How To Get The Most Out Of Therapy For Your Relationship: The Do’s And Don’ts Of Couple’s Counseling
Updated June 22, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Nicole Gaines, LPC
Your relationship is on the rocks or hitting a few bumps in the road as you and your partner or spouse navigate life together. Maybe you're at the point where you think couple's counseling could be a good idea for helping prevent any future problems, or maybe the relationship is strained to a breaking point, and you're desperate to get professional help to keep it from ending entirely.
Couple's counseling can be a great option for individuals who are dating, engaged, or even married and finding themselves in a situation that they're not quite sure how to overcome together. Read on to learn more about couple's counseling, how it can benefit your relationship, and how to make the most out of your time when working to repair and bolster the bond with the one that you love.
What Is Couple's Counseling And How Does It Work?
Couple's therapy is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on individuals seeking assistance in navigating and improving their relationship together. The therapist involved can have a variety of backgrounds in mental health and counseling experience, but is often a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), and may use several different approaches to handling a couple's counseling sessions depending upon their preferences and education.
This professional mediator will help the two partners to improve various facets of their relationship by focusing on gaining insight into each other and their combined dynamic as a pairing. The mediator will also provide guidance and instruction for conflict resolution and methods of boosting the amount of trust and intimacy involved in the relationship to acquire a deeper and lasting connection for the two.
Therapy sessions will often begin with an interview phase in which the licensed professional will speak to each partner and gain more information about them as individuals, as well as a couple, and what they are hoping to achieve through seeking out couple's counseling for their relationship. Once they have a good feel for the situation, the couple and their counselor will decide on the primary topic of focus for their sessions and structure out a treatment plan as well as clearly defined goals for the therapy.
Once the guidelines have been established, the treatment itself will begin, and the therapist will help the couple to analyze the different areas of their relationship and how each of them plays a part and impacts the overall dynamic that may be contributing to the problems they want to resolve. This helps the two partners to gain a thorough understanding of their relationship and the roles they currently play in regard to how they function together, and may also lend a new perspective to how they view their relationship, their partner, and themselves.
As the trouble areas in each individual and the relationship itself become pinpointed, the therapist will then assist in helping the two to begin making changes in behaviors, mannerisms, or any other aspects that may need to be modified to start rectifying the primary issue they've sought help for. They will be given advice and "homework" between their sessions to help them to apply the concepts they've learned so far and begin implementing them in their interactions within the scope of the relationship.
The continued assistance in regards to insight, education, and regular practice in applying beneficial concepts can lead a couple to gain a better understanding of each other, as well as improved communication and the ability to recognize patterns in habits and emotional states that will allow them to eventually become capable of recognizing problems and resolving them on their own without having to continue seeking professional help after a time. The partners and the relationship itself will become self-sufficient and healthier for the long-term.
When Would Someone Need Counseling For Their Relationship?
Any couple may need or could benefit from couple's counseling, whether they are dating or married, and regardless of age, the amount of time they've been together, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Every relationship comes with its own struggles and problems along the way, and anyone that may need some help coping with those issues may find couple's counseling to be the best solution.
Some of the more common reasons a couple may seek out professional help are the following:
- Pre-engagement counselling
- Premarital counseling
- Nontraditional relationships (open relationship, polyamory, etc.)
- Blended families
- Communication problems
- Trust issues
- Sexual concerns
- Balancing other relationships (work, friendships, family members, etc.)
- "Unsolvable" problems
Some of these can be more serious and invasive than others, but when provided with the right skill set and insight into the issues and your partner, most can be overcome when the effort is put in, and the desire to resolve the concern is present in both partners.
Some couples may also benefit from seeking individual counseling along with the combined couple's counseling when mental illness or trauma in their own life is hurting the relationship as well.
What Types of Counseling Is Available?
Many people may assume that seeking couple's therapy for their relationship struggles would mean simply going to see a professional and the two partners talking in a safe space with mediation and applying new concepts to a better relationship. Although this is true and is the general format for how the counseling sessions will take place, there are quite a few different types of couple's therapy available:
- Narrative Therapy - The focus of narrative therapy is to separate a couple's problems from the relationship itself. Some individuals feel like their relationship is defined by certain problems, but this can prevent them from externalizing those issues and being able to work on overcoming them effectively. For example, for a partner that feels uncertain about something their partner may be saying or doing will then be questioned how the "uncertainty" affects the dynamic within the relationship. This allows them to disconnect themselves from identifying with the issue at hand, providing a bit of distance and allowing the problem to be an entity of its own, and therefore make it easier to be able to be worked on or resolved entirely.
