomnia.  Once thoughts have changed, new feelings will come to the fore and change will begin.

It is important that couples understand what CBT is and which processes the therapist will use during the sessions.

Start with positivity 

Many couples who seek relationship counselling sessions expect them to begin with a long list of complaints and problems.  A good therapist will start the first session off on a positive note and ask each person individually to outline qualities and traits about their partner which they like, admire and respect.  The idea is to set the first session within a framework of positivity.  By using questions to draw out the right response, the therapist will create an upbeat environment in which to work.

The Nitty Gritty 

Moving on from this pleasant start, the hard work comes when the couple is required to identify where their collective problems are.  It’s hard to do this without it developing into a bitter series of recriminations and criticism.  A good therapist will try and keep the focus on the areas that are causing the most stress.  These could be deeply personal issues or extraneous matters such as family interference, a health problem, changes or difficulties in employment or money worries.

What is really important is identifying how these problems make you feel, how do you react to them.  The therapist’s role is to help both people understand how these behaviours have contributed to the current status quo.  The idea is to seek out accuracy and honesty but it can be painful.

Setting goals for change

This is a really constructive and important part of the CBT process which your therapist can help you structure.  Changes are made in steps, small enough to be achievable but significant enough to really impact on the relationship.  There is lots of information available to read up online about how CBT works and whether you think it could help your relationship.

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