For many couples, starting relationship counseling can be the hardest part of the whole process. There’s a lot of conflicting information that can make the research phase intimidating. Luckily, we’re here to help.
In this guide, we’ll go through all the details you need to find the best support for your relationship. We’ll break down the questions couples need to ask each other and themselves, what to expect when sitting down with a therapist, and when should you consider the best time for couples counseling.
By the end, you’ll have all the knowledge to make the most informed decision for your relationship. Let’s start by demystifying what couples counseling looks like.
What is couples counseling?
In short, couples therapy is a counseling service that focuses on mending, strengthening, and building healthy relationships. The practice is as diverse as the couples who seek it out. From pre-marital support to navigating polyamory, the goals are always the same:
- Help partners develop better communication styles
- Teach empathy-based skills for conflict resolution
- Break negative behavioral cycles
- Encourage habits that build long–term connections
- Equip individuals with the tools every partner needs
How therapists achieve these goals depends on a few things. Background, personality, and relationship status all affect how couples approach issues together. To provide the best care, a relationship therapist needs to apply the right techniques for your specific situation.
That’s the first thing to note when looking for a counseling service. You want to work with someone who has experience with your context – who can offer tailored guidance for the best outcomes.
But sometimes you may not even know what kind of couples counseling is best, or when to seek it out. Here are a few ways to work out the right time.
How do you know when it’s the best time for couples counseling?
Relationships develop in stages. Where you and your partner are can help you gauge the level of support you need. This isn’t just time-based either. Sometimes, a long-standing issue is a better sign than the length of a marriage.
These are five good indicators that it may be time to invest in couples therapy.
1. There’s an issue you want to work through
You might have heard the saying, “Arguments are healthy in a relationship” before. While it’s true that no couple is immune to conflict, there’s nuance to this. Conflict itself isn’t a sign of a healthy relationship. It’s often a product of different people learning to live in close proximity.
The ability to work through issues in a way where you both feel supported is the sign of a positive partnership. Likewise, if you find that arguments tend to leave you drained without ever being fixed, couples counseling can help in three ways.
- It lets you talk through issues in a neutral space
- Shoulder-to-shoulder discussions lower the emotional stakes
- A neutral moderator keeps conversations on track
In unison, these three benefits make it easier to talk through issues without escalating the conflict.
2. There are skills you want to learn
Even when there isn’t a single issue to address, you may find that you or your partner lack certain skills. There’s an art to communicating, even about mundane things. Creating a home environment where each spouse feels safe enough to be vulnerable is a skill in itself.
Other relationship skills are more specialized. For example, a partner with past relationship trauma may need more support from a new partner. Transitioning from an abusive partner to a loving and caring one takes work.
Education is one of the best reasons to seek out therapy because it’s proactive. It gives you time to work on things while they’re small and manageable.
3. There are behaviors you want to address
Where skills can be learned, negative behaviors need to be unlearned. How one partner reacts to conflict can impact the relationship more than the issue itself. The same can be said for how issues are brought up between partners.
The Gottman Institute defines criticism as an “ad hominem attack on your partner’s character.” This is when – instead of addressing specific actions – the entire person becomes the issue.
While it’s important to bring up valid complaints, criticism attacks a partner’s character. This triggers another behavior – defensiveness. This negative feedback loop makes it that much harder to work through conflict without pushing each other away.
4. When a relationship changes
Hypothetically, let’s say everything in the relationship is near-perfect. Your partner communicates well with you and vice versa. You create a loving environment you enjoy spending time in together. When issues come up, you engage in a calm, focused manner.
Would there still be a benefit to seeking a relationship therapist? Depending on the circumstance, yes. A settled relationship with a loving partner is something worth maintaining, but relationships aren’t static. Life-changing moments – like one partner proposing – can throw a few curveballs.
When a relationship moves into a new environment, partners need to navigate different terrain. The four most common relationship issues even happy couples face are:
- Work stress
When a relationship moves from one phase to the next, at least one of these issues changes too. Planning a wedding might present a new level of financial stress. Moving in with a long-distance partner means sharing new household responsibilities. With a new job comes new stressors, and so on.
Here’s the good news: all of these problems are solvable. You may not have the tools now, but a relationship therapist does. Investing in premarital counseling, for example, has long-term benefits throughout a marriage.
The trick is to recognize the implications of a changing relationship.
5. When a relationship ends
Finally, how valuable is a relationship therapist after a breakup? Depending on the relationship you’re leaving, they can be invaluable. Healing from a toxic relationship is important for your current health and happiness. The empathy, insights, and support you get from therapy also help with building fulfilling relationships in the future.
