In psychology, one does not only intervene to help individuals; one also intervenes to improve the health of personal relationships. However, this is not easy, because relationships are very changeable and dynamic.

In this sense, from the point of view of psychology professionals, one of the most complex things to understand how couples’ therapy works is to understand what are those elements of the relationship that are damaged and need to be strengthened, and the goals that need to be achieved. In other words, what is difficult to achieve is to understand the philosophy of couples’ therapy.

To learn more about this philosophy, we have interviewed Lidia Santoyo, a psychologist based in Santander who is an expert in couples therapy and has a long history of helping all types of patients.

Interview with Lidia Santoyo: the philosophy behind couples’ therapy

Lidia Santoyo Revilla has been treating individual patients and couples for over 15 years. Here she talks about her way of understanding couples therapy as a space for expressing emotions and searching for the common.

Does it cost to know in which cases the problem is in an individual person and in which cases it is in the relationship between two or more people?

In my opinion, we should stop talking about the problem. When a couple finds themselves in a situation of disagreement, conflict or risk, we do not talk about the “problem” or the “blame” placed on one of the members. Whatever the situation, both people have the capacity to change and it is up to both of them to make the situation better or to heal it.

Internal and external elements of the couple are constantly working as facilitators or as stressors and potential risks. Only from the effort and the adhesion to generate the improvement of both members of the couple and the recognition of all these situations by which they can be affected, internally and externally, the change can be obtained.

Responsibility for interpersonal relationships is always a shared issue. Relationships between people are balanced by subtle forces that give them their particular entity to each couple.

How do you create a neutral environment in which both patients can express themselves without fear of attack?

Couple’s therapy can only be given from a situation of equality of the members of the couple. If we look at this particular point of therapy it would be very close to a mediation situation. Both members must feel free to expose and to direct the conversation to any point of the cohabitation or those issues by which it is affected.

In itself, the therapeutic environment is already an agent of change and improvement. Lack of communication, or communication without adequate quality, is a basic generator, maintainer and chronicler of the conflict situation.

The therapeutic space is a space without judgments, dialoguing in which they can express themselves without feeling attacked, listening is respected at all times, the assertive attitude and this becomes a responsibility shared by the therapist and the patients that fills them with well understood freedom, generating a climate of encounter and free expression that in itself adds up to a positive one from the moment zero to the couple.

In your professional career, what are the most difficult couples you have encountered?

As I have already pointed out in my previous comments, the vision of the situation from the guilt or omission of responsibility or its excess, by one of the parties and the lack or bad management of communication are basic generators of the situation of conflict in the couple.

To take many things for granted or because “they are like that”. The couple is a space of growth that many times is neglected and wraps itself in automatic and repeated patterns of behaviors that although they do not satisfy us, we find ourselves unable to change.

The so-called “monotony”, is neither more nor less than just this, to repeat and repeat, to make us comfortable in the automation of behaviors, to lose the perspective of change both of the individual in himself, as of the other or the set of both.

Drowning out comments, desires, ideas or alternatives because of…laziness, “not having an affair”, not wanting to risk change. The couple, as a common entity, also enters into comfort zones that can put them at risk.

And in what cases is it known almost from the outset that there is no point in doing couples’ therapy?

When both or one of the members are stuck in situations that they are reluctant to leave for fear of going beyond that “comfort zone” we talked about earlier, either personally or as a couple. When you fall right into “blaming” the other, when you expect changes to come from the other, the problems lie with the other, when we make ourselves exclusively guilty, why not, too.

When disrespect has reached important points or the principles of that couple have been betrayed and this is not contemplated by one of the two. These situations are complex, but not always, they will only become incapacitating to face a couple’s therapy if both or one of the members of the couple, gets stuck in them and does not manage to get out of their loop.

Of course, something that invalidates couples therapy as such, not therapeutic intervention, is violence. It is true that starting a couple’s therapy when there is physical violence by one of the partners is not very common, starting it when the violence is psychological or is done by both partners, is not so uncommon. The psychological intervention in these cases, not from the couple therapy, but it is beneficial to generate a change that ends the risk situation.

In cases where a marriage or engagement ends, having gone to couples’ therapy, is this considered a failure?

When we start a couple therapy, we always do it with expectations of “healing” the situation, seen from this angle, the break can be a way to heal the situation, permanently or temporarily.

The success is not always in the maintenance, it could be that it is in the peaceful break, generated from the respect and not traumatic, both for the couple and for the affected family members, although here we would be extrapolating to the family therapy.

There may be a situation where one or even both of the members are pulling out of an already very chronic situation in which there is only room for improvement and disengagement since the separation. As I explained in the previous questions, tackling the situation as soon as possible and being able to be flexible and generate new scenarios from respect, is the key to making the break-up not the only possible situation.

What challenges do psychologists dedicated to couples therapy face?

One of them is the one reflected in the previous question, not to see therapy as a danger, as an attack on our preponderance or as a danger of rupture. To make people aware that this is just another tool, developed to be used when necessary, so we won’t wait so long to ask for help.

As in any complicated situation, help should be given as soon as possible; this will be an indicator of the chances of reaching the proposed goal of improvement in couples therapy.