Couples therapy can be beneficial for working through a multitude of challenges. You both can move past obstacles during the process, if you know what to look for.

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If you’re having challenges in your relationship, you might choose to look into couples therapy. A skilled couples therapist can help you increase your overall relationship satisfaction.

Navigating what to expect from couples counseling may bring up feelings of anxiety for you or your partner. It can be mortifying to bring up your true feelings with a third party.

Not every couple who attends therapy stays together. But there are ways to prepare yourselves for couples therapy to help you — and your partner — get the most out of it.

Of note

Many clinical experts agree that abusive relationships do not benefit from couples therapy.

It’s first recommended to find safety and support. Then individual therapy is suggested before couples therapy is considered.

If you need to remove yourself from an abusive partnership, help is standing by.

You can contact the Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 by text, call, or live chat.

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If you’re looking to improve your relationship through couples counseling, it’s essential to be open-minded and honest going to your first session. Identifying feelings about your relationship and what you want to improve will allow your therapist to help you to the best of their ability.

What to say in couples counseling

  • State your feelings openly and honestly. Problems can be addressed best by candidly communicating.
  • Tell your therapist what you want out of therapy. It may surprise you to know that what you want (or how to achieve it) might not be clear to your partner.
  • Discuss how the challenges in the relationship have affected you. It may not be apparent to your partner. Thorough communication with your partner and therapist can help you move forward.

What not to say in couples counseling

  • Don’t ask your therapist to keep secrets from your partner. Keeping secrets hinders growth and damages trust.
  • Don’t use words such as “you always” or “you never. Superlatives are rarely accurate, and you run the risk of gaslighting your partner (manipulating their emotions, memories, or opinions).
  • Don’t hide what’s really going on. Addressing the root issues can help you heal.
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Some roadblocks may occur when working on your relationship. However, overcoming hindrances may allow you to reap some of the benefits that couples therapy has to offer, such as:

Inflexible expectations

If you’re approaching therapy from the viewpoint that your therapist can fix your partner’s behaviors or wipe out wrongs from the past, it may be time to get more realistic about your expectations.

A therapist can’t fix your partner — or you.

You may demand that your partner change immediately, which isn’t reasonable. Instead, it’s helpful to view your work together as a long-term process.

A 2020 study about helping couples navigate stressors through COVID-19 suggests focusing on what you can control rather than what you feel like your partner “should” do.

Pro tip

“It’s OK for people to change; we just have to be open to accepting that our partners have as much of a right to change as we do. We need to help foster growth, not avoid it,” says Adam Hewitt, a social worker and licensed online counselor in Nevada, Missouri.

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Denying your role

There are usually recognizable behavioral patterns in a relationship that lead to relationship challenges. Issues in relationships are hardly ever the fault of one person in the connection — as they say, it takes two to tango.

Pro tip

Paula Fistein, a counselor in West Palm Beach, Florida, says, “I start by educating the couple on teamwork. To view their relationship as a unity, I help them to start working together to problem-solve their conflicts rather than see each other as the problem.”

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Keeping secrets

Secret-keeping can be a barrier to achieving a stronger connection with your partner. If you keep secrets from your partner in therapy, that can damage the relationship and stall progress.

Hidden problems that may arise or present challenges include:

  • infidelity
  • addiction
  • doubts about the relationship
  • divergence on big issues, such as family planning or religion

A 2020 review of couples therapy and interventions mentions that couples who experience infidelity divorce at high rates, and the rate becomes higher if it isn’t disclosed in treatment.

Pro tip

Expressing yourself on tough issues can be challenging. But don’t despair — it gets easier with practice.

You don’t have to divulge every thought to your partner, but you might allow therapy to be a space for sharing your truth.

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Not practicing what you’ve learned

It’s common to get frustrated when you don’t see changes. Sometimes the lack of change is due to not applying some of the suggestions or skills you’ve heard from your therapist.

Skilled therapists teach evidence-based approaches, but if you’re shut down and don’t apply them, you may not see the changes you hoped for.

Pro tip

Jenny Wright-Hewitt, a social worker in Nevada, Missouri says, “Doing the work that you make a commitment to do is one of the most important pieces.”

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Being complaint- vs. solution-focused

It’s easy to get caught up in wanting changes to occur so badly that complaining to your partner, nagging, or demanding may be common behaviors. But those behaviors may inhibit you from growth.

Finding ways to work together as a team and come up with creative solutions to problems rather than making complaints that go nowhere may be a more effective way to take care of conflicts and disagreements.

Pro tip

Sometimes, couples get very caught up in the “who” and “what” of the events for which they’re coming to therapy. Instead, you might want to ask yourself, “What can I do to make this relationship better?”

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Waiting too long to seek relationship therapy

Sometimes couples wait too long to seek out relationship help. This may be due to stigma, financial challenges, or difficulty finding a good fit. Other times, it can be a last effort to salvage the relationship.

After studying thousands of couples and finding the same commonalities in relationships that ultimately ended, Dr. John Gottman, a famous psychologist and couples researcher, determined that when four behaviors are present in a union, it may be time to seek immediate help.

The behaviors, which he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” are:

Addressing these behaviors is crucial to keeping the relationship. A couples therapist can teach strategies to correct these behaviors.

Pro tip

“It’s never too late to make the decision to go to couples therapy. Just because a couple puts off going to therapy doesn’t mean it isn’t salvageable,” says Wright-Hewitt.

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If you both have agreed that couples counseling is right for you, you may be wondering what to expect or what to do in couples therapy. A couples therapist will most likely gather background information from you and your partner in the first session, so it might help to start thinking back.

They may ask you to recount how you met or what attracted each of you to the other. (Gottman teaches that couples who negatively recall “The Story of Us” usually have some combination of the Four Horsemen present in their relationship.)

A counselor might also have you two to discuss your strengths, the problems, and what you each hope to get out of therapy.

A good couples therapist will help you set goals for your work together. Your therapist may ask you both to try some activities at home or use techniques that you’ve learned in between sessions. Being willing to try new approaches is helpful.

Couples therapy is a beneficial choice for many couples and can provide benefits if you’re willing to do the work.

Identifying and recognizing common obstacles and preparing yourself ahead of time allows you to get the most out of your relationship and your work in therapy.