- Emotion Focused Couples Therapy - This type of therapy primarily focuses on the attachment involved in a relationship and helps couples to learn to respond to their interactions together differently. Most people learn conscious and subconscious reactions to the interactions in close relationships as they're growing up, and this can sometimes lead to unhealthy reactions later on in their romantic partnerships if they have experienced issues with unhealthy attachments in the past. EFT focuses heavily upon the idea of "attachment theory" in individuals and helps the involved therapist to better understand how past experiences may be affecting a couple's current interactions and issues together, therefore providing a good basis for modifying those learned behaviors and responses and enabling those involved to develop healthy solutions and learn new methods of handling situations.
- Gottman Method - The Gottman Method encourages couples to focus on bolstering friendship, conflict management, and creating shared meaning together as a means of solidifying their relationship. When using this method for therapeutic purposes, the partners will aim to improve closeness and intimacy, as well as learn to replace negative aspects of their relationship and responses to each other with positives ones. The closeness they wish to achieve will be sought out by deepening their relationship through various means, and the creation of shared goals is essential in helping them to build a future together and stay on the same page.
- Positive Psychology Therapy - Positive psychology is pretty self-explanatory in that it is a type of counseling that encourages participants to focus on the positives in their lives. This works in couple's counseling by helping partners to see joy "at the moment" in their relationship and the interactions with their partner rather than simply when looking back on it, as well as placing emphasis on a partner's positive traits and consistently acknowledging those. Rather than overthinking things or dwelling on the past or potential future, positive psychology helps people to see the good in every moment and focus on the "now" and making the most of it each day.
Imago Relationship Therapy - This form of therapy emphasizes communication and strengthening communication skills to reduce conflict and misunderstandings, as well as improving communicative interactions in a manner that helps to form deeper bonds between individuals. This is often done by learning new skills, in addition to analyzing one's emotions and how childhood experiences may be causing them to act and respond to current situations in their adult lives.
The Goals of Couple's Counseling
Most couples seeking out the help of a therapist or counselor have one or more specific issues they want to overcome in their relationship, but the majority of the common goals of couple's counseling are all very similar and are beneficial to any couple wanting to strengthen their relationship. These often include the following:
- Gaining a deeper understanding of yourself, your partner, and the relationship you have together
- Identifying the fears and insecurities in each individual and learning what helps each other to feel safe and secure within the relationship
- Identifying triggers and the associated defense mechanisms and defensive behaviors of each partner
- Improving communication in all aspects of the relationship
- Learning what each partner needs to feel loved and how to go about expressing that clearly to each other
- Identifying subconscious issues or beliefs that may be impacting the relationship and the associated communications
- Learning to love and accept yourself to be receptive to your partner as well
- Learning to distinguish between sharing and venting, demanding and requesting, and complaining versus expressing oneself in a healthy manner
- Understanding how the past may affect the present in regards to the relationship and its interactions
- Learning how to make each partner feel loved, accepted, and validated
- Rediscovering how to have fun and reignite the romance in the relationship
Overall, the goals of therapy for a relationship are to modify any dysfunctional or unhealthy behaviors, figure out the type of life you want to have together, change how partners view their relationship from negative to positive, understand what may be causing the hardships in the relationship, prevent the avoidance of emotional involvement and expression, and improve the lines of communication. When these issues are addressed and corrected, most couples find that they have all of the tools they need to overcome current and future obstacles and keep their relationship strong and healthy for a lifetime.
How to Get The Most Out Of Your Counseling Sessions
No matter how many times a couple goes to counseling sessions to repair their relationship, it won't simply fix everything without active participation and effort on the part of both partners. A therapist's goals are to provide clarity, assistance, and guidance in helping a couple to understand each other and their relationship better and provide them with the tools and techniques to regularly continue using to keep the relationship strong. If a couple were capable of simply resolving their problems on their own, they wouldn't have had to seek help in the first place, but a counselor can't do it all for them either. There are quite a few ways to make sure you're getting the most out of your professional help and working in the right direction towards healing and resurrecting your damaged relationship together:
- Make therapy a priority. If your relationship is truly important to you, you can't just decide to go to therapy here and there and make that the only time you bother with it. The purpose of counseling is to help you along the way in working on your relationship with your loved one, and this is an ongoing process that needs to be given attention daily, not just in the time frame that best suits you. Significant attention needs to be directed towards the counseling sessions and gaining as much insight and knowledge as possible from them to apply that information outside of the counselor's office. Make it to all of your appointments, pay as much attention as possible during your sessions, and make the most of the opportunities you're being given.
