How Relationship Counselling Can Help Bring Couples Closer
Although I see more and more couples attend therapy in my practice, there is certainly still some stigma around attending. Individuals can feel very exposed and vulnerable attending couples therapy as it can bring up shame and worry about what it says about us as a couple if we need help. The way I see it, no wonder relationships can be tricky at time, bringing together two very unique individuals with different family upbringings, cultures, belief systems, needs and ways of seeing the world. Most commonly our partner can’t avoid but hit on our triggers or emotional buttons which pre-exist the relationship (and often come about from childhood trauma). Couples counselling or therapy can help with greater awareness of self and partner, and therefore break patterns of conflict and create greater intimacy through the practice of talking, sharing more deeply, and being vulnerable. It is this vulnerability to creates compassion and can bring a couple closer. Here I answer some common questions about couples therapy, including what to expect and when it helps.
What Exactly is Relationship Counselling?
Relationship Counselling is referred to as couples counselling, couples therapy, or relationship therapy. Relationship counselling is conducted by someone who has specific training working with couples, as working with a couple is quite a different process to working with individuals. In couples therapy, I must hold two separate individuals in mind, create a relationship with each individual, understand what each individual brings to the relationship (upbringing, previous relationship history, trauma, mental health conditions, and other stressors) and the dynamic that this creates between the two. I must hold balance in the session, and be empathic and focused on each individuals’ feelings and needs. I often bring their past into the present, and understand how it plays out in the current couple dynamic. Relationship counselling will therefore involve psycho-education (providing psychological information about couples, patterns or conflict, emotions, and attachment or bonding science), lots of validating and open, reflective questions to allow the couple to develop awareness and empathy. Relationship Counselling is built on a foundation of empathy and building rapport with the couple, helping to de-escalate conflict in the room, reflect back observed patterns of communication (such as defensiveness and criticism), and suggesting alternative ways of communication (validation, reflective listening, and empathy is often missing when a couple has been in conflict). A therapist, counsellor, or psychologist can conduct couples therapy, however, it is essential to check that your therapist is appropriately trained and qualified, as couples therapy training is not included in all study pathways.
When Should I Seek Out Relationship Counselling?
Relationship Counselling, in my mind, can be sought out at any stage of a relationship, and often the sooner the better. Relationship expert John Gottman says that couples tend to wait six years of being unhappy before seeking couples counselling. Signs that it could be time to consider couples therapy are frequent and regular conflict that doesn’t ever get solved, strong feelings of anger and resentment towards your partner, feelings of exhaustion and burnout, feeling as if you are walking on eggshells and cannot say how you feel, a loss of desire for your partner, decreased sex and intimacy, having doubts about the future of the relationship, prolonged distance, withdrawal and a lack of connection, as well as sadness, increased crying, sleepless nights, or a lack of joy and enthusiasm about the relationship. Couples counselling can assist with the decision of whether it is viable to stay together, and if each of your needs for a relationship can be met, as well as supporting you to separate amicably. What I value most about couples therapy is the opportunity it provides you to gain insight about your relationship patterns and behaviours, and to truly understand your part in a relationship dynamic. Whether you end up staying together or not, couples counselling or therapy allows you to know yourself and your relationship patterns more and to work on these. It is my hope for couples that they come early on when recognising signs of discontent as that often results in a better outcome. Ongoing conflict can rev up your nervous system and impact your sense of self and optimism for relationships, therefore, seeking help early is important to avoid this damage. If you are feeling physically or emotionally unsafe with a partner it is even more important that you get help. A skilled couples counsellor, psychologist or therapist is trained to assess safety (including domestic violence). A skilled couples therapist would see you as a couple and also individually (my standard practice) to assess what is happening, and the best plan forward, which includes developing a safety plan. Couples therapy is not indicated to continue when there is violence present. I’m happy to talk through the specifics of this if you make contact.
Common issues that benefit from couples counselling
· A lack of emotional closeness or vulnerability; more typically one partner tends to withdraw or shutdown when distressed, which can trigger a lot of anxiety in a partner.
· Negotiating how you spend your time together as a couple, including managing seeing your wider family as a couple. Sometimes couples can benefit from help developing boundaries with extended family and managing pressures from extended family.
· Infidelity, or betrayal, whether emotional and/or physical. What is important here is coming to therapy to understand how and why this happened, and if things can be repaired.
· Feeling more like ‘flatmates’ than partners or lovers; life can be busy and stressful, which can impact intimacy, and couples therapy can help provide solutions to rebuilding your connection and sparking desire again.
· Seeing your lives going in different directions or having different values. Couples counselling can help facilitate conversations about what your values truly mean, to see if there is a path forward that allows for a compromise where each partner is happy. Sometimes I find a compromise can be made once communication is warmer and empathic, and you have a deeper understanding of your partner’s dreams. Of course there are times when values are too different and can result in a loss of yourself, and so couples counselling can support you through this.
· Constant conflict whereby an expression of needs or feelings is perceived as criticism, and so cycles of criticism and defensiveness follow. This is probably the most common presentation I see, and so we work through building empathy for your partner, and maintaining your self-worth. i.e. when my partner expresses a need or feeling, they are not calling me a ‘bad partner’, they’re asking for what is important to them
· The decision to have children or adjusting to parenthood. Couples therapy can be a place to assess the strengths of your relationship and readiness to be parents, or to express beliefs and feelings around parenthood.
