Relationship Therapy

Written by Nicole Laoutaris
Last updated on: May 14, 2024

Building and maintaining healthy relationships is an integral part of human life. Forming bonds with others and having a sense of belonging is proven to have a positive impact on our emotional and cognitive wellbeing. 

Our ability to have stable, long lasting relationships can be impacted by any number of things, from negative past experiences to mental illness to trauma to stress. Relationships take work and self-awareness, and sometimes we might need help from a trained professional to maintain strength in our interpersonal connections with others.

Those who are in a romantic relationship might seek out couples or marriage therapy to work on improving communication skills or other issues that are impacting their cohesive unit. However, partners don’t always have the same therapy goals, the issues affecting a relationship are sometimes more individual, or you might not be in a romantic situation at all and want advice about improving your ability to have healthy relationships in general. It is entirely possible to “work on a relationship” in individual therapy.

A therapist who specializes in relationships will look at underlying issues that are affecting your relationship with yourself, friends, family, coworkers, or romantically (whether or not you’re currently seeing someone). 

Signs you might benefit from relationship therapy

It’s common for people to form dysfunctional relationship patterns, and it’s difficult to recognize those patterns in ourselves let alone break them. Here are some examples that may indicate it’s time to seek help from a licensed psychotherapist, counsellor or social worker who specializes in relationship therapy.

  • A mental health condition is impacting your relationships: common mental health issues and disorders like depression or anxiety can affect those closest to you. For example, either condition may result in trouble focusing, irritability or a lack of desire to socialize or be intimate. If such patterns persist and have strained new, existing or past relationships, it could be beneficial to seek relationship therapy.

  • Codependency: this is an unhealthy relationship pattern that is usually centred in one or both partners attaching all of their self worth to the other, or having inescapable feelings of emotional responsibility to their partner (needing to “take care of them”) regardless of the situation. This can exist in friendships as well. Signs of codependency could include enabling substance abuse in one another, chronic arguing, or repeatedly breaking and making up.

  • Healing from a breakup or cheating: when trust has been broken or you’re ending a significant relationship, it can be difficult and result in feelings of guilt, shame, sadness or hopelessness. A relationship therapist can help navigate those feelings of loss and grief, and help you rebuild your life and prepare yourself for a new, functioning relationship, or help you find joy and confidence in your single life.

  • Lack of confidence in dating: dating in this modern world can be daunting. There are online apps to navigate, competing priorities with our careers, pressure from family and friends, and more. A relationship therapist will have a unique perspective on this world to help you build skills and strong belief systems about yourself to thrive while you participate in the dating scene.

  • Someone’s needs are unmet: when our needs are not being met, that creates negative emotions. A relationship therapist can help us better recognize what our own needs are and how to work with others to have those met, or how to recognize others’ needs to better help and support them. This dynamic can play out in romantic relationships, friendships, between employers and employees, neighbours or within our family. 

Why do we form unhealthy relationship patterns?

While any number of factors could impact the health of our relationships, often it’s some experience in our past relationships that have framed how we expect all relationships to unfold thereafter. This could be the result of emotional manipulation from others, abuse, infidelity, or an absence of positive experiences.

There is a psychological model called attachment theory that helps define how some human relationship habits form from our past. 

Attachment theory is the result of research around how children bond with their caregivers (usually, their parents) and eventually expanded to understand adult attachments as well.

There are two broad categories for attachments:

  • Secure attachment—the ideal form of attachment formed when a child knows they are supported and secure with their caregiver. They build confidence and self-esteem to explore on their own while feeling the security of a safe home base. This helps build skills around mutual respect, responsiveness and resilience in our adult relationships.

  • Insecure attachment—this happens when a child does not feel security and stability from their caregiver. They do not trust their needs will be met, and it might make them less likely to have confidence to explore in life, or be more emotional when they are left alone.

There are a few other subcategories within these that speak to adult attachment and relationship behaviours. Some of the ways attachment issues can manifest in adulthood include:

  • Being argumentative
  • Denying responsibility when conflict arises, or deflecting
  • Having trouble with empathy or showing remorse
  • Using manipulation techniques
  • Being hostile toward others
  • Extreme reactions to changes in routine
  • Over-analyzing 
  • Mood swings
  • Distance or avoiding intimacy
  • Difficulty forming bonds with others

Some of these symptoms or patterns could be attributed to other mental health conditions, so this is something you and your therapist work to uncover and address together. 

Techniques used in relationship therapy

Relationship therapy is a form of psychotherapy or counselling therapy. 

When searching for couples/relationship therapists on First Session, you might find a modality on their profile pages called attachment-based therapy (ABT). The focus of this therapy is to help you rebuild trust and express emotions. You might find this approach used in individual therapy, family therapy, couples therapy or in group therapy

When ABT is applied to family or child therapy, there is often work on the therapist’s part to strengthen trust and the bond between kids and adults. When ABT is used in individual adult therapy, the therapist builds that security between you and them. The trusted relationship will open up opportunities for better communication to then start targeting any thoughts, feelings, behaviours you’re either avoiding or amplifying in relationships because of past or early life experiences. 

Through this two-pronged approach—developing security then addressing learned behaviours—a relationship therapist can help reshape how you approach and explore the world.

Some other modalities you might encounter when exploring relationship therapy options include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): this modality helps you better understand how your thoughts (including distorted thoughts) are influencing how you feel and how you’re behaving. A therapist can use CBT to help you build new skills around your thinking (reframing) to influence more productive and authentic emotions and behaviours.  
  • Dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT): this is a form of CBT, but focuses more on emotions regulation. This is especially useful for those who might have heightened emotional responses to situations, and have tendencies toward all-or-nothing thinking that can lead to self-destructive behaviours. 
  • Narrative therapy: this therapy technique explores our past (our stories), the meaning we’ve placed on those experiences and how they influence our identity and behaviours today. A therapist helps to break down stories or problems into smaller pieces that can be addressed without blame for oneself or others to recognize and change those unwanted narratives. 

Finding a therapist that fits with you will mean feeling like you can communicate with them, that they understand what you’re saying and you agree with their interpretations and approaches, that you can afford them or they’re covered on your benefits plan, and that you can attend your appointments online or in person. 

Find therapists that specialize in relationship therapy on First Session. Under Therapy type, filter by Couples/Relationship.

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About the Author

Nicole Laoutaris

Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.