Schema Focused Couples Therapy

What is Schema Focused Couples Therapy?

Schema Focused Couples Therapy is a therapeutic approach that explores the way a couple has developed their sense of self and how they relate to themselves and each other. It is particularly concerned with psychological needs and how they present in a relationship as well as how a couple responds to and expresses those needs in the relationship. The focus is placed on schemas underlying behavioural and emotional patterns in a relationship.   

What is a Schema?

A schema is a framework for the way we organise information. It is like a blueprint for how to understand ourselves, others and the world. A schema is like a category for a core belief. Thus a schema of Failure will incorporate a core belief of “I am a failure”. People can have adaptive and maladaptive schemas, Schema Focused Couples Therapy focuses on the negative or maladaptive schemas as well as the healthy or adaptive schemas in a relationship.

How do schemas develop?

Our early childhood experiences inform our view of the world and ourselves in it. Schemas often begin to emerge in our early years based on our experiences of getting our needs met. If our primary caregivers meet our psychological needs we develop a healthy and adaptive way of relating to ourselves, others and the world. If these needs are not met we develop maladaptive schemas.

A child’s temperament plays a big role in developing maladaptive schemas. Some children are born with a hypersensitive temperament, meaning they feel things more intensely and have bigger reactions when triggered. These children often have a greater need for emotional support from their primary caregivers and can be more impacted by unmet needs or emotional invalidation.

If a schema is repeatedly activated by a continuation of unmet needs, it will strengthen over time. This makes the schema more rigid and our reactions less flexible. It can create harmful patterns of responding to cues by acting in ways that are unhealthy or self-defeating.

What are Schema Coping Modes?

If our psychological needs were unmet or significantly frustrated during our childhood developmental years we may develop maladaptive schemas or belief systems about ourselves, others and the world. Once a schema is activated, we often have specific ways of responding. These responses can be categorised as Modes, which include particular ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. We all have different facets to our personality, and schema modes explain how these different parts of us interact, almost like different characters within us. Schema Focused Couples Therapy aims to change maladaptive schemas through cognitive, behavioural and experiential techniques.

What are Psychological Needs?

We are born with psychological needs and these needs find expression throughout our lives. Some of our psychological needs include but are not limited to: belonging, connection, love, acceptance, nurturance, encouragement, compassion, freedom, limits, boundaries, self-expression, autonomy, stability, safety, identity, competence, spontaneity etc. 

The extent to which our psychological needs were met during our childhood developmental years plays a central role in our psychological development. Every child has the same set of needs. These psychological needs form the foundations for the healthy development of relationships, identity and well-being. If our psychological needs are not met or frustrated during childhood we may develop unhealthy thoughts, feelings and behaviours. If our psychological needs are met in a healthy and adaptive way we develop healthy thoughts, feelings and behaviours. 

How can Schema Focused Couples Therapy help?

Schema Focused Couples Therapy can help by changing maladaptive or dysfunctional emotional, cognitive and/or behavioural patterns in the relationship and guiding a couple to develop more helpful and healthier ways of relating to each other. Schema Focused Couples Therapy may also help a couple identify unmet or frustrated psychological needs in the relationship and develop healthy ways to respond to the couple’s psychological needs.  

Who may benefit from Schema Focused Couples Therapy?

Couples who struggle with high expressed emotions in their relationship, high incidence of conflict and difficulty connecting and responding to each other’s psychological needs may benefit from Schema Focused Couples Therapy.  

How does Schema Focused Couples Therapy work?

Schema Focused Couples Therapy involves three different stages: 

Stages 1: Introduction to the Schema Focused Couples Therapy model, Relationship Pattern Identification and Schema and Coping Modes Assessment. This stage will start with an introduction to the Schema Focused Couples Therapy model. Thereafter the focus will turn to identifying the main unhelpful emotional and behavioural patterns in the relationship. This stage also involves the assessment of the couple’s individual schemas as well as the couple’s individual coping modes.

Stage 2: Change. In this stage, a number of specific Schema Focused Couples Therapy interventions and techniques will be introduced. The couple will be guided to practice these techniques and thereby start to change schema-driven patterns in the relationship.

Stage 3: Assessing Change and Maintaining Momentum. In this stage of the therapy, we will assess the gains made in the previous stage and work on ways to ensure that the couple keeps the momentum going while working on lasting change.

Stage 4: Follow up and reinforce the new ways of relating. This stage will involve follow-up sessions after a few weeks for the couple to report back on what worked and what still needs work. During this stage, the newly learnt healthier patterns will be reinforced. 

How long will Schema Focused Couples Therapy take?

Schema Focused Couples Therapy may take anything between eight to twelve sessions initially with monthly follow-up sessions during the final stage of the therapy.