- Have an open mind. There are plenty of people that think the ideas of therapy and counseling are a waste of time, but if you value your relationship, you need to go into these sessions with an open mind regardless of what you initially may be thinking. Listen to what your mental health professional and your partner are saying and be open to discussing those issues and maybe even acknowledging some things about yourself or your relationship that you might not have wanted to bring to light. Problems can't be fixed, and progress can't be made if the issues at hand are not able to be acknowledged and discussed both openly and honestly. Be willing to engage in the process fully, regardless of your ideas of what may or may not work.
- Find the right counselor or therapist. Not every mental health professional is the perfect fit for every situation, and it may take seeing a few different counselors along your journey to find the right one to meet the needs of your relationship, but don't give up. Don't settle for someone that you and your partner are not comfortable with or feel may not be a fully impartial party or not understanding of your specific needs. The right help is available, and you may not always find it on your first try, but don't be discouraged. There are many options available to get the help that you need.
- Go "all-in" during the process. Along with prioritizing your therapy sessions, working on your relationship needs to be a constant and ongoing task. There isn't a pause button on life for you to do as you please and then expect other aspects of your life not to be affected, and fixing a relationship takes a lot of effort if you want it to last. Only somewhat listening to your partner or somewhat applying the advice and techniques offered by your counselor will not fully resolve the concerns you sought out help for in the first place. If you gave the counseling and instructed homework exercise you're all; you know you've tried your best to make the relationship work, regardless of what the final decision and outcome may be.
- Focus on making changes to yourself rather than changing your loved one. Everybody may have a few things they want to change about their partner, and although counseling may help your loved one to realize some areas they need to work on within themselves to better suit the relationship as well, your main focus should be on changing your responses, behaviors, and perspectives regarding the relationship and the interactions with your partner to improve the quality of your time together. A relationship requires equality on both ends to function well, so while your partner addresses their issues and makes changes on their end along the way, you need to be doing the same too.
- Ask the tough questions and address the difficult issues, no matter how catastrophic or intimidating it may be. A counselor can guide on the most basic of ways without all of the details, but if a relationship has some extreme difficulties to overcome and some serious underlying issues, these are best brought up with the help of that neutral mediator present. Even when learning to deepen your bond and become better at communicating with your partner, some issues may seem too intimidating to bring up and try to tackle without the risk of everything falling apart. However, if these aren't addressed now, they will most definitely surface later on and simmer underneath the surface in the meantime as something unspoken and causing hostility and concerns despite progress in any other areas of the relationship. Being honest is the key to making both the relationship as well as your sessions work the best that they possibly can.
- Do the assigned homework. Whatever your therapist decides is the best method of practicing the learned techniques and applying what's been discussed within the counseling sessions, do it. You and your partner may be able to navigate your sessions satisfyingly to your assigned professional, but the work that needs to be put in for a relationship to flourish needs to be done outside of the office as well. Have the conversations suggested, go on the dates recommended, read the materials provided, take the time for your partner that you need to be using to strengthen your relationship, and don't neglect your duties to put energy and effort into your bond simply because the therapist isn't standing over your shoulder to make sure that you do so.
The Benefits of Couple's Counseling
Not only will counseling help you to communicate better with your partner and potentially resolve any serious issues the two of you have together, but the skills you will learn can provide so many other benefits as well. No longer will you feel like you're just stuck with a roommate or friend that you just decided to be committed to at some point, but the fire will be reignited in your relationship, and the romance and deep connection will return. The two of you will become capable of falling in love all over again and truly feeling loved as you learn what you and your partner need from each other and can finally meet those needs effectively. Establishing the clear goals that counseling will encourage you to do will allow you to feel like your partner and you are 100% on the same page and working towards the same future together, making your past nearly irrelevant in the process as you let go of the bad and focus on the good and the potential for your combined future for the rest of your lives. The transparency, the clarity, and the intimacy you will gain from counseling will only further bolster and improve your relationship and help it to last a lifetime. Together, you will finally be able to work through your problems, and any obstacles life throws your way as a couple and successfully overcome future issues that once would have been a threat to your long-term happiness together.