· Couples counselling can also support you to have conversations about whether to open up the relationship. This is not my area of expertise, however, I’d be happy to refer you to someone who specialises in this.
· Discussing readiness to get married and start a family. Sometimes individuals and couples have fear or anxiety around repeating patterns from the family they grew up in, and so couples counselling provides a space to work through these emotions.
· As above, couples counselling can include premarital counselling, which can work through understanding family and cultural differences, problem-solving, heathy communication styles, the impact of mobile phones and technology on relationships and intimacy, your love languages, financial planning and family planning.
· I also see couples where one or both partners (often a woman) feels she is carrying the emotional labour of the house, and resentment builds. We work through helping her express her feelings and get her needs met. Also to understand that often the emotional labour she carries is a product of upbringing, society and culture.
What Therapy or Modality is Most Effective in Couples Therapy?
There is a very strong scientific evidence base for Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy created by Susan Johnson, which is based on understanding adult attachment theory and bonding, and the role of emotions in creating a secure, safe relationship. There is a good description of Emotionally Focused Therapy here.
Gottman Relationship Therapy is also highly evidence-based and known to have good outcomes for couples. Gottman’s therapy includes correcting communication patterns, building a solid base of friendship, respect and admiration, creating positive sentiment rather than cycles of negativity, accepting influence from your partner, and understanding their dreams. You can read more about Gottman Relationship Therapy here.
My training included systemic couples and family therapy, Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples and Gottman’s Couples Therapy. I also enjoying using skills from Imago Therapy, which helps with empathy and mirroring communication. You can read more about it here , on this practical, detailed worksheet.
How To Find A Relationship Therapist
It’s important that your couples therapist is appropriately trained, either with a degree in counselling or psychology from an accredited institute or university. You can search for a therapist trained in the Gottman method or Emotionally Focused Therapy via an online search. It is also important that when you meet the therapist you feel that you have been understood, that your concerns have been taken seriously and listened to with warmth and empathy. What’s critical for me is that you feel at ease, and that the therapist is transparent about the likely therapeutic work involved and outcomes. Couples therapy isn’t always a brief intervention; some couples I would see for a handful of sessions and others I can see on a fortnightly basis for a year or more. What matters is that you are feeling there is change in the right direction.
Does Online Relationship or Couples Counselling Help?
After Covid, I have worked with an increasing about of individuals and couples online. My experience is that this works really well, and much like in the therapy room. A good therapeutic rapport is very important here.
What To Expect In Couples Therapy
Couples therapists can work in similar ways. When I begin to work with a couple, I see them for an initial session together, and then have an individual session each. This is my preference as it helps establish a good understanding of each individual and build a therapeutic rapport, and I get both their individual and couple story to work with. In these sessions, I assess family upbringing, relationships with parents, relationship and dating history, the strengths and qualities of the couple and their struggles. I may begin to assess their pattern of conflict, emotions, attachment styles, and sense of hope and optimism or willingness to work on the relationship. This provides me with the information I need to begin to develop a treatment plan with treatment goals and to decide which interventions will be of most benefit to the couple.
At later stages, couples therapy can be about supporting you to express your more vulnerable feelings, deescalate conflict and anger, and build more intimacy and connection.
What Makes Couples Counselling Effective?
Couples therapy works when each individual is willing, motivated and ready to work on their relationship. This means trying to remain grounded, keeping an open-mind and being willing to see your part in the dynamic. Couples therapy should be a blame-free zone, and instead you show up and accept responsibility for your part, and be accountable to change. It also involves being open to increased vulnerability for the sake of connecting to your partner, and therefore being willing to sit with some discomfort when your partner expresses their unhappiness or concerns. It can feel upsetting of course, but does tend to get easier with the course of sessions, and for many it can be quite a relief to express themselves fully and be heard in a safe space. Both partners must be willing to show up, and make some commitment to a more intensive therapy. A good therapist will reflect back the change that is happening, and with improvements is likely to suggest spacing out therapy sessions. What’s most important is that you practise the skills gained from therapy outside of sessions. This can include letting go of defensiveness, self-soothing anger, practicing your love languages (see here), providing empathy rather than solutions, planning dates or quality time together, talking about your dreams and values, practicing touch and intimacy, understanding attachment styles, and addressing your own self-worth.
What If My Partner Doesn’t Attend Couples Counselling or Therapy?
This can be a tough situation, and sometimes just sharing your own positive experiences of therapy can help. Try and understand and really hear your partner’s concerns; sometimes a partner can worry that they will be blamed, or they don’t feel optimistic about the process. In the event that they don’t attend, I’d still encourage you to show up so that you can explore your own thoughts and feelings around the relationship, and see if there is any work you can do individually to help the relationship. Sadly sometimes a partner not attending therapy may mean they’re not willing to work on the relationship, and so you may benefit from working through the feelings this brings up for you, and how to best end the relationship.
I hope these little insights into the world of relationship therapy and couples counselling were helpful and please don’t hesitate to reach out via email if I can help. I would be pleased to assist and am grateful to be able to support couples and individuals to have happier, healthier, more secure relationships. I work both online and in Randwick, Sydney, where I provide couples counselling and relationship therapy, as well as see individuals for relationship and dating specific coaching.