How to: Getting the most out of couples therapy.
Updated: Jun 18
How to Prepare for couples therapy.
You've likely heard that making an intimate relationship function takes a lot of work. Close relationships are a main component of life that can significantly benefit our well-being and satisfaction in other facets of life beyond the relationship itself. When your intimate relationships aren't working, you likely experience profound distress and can feel stuck and hopeless. You may think that you are not supposed to need help with your relationship and worry that working with someone will detract from privacy and intimacy. You may also find yourself repeating patterns you saw your parents or loved ones fall into. Couples therapy has helped many people. It is work, but the benefits can be immense.
Any person who works with couples could tell you that no two pairings are alike, including their diverse goals and motivations for beginning counselling. People seek out couples therapy for premarital counselling, gay couples therapy, relationships including a person identifying as genderqueer, trans or nonbinary, people in open relationships, parent couples, childless by choice relationships and couples struggling with infertility, including social infertility, couples negotiating differences in their relationship and many other contexts. Some couples start therapy in response to a crisis, and some in hopes of preventing one. Some people start treatment after a few dates, and others after 30+ years of marriage or to separate in a way that feels as peaceful as possible to minimize the difficulty for themselves and their families and community.
Couples need help transitioning to new roles and identities, to parenthood, new jobs, new cities, retirement, disabilities, or high-conflict circumstances, including infidelity. Couples therapy implies two people, but people in polyamorous relationships can benefit from working with an appropriate relationship therapist. For this blog, I will use the term couples therapy to denote therapy between individuals that are romantically, emotionally and connected through some form of committed relationship while acknowledging the limitation of the term.
This guide intends to familiarize you with couples therapy and to help you get the most out of couples therapy. Here are some important considerations when beginning the process of finding help:
If you are considering starting couples therapy, here are some things to consider as you prepare:
When to start couples therapy? The Short Answer is: Early.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Although some people are proactive about starting therapy with their spouse or partner, many consider couples therapy only as a last resort before considering separation or divorce (in such cases, a pound of cure can also be beneficial). If you have been wavering about starting couples therapy, think about what gets in the way so you can take steps to get unstuck. You may be scared about starting couples therapy. If so, you are not alone. Setting up a phone consultation with a therapist may allow you to test the waters in a way that feels less overwhelming. If your partner isn't remotely interested or open to couples therapy, then you may want to consider the following:
What to do when your spouse or partner refuses to try couples therapy?
You may want to start by acknowledging how frustrated and powerless you likely feel. Meanwhile, forcing your partner to attend therapy will probably be impossible or counterproductive. You have options: now would be an excellent time to consider starting individual therapy. Being in individual therapy will shift the way you feel and show up in different parts of your life, including in your relationship with your partner. Dynamics in your relationship will often change as you become better at understanding and taking care of yourself. In some cases, this may make therapy, in general, seem less scary to your partner and may defuse some of their, not uncommon, anxiety about therapy in general.
How to find a couples therapist? Ask For Referrals.
Not all doctors, lawyers, nurses or chefs are created equal, this also applies to psychologists and therapists. Some may be more skilled. Finding the right fit matters in any therapy. You may ask around from reliable sources such as your doctor, your individual therapists, a close friend, etc. Clinicians generally take the referral process seriously and refer to other professionals they know will be helpful. There are different modalities of couples therapy, including Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT), Gottman couples therapy, and Imago-couples therapy. The best therapists can integrate various approaches tailored to your needs rather than rigidly adhere to only one method.
Reflect on how you would like your relationship to be and to feel.
Here is your opportunity to imagine, fantasize and reflect on your hopes and memories. What would a great relationship look and feel like to you? What kind of relationship do you want to create with your spouse or partner? What would make you happy to see each other at the end of the day? What did you like about the family and community that you grew up in, and what didn't work for you? Did you witness a loving relationship? Is there a couple in your life that has the kind of relationship you would like to have? What do you notice about the relationship that represents something you want for yourself? Daydream and allow yourself to be expansive.
Do some soul-searching regarding your motivations for starting couples therapy.
People have many different motivations for beginning couples therapy. Many people are anxious about individual therapy and want someone to accompany them. Others want to be in couples therapy so the therapist can 'fix' or blame their partner. A good couples therapist will strive to create balance in the relationship. You will benefit more from couples therapy by considering what will be required of you, not only your partner, to bring about the relationship you want to create.
Consider the financial and time commitment.
Couples therapy does involve a genuine financial and time commitment. Couples therapy is an investment but far less costly than an acrimonious separation, divorce, custody battle, or even a long-standing unhappy relationship. Your money worries may reflect material reality. Still, if you find yourself spending money on other elective things that you could cut back on, your worries about the expense of couples therapy may represent an avoidance.
If you cannot afford a private practice therapist, you may find some helpful psychology trainees. If you feel hesitant about seeing a trainee or an associate, it may put you at ease to know that many trainees are gifted therapists who receive guidance from highly experienced therapists.
Consider your mutual availability to meet with a therapist. Do you require an evening appointment, or could a daytime session work? Couples therapy has a very different feel and momentum than individual therapy. The work can often proceed at a pretty rapid pace. It may be hard for a therapist to tell you how long they recommend you work together, but after 2-3 sessions, they will likely have formulated a reasonable treatment plan. If you and your spouse or partner can tell the therapist that you can only meet for a brief course of treatment, it will help them to pace the work most effectively and avoid an abrupt end to the treatment that can undermine the benefits of the work.
Consider how you spend your time before and after each session.
Set aside time to check in with your partner(s) and yourself after a session and transition back into your day. If you meet with your therapist in person, you can take a walk or a drive with your partner before returning to other responsibilities, such as work, parenting etc. If you are meeting with your therapist remotely, you would need to be more deliberate about setting time aside rather than jumping back into your life. Allowing time to reflect can allow you to consolidate your thoughts and feelings after a session.
It is worth sharing how you are feeling about the therapeutic process itself.
While in couples therapy, there may be moments where you feel understood more than others by your partner or by the therapist. You may feel you interact differently with your partner as a couple in the therapy room; you may act inauthentic, as though you are on your best behaviour. You may feel left out or ganged up on. A skilled clinician will treat the relationship itself, not just the individuals who make up the relationship. Sharing your experience of the therapy in real-time will allow you to examine dynamics that may occur in your relationship. Sharing your responses in real time will enhance the therapeutic process and your ability to communicate with your partner. This “real-time” work about what you are experiencing in couples therapy can be an unexpectedly productive element of therapy.
*Unfortunately, couples therapy is not a safe setting for people in abusive relationships involving a lack of safety and dynamics of power and control.
If you are experiencing physical, emotional, financial or sexual abuse in your relationship, traditional couples therapy is inappropriate for you. A basic sense of safety is a human right and a fundamental requirement for couples therapy to be beneficial. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, call the
Victim 24/7 Support Line: 1-888-579-2888;
Assaulted Women's Helpline: 1-866-863-0511 (toll-free, 24/7, multilingual service available)
National Domestic Violence Hotline www.thehotline.org