How ReGain Can Help
There are many options available for couples that need help with repairing their relationship, but ReGain is here for those who may not find it as easy as some to make it all the way to a professional's office every week or month to seek out guidance and begin repairing their relationships, such as those with unusual jobs or schedules. ReGain provides online counseling service to meet all of your needs, as well as fit your schedule (and budget) when it would be most convenient for you to have sessions from the comfort of your own home (or wherever you may be) and on your own time. Licensed and trained professionals are available at your convenience for a variety of needs, so don't hesitate to reach out for more information or to start your healing process today.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How can I get the most out of my therapy session?
One thing that can help you get the most out of your therapy session is to go into your therapy hour knowing what you want to talk about. It's essential that you are truthful in therapy. A therapist can only help you if you are open and honest with them, and there's no reason to hide anything from a therapist. They are an objective third-party, and they can't share anything with your friends or family, so you really have an open opportunity to talk about whatever you want. Another thing that can help you to get the most out of your therapy session(s) is to find a therapist that specializes in the particular concern that you and your partner, you and your family, or you as an individual are dealing with.
What you should never tell your therapist
Again, a therapist will be able to help you the most if you are able to be open and honest with them. No topic is off-limits in therapy; it is your time to talk about what's on your mind. If there is something that a therapist can't help you with, they will let you know and will usually be able to refer you to someone who can. One of the best things about therapy is that therapists have seen it all. They've encountered many unique situations, so there's nothing to be embarrassed about in therapy. If you feel like your therapist is closed-minded or doesn't "get" you as a couple, know that you and your partner deserve to find a therapist that is open-minded and understanding and that you can leave therapy and switch providers at any time.
How do I prepare for a therapy session?
To prepare for a therapy session, one of the best things to do is to think about what you want to talk about in therapy that day. Is there something in particular that's bothering you? Is there something that has troubled you since you last saw your therapist even if it isn't bothering you right now? If you're in couples therapy, is there a recurring theme that you'd like to talk about in your relationship? Did you have an argument that prompted some feelings or conflict for you and your significant other? Do you have an update in terms of something you talked about in previous sessions or progress you've made toward your therapy goals? If you're seeing a therapist for the first time, think about what you'd like to achieve in therapy and what your therapist might need to know about you in order to understand you. Some people even write lists of what they want to talk about over the course of a week or two before heading to a therapy session.
What can I gain from therapy?
In therapy, you will learn to troubleshoot the concerns in your life. You can gain communication skills, coping skills, and problem-solving skills in therapy, to name a few. There are an abundance of different types of therapy, and the right fit will vary from person to person. Some popular forms of therapy include CBT, DBT, ACT, emotionally focused therapy, art therapy, EMDR, and more. Therapy works best when you're invested in the process, so it is helpful to find out what type of therapy and what type of therapist works for you. Just as there are many different types of therapy, the different types of therapists vary as much as people do in general. Some therapists let you do most of the talking, whereas others are more apt to provide feedback. Some are more focused on emotion, whereas others are more stoic. Find someone that works for you, and if the first therapist you see isn't a good fit, keep looking. Think about what you want in a therapist. For example, do you want someone who understands you and your partner's religious beliefs? Do you want an individual counselor who specializes in a particular diagnosis such as anxiety? If there's anything that'd make you feel more comfortable in therapy, look for it. Chances are, it's out there.
Can you tell your therapist too much?
There's virtually nothing that you can't talk about in therapy. A therapist is there to listen and support you with whatever is going on in your life. Especially in an individual therapy session where it's just you and your provider, you can't talk too much. A therapy hour isn't that long, and if you have a lot to say, it can go by quickly. Therapy clients rarely feel that a therapy session is long or dragging because there is so much to cover. If you are in couples counseling, you and your spouse can be assured that a marriage counselor or a couples therapist has seen pretty much everything. One of the best parts about therapy is that it is meant to be a non-judgemental space.
How often should I go to therapy?
Most therapy clients see their provider weekly or biweekly. A therapy session is often roughly one hour or sixty minutes long, which is why people sometimes called their therapy sessions a therapy hour. In some cases, people will see a therapist multiple times a week. Someone may see an individual provider multiple times a week, or they might see an individual provider one day and see a family therapist, group therapist, or couples therapist on another day.
Can therapists hug their clients?
