Getting Into Couples Therapy
You and your partner both need to feel supported by your therapist, and have an open, honest relationship with them. Relationship therapy fails when one partner feels the therapist has a bias.
Some questions to ask your therapist when you first begin couples counselling with them:
- How do you ensure you don’t form a bias towards either member of a couple?
- What types of conflict resolution and time management techniques do you use during a session to make sure each partner gets the chance to speak?
- At some point during counselling, do you typically start to see each partner individually? If so, how does that have an impact on joint sessions?
- What should we expect from each session?
Keep in mind: While your therapist may choose to see each of you individually at some point in your counselling, it may not be wise to begin couples counselling with a therapist one of you has already been seeing alone.
Even if no bias exists, this situation can make one partner feel like they’re disadvantaged compared to the other. Discuss the matter together, and with your therapist, if you’re considering going this route.
Samar Shata is a Registered Clinical Counsellor in Vancouver
What about couples counselling online?
In the COVID era, many personal services have moved online to video conferencing. Therapy is no different.
But what about couples therapy? Does it lose any of its effectiveness if you and your partner tune into your therapist’s office via Zoom?
A study by the American Psychological Association found that 94% of couples who attended therapy online reported being satisfied by the services provided, and 57% said they significantly improved the level of satisfaction in their relationship.
These results aren’t written in stone—more surveys remain to be done on the effectiveness of online counselling. But, if you had to choose between not seeking any help for your relationship, or attending online counselling sessions, most therapists would recommend the latter.
What do you do in couples counselling?
My goal, if I’m working with a couple, is to be completely neutral, and to make sure that they don’t feel, either one of them, that I’m taking sides.
So, what actually happens when the door to the office closes and you sit down with your relationship therapist?
That depends on a few factors: Your therapist’s preferred way of working, the modalities they employ, and the issues you hope to resolve through therapy. But, in general, you can expect to:
1. Explore your history and influences
As the start of therapy, expect something like an interview with your therapist. They want to know about some of the factors that have made each of you who you are, and led you to where you are today.
- Your family backgrounds—your relationships with parents and siblings
- Your cultural backgrounds—religious beliefs and moral values, expectations from family, experiences of discrimination or marginalization you may have faced
- How you were raised, your experiences through your school years and into adulthood
- Your experience with romantic relationships in the past
- How you met, when and how you became a couple
- A history of your relationship up to this point
- When your perceived issues begin to arise in your relationship
2. Get to the heart of your problems
“Going in, the problem is not the problem. They’re going to come, they’re going to present a problem. It’s usually not the problem—it’s usually something deeper. But if I have a couple that is open and committed to the work, magic can happen.”
Once they’ve had a chance to learn more about you and spent time talking with you in a clinical setting, your therapist can begin to form a picture of your relationship. That helps them ask the right questions, and get to the heart of the matter.
For instance: You and your spouse may start therapy because you keep coming to loggerheads over parenting decisions for your child; the conflict has become so serious, it threatens your marriage as a whole.
But after talking with your therapist, you may learn that the issue isn’t decisions about parenting. It’s that you each had very different, difficult childhoods. And because of your emotions around those childhoods, you’re unwilling or unable to step outside the lens of your own experience and empathize with your partner.
Once you reach this point—recognizing the real problem behind the problem you perceive—you can begin to make progress.
3. Set relationship therapy goals
In school and at work, goal-setting is a powerful tool for making measurable, definite progress. Relationship therapy is the same. Your relationship therapist should be keen to set goals with you, so you and your partner know what you’re working towards, and so you can tell when you get there.
Your goals may include:
- Falling “back in love” with your spouse
- Reigniting physical intimacy in your relationship
- Moving past a serious breach of trust in your relationship, such as an affair
- Becoming better able to understand your partner and disagree productively
- Keeping your relationship healthy through a major life transition, such as losing a loved one, making a career change, having a child, facing chronic illness, or retiring
- Ending your relationship amicably, for the sake of children or other family members
- Addressing a growing lack of closeness or intimacy before it becomes serious
Once you’ve set goals and gone to a few sessions with your therapist, they should be ready to set a timeline with you. For some couples, this is a few months spent working through a roadblock or major life event. For others, therapy may be an ongoing process, with no definite end, as you both work to heal past damage and build up a more resilient foundation.
4. Learn and practice new skills
Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of couples counselling is learning new skills and tools to make your life together both happier and more rewarding.
Repeated therapy sessions, with no apparent progress, may start to feel like a slog. Then, one day, you and your partner will disagree about something—and, rather than reverting to old, damaging patterns of behaviour, you have a productive conversation.
The skills you build in couples counselling aren’t secret recipes you whip out at a moment’s notice to solve your problems. You may learn specific techniques—like how to de-escalate emotional situations, or how to better express your feelings. But the real reward is seeing all the tools you pick up beginning to have an effect, en masse, on your relationship.
Depending on your therapist’s preferred modality, you may develop relationship skills by acting out scenarios within sessions, journaling, or talking through your reactions to an event.
Some of the tools you may develop in couples counselling include:
- Clear communication skills
- Greater patience
- The ability to more easily forgive others
- Deeper trust and honesty
- How to take a less self-centered view of your relationship
- How to manage stress and extreme emotions
- How to recognize spiralling thoughts or feelings before they get out of control
5. Do your homework
Couples counselling doesn’t begin and end in the therapist’s office. Your therapist will expect you to take some of your new skills and knowledge and practice them in the real world. There’s no way around it: You’ll have to do your homework.
Don’t worry—this isn’t high school calculus class. Your homework won’t be about memorizing formulae or working through reams of problems on paper. But you will be expected to set aside time to focus on the skills you’re developing, and put them to use.
Couples counselling homework may include:
- Daily journaling
- Keeping a log of arguments, disagreements, and their resolutions
- Going out on a date with your partner—no phones allowed
- Designating a specific time and place for physical intimacy without distractions
- Reading a self-help book together, and holding regular “book clubs” to discuss it