What Is Couples Counseling Like?

By Nadia Khan|Updated September 6, 2022

Long-Term Relationships and Counseling

"To keep your marriage brimming, with love in the loving cup, whenever you're wrong admit it, whenever you're right, shut up." ~ Ogden Nash

While marriage is not ideal for everyone, most people reach a point in their life when they are ready to settle down into the comfort of a long-term relationship. If you're in a long-term relationship, and it's not the fairy tale you expected, you might want to consider couples counseling with a therapist.

Real life is definitely not like a fairy tale. I don't recall Snow White worrying about mortgage payments, nor Cinderella arguing with her prince about who was supposed to pick up the dry-cleaning. Once the initial flush of starry-eyed devotion to your partner is over, conflicts are almost certain to appear in your relationship. Whether these take the form of the occasional argument (that every happy couple has), or eventually escalate to severe relationship problems is largely up to the approach both of you take to your life together. It's important to be aware that life throws curveballs at all of us from time to time, and if you're truly on the same team with your partner, you're effectively catching for two. Do everything you can to promote a better relationship and smooth over rough spots with therapy. Seeing a couples therapist or marriage counselor in marriage counseling from time to time not only smooths the rough spots but can help head off problems before they feel insurmountable.

Television and movies might have left you with the impression that romantic partners only see couples therapists when their relationship is near breaking point (like if someone has cheated), or to try to "cure" each other of annoying habits (like leaving the toilet seat up). Research shows that couples counseling with a therapist that's a last-ditch effort is very difficult, therefore more costly, and is less likely to save the relationship. The reality is that a couples therapist can help you best before the breaking point. So if you have some room to grow, or need help in the hotspots, meaning areas of concern for most couples, consider seeing a counselor soon in couples therapy. Therapy may take just a few sessions to make your relationship stronger.

The Role of a Couples Therapist

In my book "Mindful Mates", I prepare couples by discussing some realistic expectations for counseling with a therapist. When expectations of counseling are realistic, you know how to get the best 'bang for your buck', and you're less likely to walk out feeling disappointed with your couples therapy sessions.

You're more likely to get what you want out of counseling when:

  1. You see the professional as a 'neutral' consultant or resource rather than being the responsible party to fix your relationship in couples therapy sessions.
  2. You are seeking help earlier rather than later in the story of your relationship troubles.
  3. You have not decided to end the relationship. You're still open to change and change through work in couples therapy.
  4. Physical and emotional safety is, on the whole, assured in your relationship so that issues can be discussed without the threat of harm. Though you may have difficulty being transparent or vulnerable, your safety is not threatened if you do so.
  5. Your motivation to address problems in the relationship is high. From a motivational perspective on the 'readiness ruler', you would be sliding up toward the 'ready' end.

Not Ready ←---------------------------------------------→ Ready

  1. Both partners feel that self-help or couples work can bring new information and help to a struggling relationship.

Who Does Couples Counseling?

These days, couples counseling is provided by a wide range of professionals and para-professionals. Your counselor may be a clinical social worker(LMSW), a licensed professional counselor (LPC), a psychologist (LLP or Ph.D.), a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), a couples coach or a clergy member. Who you choose depends on two things: 1. Who is available in your area or who is taking clients online at BetterHelp and 2. Your budget (which includes considerations about whether or not your insurance will pay for your counseling). When choosing a couples counselor ask about their experience with couples and what techniques they use.

Okay, so what will a Couples Therapist Actually Do?

Every counselor has their own way of helping couples. What they do in a session depends on their training and experience. Your counselor may ask to meet with you in individual therapy before you start therapy to go over the whole story of past experiences in a safe space, where you all talk together in initial sessions. This first session of therapy will shed light to help manage conflicts and communication issues later on. Once couples work has started, your counselor may suggest working with one or both of you individually if they see issues that hinder a successful result. Some counselors prefer to see only the couple. This means if you have things you want to discuss with a counselor alone, you'll need to set up an appointment with a different counselor. In this scenario, your counselor will explain why it is a conflict of interest to meet with one of you without your partner being present.

In my counseling practice, many different scenarios occur. There are situations in therapy where it is very appropriate to see a couple AND do individual sessions. There are also situations where this is not the best way forward.

Good couples counseling focuses on helping you to:

  1. Increase your overall satisfaction with your relationship.
  2. Improve your ability to communicate well and resolve differences.
  3. Improve aspects of intimacy issues, including restoring a good sex life.

Couples seek counseling and therapy from the first sessions for a variety of reasons and other factors, but these three areas of focus mean you'll fight less and more fairly, have more beneficial conversations with better communication skills and enjoy more intimacy and sex. Therapy can help develop new skills from the first session. You will talk with your counselor about your goals for your relationship, read any recommended materials, practice role play in sessions and work on homework assignments. Couples therapists in private practice are experts in providing a forum where even touchy subjects can be discussed without laying blame or inciting an argument. You will find that many of the issues that bother you can actually be resolved calmly by simply talking about them, which is sometimes hard to do without a counselor. Couples counseling with a therapist will help you improve your understanding of the normal stages that relationships go through. You will practice communication, figure out how to fight well, know how to juggle being a mate with all the other things you have to do and maintain intimacy despite the long journey that lays ahead with your partner. Couples counseling can help you from the first session to work through issues that happened long ago if they still cause problems, and you can expect to develop new skills as a person. If there has been infidelity or cheating in your relationship, it is very important to see a counselor. Restoring trust after an affair can be a difficult process, and you may benefit from individual sessions. While other couples may just continue on and expect the relationship to get better on its own, healthy couples address their issues with their partner. A counselor will help you figure out how to repair trust and forgive through therapy, so you feel like you can rely on each other again. The first session is the first step in better communication. Many couples entering counseling are not satisfied with their sex lives. While this can be a scary topic to bring up, counselors that are experienced with couples will be able to talk frankly with you about sex as part of your treatment plan.

When Counseling for Couples is Advisable?

Couples counseling with a therapist is an important resource at any stage of a relationship regardless of sexual orientation, and as we have discussed, should be accessed before you're in dire straits. Maybe you mostly feel comfortable, but there is a glaring issue that neither of you wants to address. It is time to develop new skills as a person with your partner. Even if you choose not to pursue long-term counseling, it is certainly a good idea to seek out help before major, life-changing decisions are made or if you have gone through a crisis. Counseling is less costly (financially and emotionally) than a divorce or leaving a long-term relationship with a partner. When couples wait to see a therapist to work on their relationship, they may jeopardize the ultimate goal of fulfilled feelings. Consider seeing a counselor to improve your relationship and build new skills in therapy. Depending on your situation in therapy, there is also premarital counseling with a therapist, marriage and family therapists, and relationship counseling for any example or other relationship issues. Many of the same principles apply in marital therapy vs couples therapy or something else like a non romantic relationship with family members or dealing with children, but it is important to note that regardless of the reasons for seeking treatment for relationship issues, evidence based practices through counseling sessions have proven to be effective sometimes even after the first few sessions.

Commonly Asked Questions On This Topic Found Below:

What can I expect from a couples counseling session?
Is it worth going to couples counseling?
What is the success rate of couples therapy?
Can couples therapy make things worse?
What not to say in couples counseling?
What is the difference between marriage counseling and couples therapy?
How is couples therapy different from family therapy?
What is the Gottman Method?
How do marriages work without counseling?

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