What Does A Couples Counselor Do?

By: Nadia Khan

Updated February 07, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Sonya Bruner

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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.

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. Seeing a couples counselor from time to time not only smooths the rough spots but can help head off problems before they feel insurmountable.

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Television and movies might have left you with the impression that romantic partners only see couples counselors 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 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 counselor 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. It may take just a few sessions to make your relationship stronger.

The Role of a Couples Counselor

In my book "Mindful Mates", I prepare couples by discussing some realistic expectations for counseling. 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 session.

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.
  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 work.
  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 Better Help 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.

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Okay, so what will a Couples Counselor 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 individually before your first couples session, where you all talk together. 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 where it is very appropriate to see a couple AND do individual work. 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, including restoring a good sex life.

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These three areas of focus mean you'll fight less and more fairly, have more beneficial conversations and enjoy more intimacy and sex. 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 counselors 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 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 work through issues that happened long ago if they still cause problems. 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. A counselor will help you figure out how to repair trust and forgive, so you feel like you can rely on each other again. 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.

When Counseling for Couples is Advisable?

Couples counseling is an important resource at any stage of a relationship and as we have discussed, should be accessed before you're in dire straits. 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. Consider seeing a counselor to improve your relationship.

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