Health

What To Expect From Couples Therapy

Couples therapy, relationship counselling, marriage counselling; whatever name you decide to call it, it’s s never an experience you’re likely excited about. It might not be as bad as it sounds though. If you’re worried about what might happen, here are a few things you can expect.

The idea of counselling is often frightening to people, and the idea of doing those sessions with another person can be downright terrifying. Nothing is really going to change that potential dread before your first appointment, but knowing what to expect makes it less unnerving. I’ve been through this before, and while every counsellor and therapist is different, here’s what I’ve learned.

The Purpose of Going to Couples Therapy

Couples therapy seems like a pretty simple idea: you sign up for a session when your relationship is in trouble and you need help dealing with it. In a nutshell, that’s right, but the whole experience is a bit more complicated than that. The Guardian has a few different suggestions on when therapy is worth considering:

People often ask me how a couple can tell if they would benefit from relationship therapy; how they can recognise that their problems can no longer be dealt with at home, together. There’s no simple answer, but often we get a sense that things are reaching stalemate.

Perhaps you and your partner are arguing about the stupidest things and these rows quickly escalate into something nasty.

Or your relationship feels stale, and if the two of you were not so busy leading separate lives you feel you would die of boredom. Sometimes there is a big issue – such as money, sex, infidelity, in-laws or children — about which you cannot get your partner to understand your viewpoint.

The main purpose of couples therapy is to put you and your significant other in a room with a neutral mediator to help you make sense of what’s going on. If you’re having trouble communicating with each other, then the counselor is going to help guide you through talking about it. Again, the Guardian describes the purpose of counseling all really well:

It soon becomes clear that a couple counsellor’s responsibility is to the relationship and both of you will get equal time, attention and understanding. On a deeper level, couple work avoids the victim or “poor me” attitude that can be a by-product of individual therapy, which encourages people to dig deeper into their own world view.

The main point, as you’d expect, is to get you talking through whatever issues you have, or to simply figure out what those issues are. It’s not a bad bargain in the end, and if you’re both willing to give it a shot it can be a fruitful experience. If you need some help finding a good counselor, we’ve got you covered. In the case of couples therapy, it’s good to find a counselor who will suit both of you. Make sure to give them a call and talk over what you’re looking for in the sessions before committing any money to them. As we’ve pointed out before, it’s also worth noting that seeing a counselor early is going to produce way more positive results than if you do it after serious problems have already formed.

The Counsellor Will Start with Basic Questions

As you’d probably expect, the first thing the counselor is likely going to ask you is something along the lines of, “What’s going on?” or “Why are you here?” It sounds incredibly simple, but it’s worth taking the time with your significant other to prepare to answer the questions. The fact is an average couple might be unhappy for six years before seeking counselling. At that point, it’s pretty tough to narrow down and fix any problems.

You want to prepare yourself to answer a few rudimentary questions during that first session. In fact, the whole process is likely similar to one-on-one therapy, which means the therapist will likely ask about your history and expect both of you to be open, somewhat talkative and honest.

Depending on the situation, your counsellor might also talk to you both individually for portions of the appointment or in separate appointments altogether. It’s hard to say exactly how a counsellor is going to handle the situation, so make sure you ask plenty of questions before that first appointment.

It’s Going To Be Uncomfortable

You know what’s absolutely not fun at all? Dealing with your problems. It’s even less fun when you’re dealing with problems between yourself and another person. So, don’t expect the first few visits to a counsellor to produce results. Things might come up you never knew about the other person, or you might let something slip out of your own mouth that you didn’t even know you thought. Basically, couples counselling has just as much potential of being positive as it does negative, but that’s just part of the process. As the Mayo Clinic explains it, things can go every which way:

Talking about your problems with a marriage counsellor might not be easy. Sessions might pass in silence as you and your partner seethe over perceived wrongs — or you might bring your fights with you, perhaps even yelling or arguing during sessions. Both are OK. Your therapist can act as mediator or referee and help you cope with the resulting emotions and turmoil.

It’s really just not a process that’s fun in any way, and as Psychology Today suggests, the most effective principles of therapy, including changing the view of the relationship, modifying dysfunctional behaviour and improving communication, are not easy for anyone. Brace yourself for some awkward conversations, because chances are they’ll happen.

How (and If) It Might Progress Across

Seeing a counsellor can play out in all kinds of ways. If you tackle something early on, and things are looking good otherwise, then you might only need a handful of sessions to get through a problem. You might even feel better after just one visit, although that’s unlikely.

Alternatively, it might take a few months or even years to work through everything. Hopefully, if the counsellor is good at what they’re doing, they’re teaching you how to deal with your problems without their help, but it can still take time.

It’s also worth pointing out that counseling isn’t all rainbows and roses. It’s not necessarily a counsellor’s job to save the relationship. Sometimes, the counselling is more about figuring out how to make a split amicably. From my own experience, this is actually surprisingly helpful. The Wall Street Journal points to a counselling style called “discernment counseling”:

In discernment counselling, Dr. Doherty helps the leaning-out spouse decide if the decision to leave the marriage is the correct one. And he helps the leaning-in spouse cope in a way that doesn’t make the situation worse — without pleading, threatening or otherwise turning off the already irritated spouse.

Over five sessions, Dr. Doherty has the couple examine what was good about the marriage, what got them to this point and what they did to try and save the marriage. He lays out three alternatives: marriage as it has been, divorce, or a six-month reconciliation with marriage therapy. Of the 25 couples Dr. Doherty counselled, 40% decided to try the reconciliation; the rest divorced or are still thinking it over.

Basically, nobody really knows what’s going to happen at the end of couples counseling. You might work through the issues and strengthen your relationship, you might decide the best course of action is to move on. Regardless, the idea of continuing to see the counselor is to reach a point where you both have an understanding of the situation despite the end result.

Different counsellors or therapists are going to approach your situation in different ways, and your situation is going to play a role in how that’s handled. You’re not going to find a definitive guidebook for what you can expect, but if you prepare yourself for a lot of different scenarios, from the worst to the best, you’ll probably get more out of the experience. As with any relationship “advice”, counselling isn’t for everyone. It’s certainly worth considering if you need that third-party moderator or you just don’t know what else to do.

Pictures: JD Hancock, Pascal, James Nash