The 5 Things You Learn In Relationship Counselling

By Stephanie Kirby

Updated January 15, 2019

Reviewer Laura Angers

Does relationship counseling really work? Can therapy sessions save a marriage that is characterized by arguing and constant negativity? The truth is there are statistics suggesting that counseling for couples may help, or it may not make any difference if the couple already despises each other's company.


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While some statistics report a 38 percent failure rate for couples who attend family therapy, other sources, such as the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, report a 98 percent success rate in terms of satisfied couples.

A primary determining factor is the attitude both partners have coming into relationship counselling. While it may seem self-evident that those seeking professional counseling actually want help to change, this is not always the case. With couples, there may be other factors which prompt attendance in counseling, which do not produce the most optimal dynamics for success. For instance, some persons really only want to be able to assert that they have given serious effort to save their relationship, as evidenced by participating in counseling. Others may genuinely care about their partner, and since they have already made a decision to leave the relationship, choose to attend counseling more to ensure their partner is connected to a supportive therapist for their imminent departure. But for those couples in which both parties are sincerely open to actively seeking support, assistance, education, and counseling, to improve their relationships, open-mindedness is recommended as well as a willingness to listen to the other partner.

Besides that, five more surprising lessons stood out among surveyed couples, who were attending therapy for the first time.

  1. This is not about he said, she said.

Most qualified relationship counselling experts know that there's no winner in a game of he said, she said. So blaming, victimization, and woe is me stories are not encouraged. This isn't about who was right or wrong, it's about repairing trust and re-establishing boundaries. While it is absolutely true that a single person can choose to end any relationship, healthy relationships require the participation of both parties. For instance, sometimes the exact characteristics which drive us crazy about our partner, are true of us as well! So, it is to our benefit to use our own complaints (whether spoken or internal) to review ourselves in that regard. If I tend to complain that my partner never listens to me, I may want to consider the extent to which I listen well to him. If I find myself feeling hurt because he is not paying attention to me, I can evaluate how intentionally I attend to him.

One of the greatest sources of conflict in relationships is misunderstanding, much of which is derived from miscommunication. So, a pretty common part of relationship counseling is more effective communication, and conflict resolution, skills. We may be truly astounded at the extent of our conflict which is revealed to be simple misunderstanding. Healthy listening skills, and practice speaking for oneself rather than for the other person; listening more than speaking; asking open questions to gather more complete and accurate information from the other person prior to responding at all; using mutually respectful time outs; and learning the differences between passive, aggressive and assertive communication are all very productive tools for improving relationships.

It is helpful to recognize that change and blame are mutually exclusive. We have no control over anyone other than ourselves. Of course we influence others, but we do not have the power to choose change on behalf of another person. The more we focus our attention on our partner, the less it may even occur to us to turn that flashlight back on ourselves. And since we have no ability to 'force' our partners to change, such attempts really only lead to feeling all the more out of control. It is much more productive for each partner to focus on ourselves, where we have the ability to produce change. Since relationships are 'systems,' in which change in any one part automatically produces some change in the rest of the system; there is greater hope, and likelihood, for change when we commit to changing ourselves.


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2. The first few visits are informational-don't expect major conflict.

Most couples' counselors start with a simple question and answer session and ask both partners to explain their history as well as the problem. You will get a chance to talk and tell your side of things. But the first few sessions establish the tone of counselling and the goals you have as a couple seeking to work things out. Many relationship counselors advise that the initial session always include both partners. This helps ensure that the foundational dynamic of the therapeutic relationship includes the couple as client, rather than one or the other partners as the primary client. However, it is also quite common for the clinician to strongly recommend, if not require, at least one individual session for each partner immediately following that first joint session, as well. This serves the important purpose of providing each partner with the opportunity to share whatever they need to without concern for how their partner may be interpreting their comments. It also allows the clinician to observe how the partners interact with each other, as well as when alone.

It is wise to note that often things seem to escalate prior to improving in all counseling. This is because we often do not seek counseling as soon as might be optimal, so we create coping mechanisms to help us live as well as possible within the difficulties of our relationships. Most coping mechanisms serve, in some way, to minimize our awareness of those issues. However, counseling pretty much requires that we bring everything out into the light. This can cause an increase in both awareness, and intensity, as we are working effectively through the counseling process. Please do not be alarmed if you experience this to some extent. It is very normal, and to be expected. So you can view it as evidence of progress, even if it does not feel that way!

  1. It's not all about "Uh huh" and "Tell me why you feel that way."

While the first few sessions might be calm, as the counselling progresses, the therapist eventually becomes a mediating force-someone who takes action and illustrates to both partners the real problems that exist in communication or personal habits. According to one marriage counselor, "the traditional passive uh huh uh huh approach is useless." While many individual counselors are also much more interactive than the stereotype of a counselor who models primarily unconditional positive regard, trusting that each individual really has all their needed answers inside them, so only need warmth, support and encouragement to access it; relationship counselors pretty much always need to be more instructive, directive, and interactive, to serve the best needs of their couple clients.


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4. Relationship counselling is about starting a new relationship with each other-not continuing on with business as usual.

According to Psychology Today, the real goal of couples' counseling is to change the way both partners view their relationships. It's about respectfully confronting each other, listening to each other, and then learning to see the relationship in a more "objective manner." In doing this, couples learn to stop blaming each other and instead look at the marriage or relationship as a team-project. The longer you have been in your relationship, the easier it is to get 'stuck' in your existing perceptions of your partner. This can interfere with your partner's ability to make the changes you may have been requesting for years or decades! We all tend to resist change - even when it is completely personal, involving no one outside ourselves. Therefore, it is prudent to be aware of what you might do to derail or obstruct your own progress. When you are in relationship counseling, you will also want to be cognizant of the extent to which you may be the second greatest source of resistance to your partner's attempts to grow. So being intentional to even allow for change is a necessary pre-requisite to that change occurring successfully.

  1. Online relationship counselling can be as effective as meeting in-person.

Many couples are now trying the online option, since traveling to and from a clinic is difficult, especially if both partners work or have other family responsibilities. While face to face certainly allows for greater exchange of potentially important details, like body language, facial expressions, or non-verbal reactions of each partner to the other; virtual counseling is also serving a very important role in making professional, high quality, counseling available to everyone.


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We at BetterHelp offer features like live conferencing and phone chat, making it easier than ever before to find a time and date everyone can be happy with. If you and your partner would like to try a new approach, don't hesitate to sign up and see how easy it is to get started.


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