How To Decide If Family And Couples Therapy Is Right For You

Updated August 23, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

You’re feeling some friction between yourself and your partner. Or maybe you’re having difficulty relating to your children. Perhaps you’re dealing with both challenges and they’re feeding into each other. But isn’t it normal for families to fight sometimes? How do you know if it’s time to seek out family and relationship therapy?

There’s no fixed standard we can use to tell you whether your relationship is in need of therapy. What we can say is that you may be better off addressing these problems head-on rather than waiting for them to become intolerable. Even people in very happy partnerships can often benefit from the insights gained in professional counseling. We’ll help you assess your situation and decide whether family and couples therapy is the right choice for you.

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What’s The Difference Between Family And Couples Therapy?

Both couples therapy and family therapy aim to work through the interpersonal difficulties that can put a strain on your most intimate relationships. A therapist can help clients:

  • Identify and change thoughtless, disruptive, or hostile behaviors
  • Resolve emotional turmoil or repression
  • Change unhelpful habits of thought
  • Learn and practice better communication strategies

The main difference is that couples therapy (sometimes called couples counseling or relationship therapy) is focused on one specific relationship: the bond between long-term romantic partners. It’s about repairing and strengthening the trust, affection, and cooperation within this relationship.

Family therapy has a broader scope, looking at the interactions between all members of the household. Many people pursue family therapy to address their children’s behavioral problems or emotional difficulties. However, this may wind up involving a fair amount of couples therapy as well — conflicts between parents are often a major factor in their children’s psychological challenges. Family therapists frequently need to address multiple relationship challenges at once. 

Both types of therapy typically take a solution-focused approach. They address particular challenges, such as communication difficulties, hurtful behavior, or conflicts over things like sex, money, and parenting styles. 

This pragmatic approach means that family and couples therapy is not intended to go on forever. It’s usually limited to around 12 sessions, though some clients may need more or less time.

Can Family And Couples Therapy Help?

Some people may be resistant to seeking therapy for troubles within their families or marriages. You might feel you should be able to work out problems in your household without outside help. Or you might be worried that therapy is pointless and will simply be an admission that your relationship isn’t working.

Fortunately, this is a misconception. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy reports that the majority of clients they work with are highly satisfied with the results:

  • Three-quarters of couples say their relationship improved
  • 73% of parents say their child’s behavior problems decreased
  • More than 90% of participants say their mental health was better after treatment
  • Most parents say their children’s performance in school improved 
  • Relationships between children and parents were better after counseling in most cases

Instead of viewing therapy as waving a white flag, it may be better to think of it as a choice to fight for the stability and happiness of your family.

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Signs It May Be Time To Pursue Family Or Couples Therapy

Though it’s always your decision whether to seek therapy for difficulties in your closest relationships, we can point to a few signals that it’s worth considering.

The Same Issues Keep Coming Up

Do you feel like you and your partner (or you and your children) keep having the same arguments over and over? Or do you seem to routinely hurt one another’s feelings in the same way? 

When you’re seeing no progress in resolving the negative patterns in your romantic or family life, it may be time to seek an outside perspective. A therapist can provide a neutral viewpoint on the situation, perhaps seeing things you’re overlooking. They can also offer some strategies for breaking out of these unhelpful cycles.

You Feel Like You’re Talking Past Each Other

According to the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, an inability to talk to the other person and feel heard is among the most common reasons why marriages end. Communication breakdowns can also damage relationships between siblings or between parents and children. If you feel like you can’t make yourself understood, or you can’t understand what your family members want from you, even minor conflicts can be hard to resolve.

Helping to restore healthy communication is a specialty of interpersonal therapists. Experimental results suggest that family therapy can significantly improve your ability to talk things out with your loved ones. Couples therapy has demonstrated similar benefits.

