When the Beatles wrote, “All you need is love à” they should have added, “and the wisdom to work through tough times, even if it means seeking professional help.” This is because counseling can be a relationship-saving resource for couples. Couples counseling is also known as marriage counseling or marriage therapy when the two people involved are married.
When Counseling Can Help
Perhaps blowups between you and your partner are occurring more regularly. Or ongoing sticky issues and irritations are causing increased tension and resentment. If you have had little success working through relationship issues, find yourselves avoiding each other, or using hostile words or actions that cause emotional or physical hurt, professional counseling may help.
Sleep or sexual problems, extreme moodiness or feelings of dissatisfaction, loneliness, sadness or failure also can be clues that something is wrong. Couples counseling can uncover the underlying issues.
There may be external factors that can add stress to your relationship, including:
- Birth or adoption of a child
- Chronic illness or disability
- Substance abuse
- Financial problems
- Career pressures
Professional counseling can help you learn coping strategies for such periods of transition or stress.
Finding a Therapist
Your local mental health association, family doctor, clergy or friends are good referral sources. Look for someone whose education and training best fits your needs and situation. For example, a gay couple may benefit from a counselor experienced in dealing with gay/lesbian issues. Make sure your chosen therapist is licensed by the state or accredited by a professional organization.
What to Expect from Therapy
Most couples meet with their therapist once a week for about an hour each session. Generally, therapy lasts for about 12 to 20 sessions. During the first session, the therapist will review the therapeutic process, confidentiality and cost. She will become acquainted with you and your partner and the problems that brought you to counseling. She will ask many questions to understand your lives and relationship as best as possible. Both you and your partner should feel comfortable talking with your counselor.
Couples counseling is different than family therapy or individual psychotherapy. In family therapy, the focus is on helping the family figure out the large problems within the entire family (including children), and helping them to find fixes (such as improving communication). In individual psychotherapy, the focus is on a single person. While that person may talk about their relationships in session, the relationships are not usually the primary focus of the counseling.
The Couples Counseling Process
For the first several sessions, the therapist will attempt to evaluate your relationship. She will try to figure out:
- What keeps you together
- What stresses your relationship
- The nature of your conflicts
- Behavioral and communication patterns
- Your strengths and weaknesses
- The power structure
- What qualities are missing or dysfunctional in your relationship
She also will study you as individuals.
Together, the two of you and your therapist will set realistic goals, which could be anything from learning how to be empathetic to figuring out new ways to negotiate problems to deciding how to share household and parental responsibilities. Your counselor will use a variety of therapeutic techniques until your goals are met or until you reach a point where either you or the therapist wants to terminate treatment.
Responsibility of the Couple
Ideally, both you and your partner will seek professional help together. But, therapy can have positive outcomes even if only one of you is willing to attend. Most important, however, is your willingness to be honest and to make changes. Although your therapist can provide direction, you are responsible for acting on such guidance. By doing so, you will enjoy improved interaction and renewed enthusiasm for your relationship.
Want to Learn More?
In August 2007, the New York Times Magazine published a detailed account of couples going through marriage counseling that’s well worth a read.