For many people, divorce doesn’t always mean the end of a relationship. Ex-spouses with kids need to find a way to co-parent after the marriage dissolves. The benefit of relationship counseling often extends beyond romance. It can be a key part of maintaining a caring support system, healthy social life, family ties, etc.
How often should you go to couples therapy?
As the age-old saying goes: it depends. The timeline for therapy has as many variables as your motivation for seeking it out. Your goals, needs, and scale of the issue all play a role. They also dictate the method and best practices a therapist will use, and which steps they’ll recommend.
Generally, though, there are a few overlapping principles couples should be aware of. They don’t determine how many sessions you need, but they can guide you to the most valuable outcomes. Let’s break down three crucial facts about therapy timelines.
Most of the benefits aren’t in the first session
When it comes to getting professional help, the most important step you can take is the first one. That said, mental health is a journey, one that’s unique to every person. For individuals and couples, the first therapy session isn’t for resolutions, generally. What do we mean by this?
Well, three things. First, your therapist needs to spend a little time getting to know you and your partner. Second, the first session can often be the most uncomfortable, especially for first–time couples. Third, therapy should be timely but never rushed.
Many therapists use the first session to get a better understanding of the issue they’re being asked to help with. They’ll ask questions, but they’ll also study how partners interact with each other non-verbally.
Building a report can also settle nerves in partners who are skeptical, shy, or hesitant to open up.
Ending your therapy is as impactful as when you start
Ending your couples counseling before an issue is resolved can create complications. Talking about difficult topics, especially with a loved one, takes emotional labor. Often, couples need to work to get to the heart of the issue before healing can start.
If you only attend enough sessions to root out issues, you’re cutting off support when it’s most needed. Therapists don’t just give you tools to practice at home, they ensure that you leave sessions in a better place together. They ensure that you don’t take arguments home.
Couples therapy doesn’t always end prematurely for the same reason, either. A partner may suddenly decide they no longer want to attend sessions. Something external may impact your budget, limiting which services you can afford.
Relocating, breaking up, and scheduling conflicts can take things out of your control sometimes. Don’t worry, though. There are ways around each obstacle.
Online therapy has helped many couples connect with their therapists remotely. It can offer financial benefits too and is the easiest option for a couple’s busy schedule. Whatever happens, the goal is to make sure you get the help you need fully.
Issue-based vs. ongoing counseling
Finally, you may want to continue getting couples counseling beyond the initial reason. Some couples opt for ongoing counseling to help them navigate longer periods or larger factors.
A relationship therapist can offer weekly or monthly check-ups in the first year of marriage, offering proactive advice to newlyweds. LGBTQ+ couples may want ongoing support around struggles they face in everyday life.
Therapy doesn’t just save rocky relationships. It provides incredible guidance for all couples willing to work together and support each other.
What if my partner doesn’t want to go?
As mentioned, a partner not wanting to go to therapy can create issues midway through counseling. If they don’t even want to start, it can be that much more frustrating. So what can you do?
The first step is to establish why they don’t want to go. If they’re anxious about sharing intimate details with a stranger, that’s something therapists are trained to help with. If they’re reluctant or skeptical about the benefits, that’s another conversation. If they don’t think there’s an issue in the first place, that’s worth examining too.
Couples therapy needs both partners to commit to the process. That means committing to the relationship and what it needs to thrive. Hesitation, anxiety, and skepticism can be worked through if a partner just doesn’t know enough to be confident.
Ambivalence, denial, and a lack of effort are harder to work through. These mindsets limit how effective counseling can be. Ultimately, the one who suggests therapy needs to figure out what their partner’s attitude says about their relationship.
What’s the success rate of couples counseling/therapy
For couples that are committed to therapy, honest about problems, and receptive to feedback – the success rate is incredibly high. Those are all indicators that you’re coming into sessions with the right attitude.
The therapy model used is another variable for success, and this one comes down to your therapist’s experience, knowledge, and skillset. We use the Gottman method of couples therapy for many of our clients.
Beyond the success we’ve seen, numerous studies have shown its effectiveness in the field. A study on the outcomes of Gottman Couple Therapy found:
“The Gottman Method for Healthy Relationships helps couples to be able to manage marital relationships and develop problem-solving skills.”
For couples, these skills had positive effects on their:
- Emotional stability
- Level of peace
Marriage life has its ups and downs and it’s important for couples to know that it’s normal to seek help when their relationship is at stake. Our team of experts is more than happy to assist you. Schedule an appointment and let’s talk.