What to Expect From Couples Counseling
The idea of couples counseling seems pretty straightforward, right? A married couple is having problems, so they go to a therapist to fix them. They sit on either side of a sofa and explain to the marriage counselor what they don’t like about their partner. The counselor listens patiently and then provides sage advice. And voila! They have the answer to their relationship issues, and they walk off, hand in hand, into the sunset to live happily married ever after.
Unfortunately, there are several things wrong with this scenario. Marriage is hard work, and couples therapy requires participation, willingness, and commitment from both partners to achieve optimum results.
Will couples counseling really work?
Today’s couples therapy looks a little different than it did even 30 years ago. Back then, most marital counseling approaches had less than a 50% success rate. Therapists helped couples improve their friendship and romantic relationship, but the improvements tended to be short-lived.
New approaches to marriage counseling, including Emotion-Focused Therapy, or EFT, and the Gottman Approach, are achieving much better results. EFT, for example, has a 75% success rate. The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists reports an overall success rate of 98%. The success of couples therapy and other factors contributes to a decreasing divorce rate in the United States. Today, counseling can indeed save and strengthen a marriage.
Your first step: Find the right counselor.
You’re more likely to find success in counseling, including relationship therapy, if you’re comfortable with your therapist. Finding one who is a good fit for you and your partner is essential. Of course, you’ll want to find a counselor who practices couples therapy.
The terms “therapist” and “counselor” are often used as umbrella terms for psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed professional counselors (LPC), licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT). While there are differences in the educational and credentialing requirements of each type of therapist, most are well-versed in today’s most successful relationship counseling approaches. Some even specialize in particular marital problems like intimacy issues.
You might consider other criteria when selecting a marriage counselor, including gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, religious beliefs, or years of experience. Websites like WithTherapy.com offer tools for helping you narrow down your options. You also might consider asking for recommendations from family members, friends, or trusted coworkers. It’s perfectly acceptable to interview a therapist by phone or in person, too, just to be sure they’re the best fit for you and your partner.
Your First Session
Once you’ve made an appointment with the couples counselor of your choice, you and your partner should prepare for your first therapy session. Your counselor may provide paperwork or have a conversation with you about their policies and the legalities and ethics of your therapist/patient relationship. After those necessities are out of the way, the remainder of your first session will usually be spent talking about what brought you to couples counseling in the first place.
There are several different reasons couples decide to see a couples counselor. For some couples, therapy begins before marriage with premarital counseling. Premarital counseling helps couples strengthen the foundations of their relationship, improve their communication skills, and learn how to handle disagreements healthily.
Other couples seek counseling after serious issues have threatened their marriage. Infidelity, a feeling that you’re growing apart, unhealthy communication, or no communication at all, frequent arguments, money disagreements, or problems in your sex life are common reasons to consider therapy. However, some couples in healthy relationships attend counseling regularly to continue to improve their bond and interactions with one another.
Getting to Know You
In the first few sessions of couples counseling, a couples counselor will conduct an intake where they learn about your reasons for seeking counseling and get to know you individually and as a couple. Your therapist will ask you and your partner questions about your childhoods, how you met, the early years of your marriage, your family, or other areas of your personal lives. It’s important to understand that this part of the therapeutic process is necessary. Hearing your whole story will help your therapist make an assessment of your relationship and create an appropriate treatment plan. Plus, sometimes recalling the past helps you to put your current relationship problems into perspective.
Sharing intimate details of your relationship with a third party may be uncomfortable at first, but rest assured that your therapist’s office is a safe space. You can — and should — be open and honest, even if that means you raise your voice, yell, or cry. Your therapist is there to keep you on track, but also let you be yourself. As both members speak, the relationship counselor listens to what they’re saying and observes body language and how the partners react to and communicate with one another.
Setting Goals and a Timeline
During these initial sessions, you will also set goals for your time in couples counseling. Again, this discussion requires honesty and thoughtfulness. Perhaps you want your partner to show more affection, while your partner wants you to show empathy. Maybe you want to learn how to deal with the resentment and anger you feel after your partner’s affair. It could be all of the above. Whatever your specific personal goals, sharing them with your partner and relationship counselor is one of the first steps to achieving them. Keep in mind that your goals may change or evolve as you and your partner progress through therapy.