Your Children Have Behavioral Problems

As we pointed out above, behavioral disruptions in children and adolescents are often driven — at least in part — by conflicts at home. Unhealthy family dynamics can contribute to things like:

  • Poor grades
  • Skipping school
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Theft
  • Vandalism
  • Conflicts with authority figures or law enforcement
  • Frequent temper tantrums or defiant behavior
  • Conflicts with peers

If your child is experiencing persistent adjustment issues, having them talk to a developmental psychologist may help. But it might also be productive to try family therapy. You may discover that relationship challenges within the home are the primary reasons your child or teen is “acting out.”

One Or Both Of You Has Had An Affair

Infidelity can severely damage the bond between long-term partners. It can also have ripple effects that negatively impact the entire household, potentially interfering with children’s emotional development. And, of course, cheating dramatically increases the likelihood of a breakup or divorce. 

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a death sentence for the relationship, however. Your partnership may be able to recover with help from a therapist. One five-year study reported that around 60% of couples affected by infidelity were able to reconcile through therapy. It’s unlikely to be easy, but if you’re willing to work at it, you may be able to restore the loving connection you once had.

You’re Experiencing A Crisis

Cheating isn’t the only thing that can disrupt familial happiness. Stressful life events of all kinds can increase the strain on intrafamily relationships. 

Are you adjusting to a major change such as a move to a new place, a financial loss, a career change, or the death of a loved one? Family or couples therapy might make it easier to navigate this kind of stress without letting it erode the bonds between you. It’s often a good idea to seek out counseling proactively rather than waiting until the effects are obvious.

You’re Thinking Of Leaving

Not every couple is right for one another, and it’s possible that ending a relationship would be the right decision for you both. But if any part of you still feels it might be worth working things out, you may want to seek out couples therapy. If you do ultimately decide to split up, you’ll at least know that you made a serious attempt to work through your difficulties.

Even when you’re certain that you want to end your partnership, it may be a good idea to work with a professional. Divorce can be a traumatic experience for the entire household, particularly when it’s antagonistic. An experienced counselor might be able to guide you through the process while minimizing the psychological impacts on your family.

When Is Family And Couples Therapy The Wrong Choice?

If your partner is abusive, trying to work things out in therapy may not be productive, and could even increase the risk to you or your children. An abuser may be more interested in maintaining control than in working to change their behavior. Many counselors believe that treatment could provoke violence in response to the kinds of honest discussions that therapy requires.

This issue is complex, and there’s some evidence that in certain cases, couples therapy can be helpful for reducing abusive behavior. When you’re deciding whether to pursue counseling, it’s important to give serious thought to the potential risks to yourself and your loved ones.

If you’d like to talk to someone experienced in assisting people in abusive partnerships, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). They can offer pragmatic advice while prioritizing your confidentiality and security.

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Could Online Family and Couples Therapy Help You?

Discussing challenges in your family and romantic relationships can leave you feeling very vulnerable, and some people are reluctant to seek therapy for this reason. If that’s a concern for you, you may prefer online therapy. Communicating remotely can create a sense of control that may actually make it easier to be open and honest with your therapist. Internet therapy can also be easier to schedule since you can attend from home.

A 2020 study of online couples therapy suggests that the majority of people who participate find it to be a helpful and positive experience. Most reported that they were easily able to develop a rapport with their therapist despite not speaking in person, and some reported that this was actually easier in the online environment. This was true even for those who were skeptical of the process at first.

Takeaway

When you’re feeling stuck, misunderstood, or ignored in your relationship, or when your family is experiencing serious emotional strain, it’s often a good idea to engage in family or couples therapy. Emotional difficulties in your children can also be a warning sign that the dynamics of your household aren’t functioning correctly, and a therapist may be able to help. Contacting a counselor before the tensions within your family erupt in a crisis may be a good idea.

FAQs

Is family therapy the same as couples therapy?

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What percentage of couples stay together after couples therapy?

What are the four stages of family therapy?

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What is a couples therapist called?

What techniques are used in family therapy?

What is the difference between a marriage and family therapist and a psychologist?

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What is the most common problem addressed in couples therapy?

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