There seem to be 3 main categories of couples who end up seeking counseling: the high conflict couple, the couple that has experienced a betrayal and the cold and distant couple.
In relationships with high conflict, even how the towels are folded becomes an issue. Every couple has conflict; what sets the happy couples apart from the unhappy couples is the way they manage the conflicts. If you have fallen into a pattern of passive aggressive comments, arguments that seem to happen repeatedly without a resolution, cycles of criticism and defensiveness or you and your partner go days without talking after a disagreement, you may be considering going to a counselor to improve the relationship.
A betrayal can be any kind of insult to the integrity and commitment of the relationship. This may range from taking the side of a family member instead of your partner in a conflict to lying or flirtatious behaviors to infidelity. If there has been a betrayal in the relationship (even if the betrayal was years ago) one partner or the other may be harboring resentment or trust issues that need to be resolved. A betrayal is always a sign of deeper problems in the relationship. A note of caution: couple’s counseling is not effective if there is an ongoing extramarital affair.
The cold and distant couple is on a subtle track to divorce. This may be the couple that just never talks. Maybe the couple has children and the only time they are together is with the children. This is the couple that may not have any conflict, but they have lost their passion and connection over time. If you haven’t gone on a date in more than two months, you have sex rarely, and you can’t remember the last time you hung out with your partner and just spoke… it may be time to come to come to counseling to rekindle the friendship and connection in your relationship.
Common Issues to Address in Couples Counseling
- Feeling Distant
- Dissatisfaction with Frequency/Quality of Sex Life
- High Conflict
- Co-parenting Challenges
- Blended Families
- Conflicting Life Goals or Values
- Difficulty Managing Stressors
- Past Betrayals
- Communication Struggles
How to find an effective couples counselor
- Make sure the counselor has training in a specific relationship/marital modality. There are many ways to become a counselor- you may be exploring Psychology Today and see different letters after the professional’s name. These letters could mean many things but don’t indicate specialized training for working with couples. Just because a counselor writes in their profile that they “specialize” in couples counseling, does not mean they have the training and skills to be effective with couples counseling.
- Find a counselor whose case load is at least 50% marital/couples counseling. The more a professional works with a particular population the more the professional has learned through experience and dedicates their practice to that specialty.
- The counselor should encourage the couple to interact with each other versus communicating through the counselor. It isn’t important that your therapist understand your perspective, it’s important that your PARTNER does.
What to expect in couples counseling
I provide a thorough assessment of the couple before doing any kind of interventions. It is important for me to understand each partner’s family history, past relationships, values and goals for the counseling. I like to do the evaluation in 4 stages:
- The first session: An evaluation of the couple including the history of the relationship. This helps me to understand the strengths and struggles of the couple and how the past has impacted the current state of the relationship. During this first session, I always ask the couple to engage in a conversation with each other for 10 minutes about a conflict they have.
- The couple is sent home with an in-depth questionnaire done online through the Gottman Institute.
- I meet each partner individually to clinically assess each partner’s family history, past relationships, values and goals for the counseling.
- Then we meet again with the couple together so I can put all the assessment information together and present the tailored treatment plan to the couple.
After the in-depth assessment, the couple and therapist meet weekly for hour long sessions to learn and practice interventions to improve their conflict management skills, increase their friendship and intimacy, heal past hurts, and more depending on the needs of that couple.
You should expect homework! It took years to create unhealthy patterns, so it is unrealistic to think that only one hour per week of work on your relationship can turn it around. Your counselor will give you the tools to fix your marriage, but it is up to you whether you use them or not.
Typically, couples see their counselor weekly for 3-4 months then move to monthly maintenance sessions for 4 months to avoid regressing back into old habits before discharging from therapy. Some of my past clients have found it helpful to come back for “booster” sessions when they go through a stressful time or feel they need a refresher.