There’s no set number of sessions for couples counseling. You may find improvement after three visits with your therapist, or you might meet for months. Therapy is highly personalized, and although you can certainly call it quits at any time, for the best outcome, you should continue to see your counselor as long as you benefit from it.
Expect individual, couples, and family therapy sessions.
Not all of your marriage counseling sessions will be spent with you, your partner, and your therapist. Most marital therapy includes individual therapy sessions as well, especially at the beginning of treatment. These one-on-one sessions allow you to share things with your counselor that you might have been reluctant to share in your partner’s presence. They also give your counselor the chance to help you work on your weaknesses and build on your strengths.
You may decide to participate in family therapy sessions if you have children or other family members who may be affected by your relationship problems. When there’s tension between two parents, it can affect everyone in the household. Often stress in a family system can manifest as behavioral or emotional symptoms in younger family members. An example of this may include an adolescent who has developed an eating disorder or substance abuse problem. Family therapy works to improve connections and communication patterns among family members to create a more functional and secure family unit.
What You’ll Learn in Therapy
You’ll learn a lot of new skills during couples therapy, from communication skills to better ways to manage your stress. Everyone can learn from couples counseling — even a couples counselor. Licensed marriage and family therapist Moshe Ratson and his wife sought therapy after just a year of marriage, with great success.
“A professional outlook on our marriage helped us in getting the spark back in our relationship,” Mr. Ratson writes in HuffPost. “It assisted us in dealing with our fears, expectations, anger, and passive-aggressive behaviors that arise when the going gets tough.”
Specifically, Mr. Ratson learned to recognize his and his wife’s specific triggers or things that brought up negative emotions or distressing memories. He learned to replace blame with compassion and to be proactive instead of reactive.
“It is normal for a collision to occur when two people with different personality traits and mindset are put together to spend the rest of their life together,” says Mr. Ratson. “But what comes out of that makes the marriage just right.”
Types of Couples Therapy
Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) seeks to work with couples more constructively. It focuses on emotions as the key to a person’s relationship needs and helps to develop emotional awareness, compassion between partners, and acceptance. In couples therapy, EFT can lend strength to the emotional bond between partners and create a more secure attachment.
The Gottman Method is based on many years of extensive research. It is based on a thorough assessment at the beginning of treatment, which is used to informed the course of couples therapy. Chiefly, the Gottman Method emphasizes addressing three elements of a couple’s relationship: their friendship, how they manage conflicts, and the creation of shared meaning.
Some Potential Barriers to Success
Even with the encouraging success rate of marital therapy, some couples might not improve their relationship after working with a marriage counselor. Counseling may finally reveal to both members of the couple that the relationship is irreconcilable, and in some cases, that is a good thing, albeit a harrowing realization. Even in that situation, though, therapy can help you part ways amicably and in a manner that lessens the negative impact on other members of the family.
Another barrier to success in couples therapy is one partner’s unwillingness to attend or participate in therapy sessions. If your partner is reluctant to embrace couples counseling, here are a few tips from Psychology Today to convince them to try at least one session. Ask them:
- To talk about their pros and cons of attending therapy.
- What kind of mental health professional they’d prefer to see (someone in private practice or a community-based option, a person of a particular gender or ethnicity, a social worker or an LMFT)
- When and where they’d like to attend a therapy session so that it’s convenient for them
- If they’d be willing to look at a few therapy websites or read a book about couples therapy
Be honest with your partner about your belief in relationship therapy as a way to improve your marriage. Explain in a respectful way that you want your relationship to change and grow, and treatment will help you achieve that goal. Unfortunately, even though individual therapy is an essential component of couples counseling, there is no evidence that individual treatment alone will help solve marital problems.
Make an Appointment Today
Statistics show that most couples wait an average of six years before seeking relationship therapy. Some believe that if they ignore the problem, it will go away on its own, while others worry that suggesting counseling means admitting that the relationship is in trouble. The best advice is to seek therapy as soon as you recognize you have relationship issues, or before, so you can prevent them or learn to work through them healthily.