The aim of couples counselling is to strengthen and improve the relationship between two people.
Some couples seek out a therapist because there’s conflict in their relationship, and they’ve reached an impasse they believe therapy may resolve. Others do so because ongoing counselling makes their relationship deeper, closer, or more stable. There are as many reasons to attend couples counselling as there are to attend individual counselling.
In this article, we’ll refer to couples therapy alternatively as relationship therapy. The two terms mean the same thing.
Does couples counselling actually work?
In some circles, relationship therapy has a bad rap. That’s because, prior to the ‘80s, therapists were still figuring it out—couples counselling was in its infancy, relatively speaking. On average, couples had a 50/50 chance of benefiting from therapy.
New research and clinical experience led to changes in approach. Therapists learned how to help couples develop listening skills, turn negative attributions positive, and steer conversations clear of sarcasm and hurtful remarks.
Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT) also came on the scene. At its most basic level, EFT systematically breaks couples out of negative patterns and helps them develop healthy emotional responses to one another.
According to the American Psychological Association, EFT therapy for couples has a 75% success rate. Also, in research conducted by the American Association of Marriage and Family, 97% of couples got the help they were looking for thanks to couples therapy.
Keep in mind that, in couples counselling, there are as many models of success as there are clients. Some couples aim to save their relationship. Others are doing their best to end it amicably. And still others want the insight counselling can provide, before deciding whether both parties want the relationship to continue. Success is based on the goals of you and your partner.
How to tell if relationship therapy is right for you
When issues arise in your relationship, it can seem easier to sweep your problems under the rug than to deal with them head-on. This attitude can involve minimizing the problem—treating a major conflict as a minor disagreement, or just avoiding the topic altogether.
Here are some criteria to help you know when it’s time for couples counselling. Not all of them will apply, but it’s worth the effort to keep an eye peeled for them.
You are a good candidate for couples counselling if you...
- Are discontent with the current state of your relationship, or worried it may be headed in a bad direction
- Want to build a strong foundation for your relationship
- Believe there is room to improve your communication
- Want to ensure your relationship stays healthy
- Are ending a relationship, but wish to do so on good terms
Your partner is a good candidate for couples counselling if…
- They’ve expressed discontent with your relationship, or say they feel “stuck”
- They’re going through a major life transition that is affecting your relationship
- They’re motivated to put in the “work” and build a strong foundation together
- They’re currently seeing a counsellor alone, and issues involving your relationship have come up
- They either agree with you that your relationship is worth saying, or that it should end on good terms
Your relationship is a good candidate for couples counselling if…
- There’s been a long-lasting decline in emotional and physical intimacy
- The quality of your relationship affects dependents
- It’s going through a major transition, eg. marriage, birth, location change
- You want to learn best practices in communication and relationship building
- You’ve tried couples counselling before, but did not find it effective (in this case, you may need to try a new therapist)
Couples counselling is appropriate for people of any age, and relationships both new and old. Even if your relationship is not facing difficulties, counselling can help strengthen it. Couples who are engaged may seek premarital counselling in order to make sure their new domestic partnership starts out on the right foot.
Who provides couples counselling?
A qualified private or public therapist can provide relationship therapy. In this case, the term “therapist” may also include registered nurses, certified counsellors, and general practitioners. Our article on how to find a therapist explains further.
The most common certification for a couples counsellor in Canada is Registered Marriage and Family Therapist (RMFT). To receive this certification, a therapist has to meet rigorous standards set by the Canadian Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (CAMFT).
However, there are also many effective, experienced couples counsellors who don’t have this designation. Your number one priority should be finding a licensed therapist with whom both of you are compatible.
Couples counsellors use a wide range of modalities in their practices. But, broadly speaking, they all offer:
- The option to focus on a specific problem (addictions, anger issues, sexual problems, etc.)
- An effort on the part of the therapist to treat the relationship itself, rather than just the individuals involved
- Interventions early on in treatment focused on productive change and solutions
- Clearly established objectives for treatment
Relationship counselling is longer-term [than other types of therapy], because I am accepting three clients: The first spouse, the second spouse, and the relationship. The relationship is its own entity as well.
Bringing up counselling with your partner
Especially if your relationship with your partner is tense and emotionally fraught, approaching them to introduce the idea of couples counselling may feel intimidating. But by speaking honestly and with compassion, you can improve the odds that your first talk about counselling will be a friendly one.
Here’s how to get the conversation going.
Set aside a time and place where you can both talk without any interruptions. This is important both for the sake of the conversation, and for the sake of showing your partner you care about this conversation and take it seriously.
Cut to the chase. Don’t beat around the bush—let your partner know what you’re feeling, and what you want to discuss with them.
Speak what you’re feeling, without holding back—but use “I” statements. As in “I feel hurt when you ______,” rather than “You are always doing _______”
Keep the conversation focused on your relationship, and how the two of you interact; don’t get lost debating the details of external factors, eg. money.
Pay attention to your partner’s response. Listen actively and patiently.
Remember, this is a dialogue, not a sales pitch. Your job is not to persuade your partner, but to explain clearly to them why you feel couples counselling is the best next step for the two of you.
Keep focused. The purpose of this conversation is not to fix your relationship problems—it’s to introduce the idea of relationship counselling.
Can you do couples counselling solo?
People need to show up invested in the process. If somebody is coming to couples counselling just to please their partner, and they don’t believe it, they don’t want to be there, it’s going to make it a lot more challenging.
If your partner is completely opposed to any type of counselling, or perhaps just not ready yet, attending sessions alone with a counsellor may help you develop some tools to relieve tension, or provide new insights in your relationship.
Sometimes, it’s necessary to work through issues with just the help of a therapist. For instance, if you have serious problems around trust and fear of abandonment, you may not be comfortable sharing details with your partner.
These one-on-one sessions always serve to support and further your progress in couples counselling sessions, however. The number one priority is helping you and your partner progress together, in cooperation.
Robert Hurtubise is a Registered Psychotherapist in Ontario