The answer to this question will vary from provider to provider. Many therapists hug their clients, often on special occasions such as their last session or when you are having a particularly difficult time, but others have a rule that they do not hug their clients. Consent is the most essential thing when it comes to this. Some therapists will ask if you want a hug, or perhaps, you will ask if you can give them a hug. Sometimes, you will have to sign a paper providing permission to give and receive a hug from your therapist. Other times, you won't. There is definitely nothing wrong with getting a hug from a therapist. It is just a matter of what you're comfortable with, what they allow in their therapy office, and the fact that every therapist has unique ideas about how to best run their business. The consistent fact is that, in any case, a therapist must always check for your consent to see if hugs are appropriate for you. If a therapist hugs you without permission, or if you're uncomfortable with your therapist for any other reason, know that you can and should leave therapy and find a new provider.
How do you know therapy is working?
You and your therapist will likely gauge your progress over time. It can take some time to see the effects of therapy, but some people find that they do feel better almost instantaneously. You might see your progress using tangible markers such as a symptom checklist that you fill out periodically at your therapy office or by revisiting your goals with a therapist regularly. For example, if you initiated couples therapy with the goal to work through arguments without raising your voice and to come to a conclusion with your partner peacefully, your therapist and you and your partner as a couple will look at how you're doing with that goal periodically. Often, you will see your progress in your overall mood, your ability to communicate with others, your ability to work through your thoughts when you are not in therapy, and more. You may also feel as though a weight is off of your chest. Therapy can make you feel more confident, happy, and stable in your sense of self.
You will go through a lot of learning in therapy. You will learn about yourself, and if you go to therapy with a partner, you will likely learn a lot about your partner as well. If you go to family therapy, you may learn new things about your family members that you would never find out or realize otherwise. Although you might see your spouse or family unit every day, you may not know precisely what is going on in their head. Never assume, and remember that there is always endless learning to do. Even if you have excellent communication skills or abundant coping skills, you can learn more and solidify your existing abilities and connections in counseling or therapy.
What should you tell your first visit to a therapist?
When it comes to what you should tell your therapist on your first therapy visit, the answer is pretty simple. First, you should tell them why you're there and what your goals are. If you don't have any goals yet for therapy, it's okay. You and your therapist will likely establish goals over time, or you might just use therapy as an outlet talk for a while. Maybe, your goal is to manage your anxiety more effectively. Perhaps, you want to improve your communication skills. It could also be that you are working through family issues, want to manage a work or school situation, are having trouble in a friendship, or something else. There are really no limits when it comes to reasons to see a therapist. The best part about seeing a therapist is that they are an objective third-party. They don't have any "dogs in the fight" when it comes to your life. A therapist can provide an outside perspective. They're experts that are there to listen and help you in tangible ways. As helpful as it can be to talk to your friends and family members, they can't give you the objective view that a therapist can. When things are going on in your life that you aren't comfortable talking about with the people in your life, or if you find yourself having a recurring issue in your life that you're bringing up to friends and family over and over again, it's a great reason to see a therapist.
How do you talk to a therapist?
When you find a therapist, you may have mixed feelings. On the one hand, you might be excited. On the other, you might be nervous. Just like with anyone else in the world, it can take time to develop a relationship with your therapist . This is a normal part of the process of therapy; not everyone is comfortable revealing the most intimate details right away, and a therapist will respect that. Your therapist will generally ask you what you're there to talk about or what is on your mind. If you have goals in mind for the process of therapy, you may refer to those goals when you talk to your therapist. If you don't know what to say during your first session, think about what prompted you to go to therapy initially and tell your therapist what comes to mind. The work in therapy you do will vary based on what kind of therapy you attend. For example, in couples therapy, you'll work on your relationship, whereas in individual counseling that focuses on trauma, you'd work on past trauma or trauma symptoms.
What should a first therapy session say?
A first therapy session should give you an idea of what working with your therapist will be like. You'll likely provide a brief overview of your history and why you decided to find a therapist and may even cover some of the goals you'd like to meet in your therapy work. The therapy relationship between you and your provider will grow over time. How comfortable you feel with a therapist during a therapy session will depend on a variety of factors, including if you've seen a therapist before or not. You might not feel comfortable opening up about your deepest thoughts and feelings during your first few sessions, but you should be able to determine if you feel as though this is someone that you can open up to eventually or not. Do you and your partner feel as though this person will accept you? Do you feel that their agenda is to help? If so, you've found a good match. When you click with a therapist, you'll know it. If you don't click with your therapist, there's no harm in switching. It's essential to find a therapist that is proficient in the area of your concerns. When you find a therapist that fits your needs, you'll be surprised as to how valuable it is. Statistics show that couples therapy is a positive experience for many couples, so don't be afraid to reach out about your relationship or any other life concerns. Know that things can and do get better and that a licensed counselor or therapist is there to help.
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