September 22, 2022

Does Couples Counseling Work?

by | Sep 22, 2022 | Family Issues

Yes. But here’s what you need to know.

Are you considering seeking couples counseling for relationship problems? You’re in good company. Now, more than ever, couples of all different backgrounds are seeking treatment to improve their communication, strengthen intimacy, and increase their overall satisfaction.

Research shows that the average couple waits far too long to get help. Dr. John Gottman, a researcher and psychologist with an emphasis in marital therapy, states that people typically experience six years of unhappiness and resentment before meeting with a professional.

If you feel like you and your partner need some additional support, couples counseling can help. Here’s what you need to know.  

What Types of Issues Do Couples Counselors Treat?

Every relationship is different, so no two couples counseling sessions look identical. With that said, counselors typically focus on some common goals when working with their clients. 

Boundaries: Even if you don’t explicitly state them to your partner, your boundaries refer to what you will and will not tolerate. These limits can be physical, emotional, spiritual, or financial. It’s important for couples to understand each other’s boundaries and communicate about them on an ongoing basis. Many times, conflicts emerge when one partner consistently oversteps or disregards another person’s boundaries

Trust: Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship. Issues like infidelity or lying can impact trust, making it hard for partners to rely on one another. Couples therapy can help clients discuss barriers impacting trust and review steps for reestablishing it. 

Healthier communication: Even if they have the best intentions, people don’t always express their needs clearly. They may become dismissive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive when talking to their partners. Poor communication perpetuates conflict and makes it difficult for partners to feel safe with one another. Couples counseling can help people improve how they identify and articulate their feelings. It can also provide tools for helping people validate their partners. 

Coping with change and stress: All long-term couples experience ups and downs in their relationship. Life is never static, so it’s normal to change jobs, relocate, have children, or grieve the death of loved ones. But these changes can be particularly taxing on a couple. Couples counselors help people cope with these changes healthily- without projecting anger onto one another. 

Financial stress: 70% of couples have disagreed with their partner about money in the past year, and half of Americans state financial tension impacts the intimacy in their relationship.

Mental illness: People often feel helpless or afraid to help a partner struggling with a mental illness. They may worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. Couples counseling can provide education about mental illness. It can also give people tools for managing symptoms and holding one another appropriately accountable. 

Parenting: Becoming a parent is one of the most challenging transitions a couple can face. Sleep deprivation, discipline, postpartum hormones, financial stress- these are some of the common obstacles associated with a new baby. Couples counseling can help parents navigate parenting difficulties. In some cases, this work also includes co-parenting if the couple chooses to separate or divorce. 

Premarital concerns: Many couples counselors work with clients getting ready for marriage. Premarital counseling can help explore issues related to values, family, finances, intimacy, and planning a wedding. It can be extremely beneficial to work out these issues before taking the relationship to the next level. Doing so can ensure that marriage starts on an excellent, healthy foundation. 

What Happens During a Couples Counseling Session?

Couples counselors structure their sessions in various ways, but you should expect to spend your time discussing and assessing patterns in your relationship. 

Intake Process

First, your counselor will spend a few sessions really getting to know you both. This process is typically known as “intake” and “assessment.” During this time, you will all collaborate on beneficial treatment plan goals. Your counselor may review any previous couples work and also offer referrals for additional services, including individual therapy or support groups.

Like individual work, couples therapy is confidential. What you disclose in session remains private. Your counselor will review their specific privacy policy regarding secrets between partners. 

Some couples counselors work with couples individually. Others recommend and provide referrals for other providers. If that’s the case, you may sign a ‘release of authorization’ that allows each counselor to speak to one another to review your treatment. 

The Sessions 

It’s normal for some tension to arise during a session. You two will be talking about sensitive issues, and it may feel uncomfortable. At times, you may want to skip counseling altogether.

However, a skilled couples counselor will maintain house rules. For instance, they might insist that you avoid interrupting each other and speak calmly. They may also ask you to use I-statements to assert your feelings.

Your counselor will closely monitor and observe your relationship. They will assess specific behavioral patterns that happen within your dynamic. Then, they will share these patterns with you and discuss how they are impacting your emotional well-being. 

Finally, your counselor may assign homework. For example, you may be asked to spend more quality time together or complete certain intimacy exercises. It’s important to try to complete these assignments- doing so can help keep your treatment on track.

Length of Treatment and Termination 

The length of treatment will depend on your relationship, motivation for treatment, your provider’s approach to counseling, and session frequency. Most couples benefit from meeting once a week for a few months of treatment. 

Treatment typically ends once the couple has reached their goals. Of course, perfection is unattainable. However, you both should have a clear direction about how you will behave moving forward. 

What’s the Difference Between Couples Counseling and Sex Therapy?

Couples counseling can overlap with sex therapy. Both types of treatment often focus on barriers impacting intimacy and trust. Likewise, both treatments can lead to a healthier and more satisfying sex life.

But couples counseling is inherently broader. While a couple may want to improve their sex life, that isn’t always the main focus of treatment. Instead, it’s usually clustered in with other important goals.

Sex therapy, on the other hand, often focuses specifically on specific sexual problems or dysfunctions. This treatment is often recommended for clients experiencing issues like erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, or low libido. 

Sometimes sex therapy is solo, meaning that the client works with the therapist individually. This contrasts with couples counseling where both parties should attend sessions together. 

Can Couples Counseling Save a Relationship? 

Couples counseling helps clients understand one another better. Ideally, couples leave treatment feeling more supported and connected. They have a stronger grip on what needs to improve in the relationship- and what they can actually do to make those improvements. 

However, even the best couples counselor cannot “guarantee” any specific outcomes. Clients should be skeptical to work with any professional who makes such bold assumptions.

Having an objective, third-party professional offers specific tools and guidance. You and your partner will have a roadmap for how to solve problems in the future. But “saving” a relationship is a tall order, and both parties must be dedicated to putting in time and effort. 

A counselor cannot decide whether a couple should stay together. Only the two of you can make that decision. If you feel ambivalent about your relationship, you may want to consider discernment counseling, a type of treatment that helps couples decide whether or not they should stay committed to each other.

How Do You Broach the Idea of Couples Counseling?

Even if you think couples counseling is a good idea, how do you get your partner on board? Here are some tips to consider.

Ask during a neutral time: Even though you may feel tempted to discuss counseling during or just after a fight, try to resist this urge. It’s hard to have a rational discussion when your emotions are escalated. Instead, aim to be calm and cool when you discuss the topic. 

Acknowledge what you want to work on: Don’t just focus on what you want your partner to do differently. Make it a point to state what you want to change. For example, maybe you want support in being able to set boundaries. Or maybe you want to trust your partner more, but you feel scared because you were cheated on by an ex. 

Ask your partner to look for a counselor with you: Aim to make it a collaborative process. Ask them if they’d be willing to look for providers together.

Emphasize wanting to invest in the relationship: Reiterate that you value your partner and want to succeed together. Frame counseling as an opportunity for you both to grow and thrive. If you two have children, you can also emphasize the importance of wanting to be a united front. 

Ask if they are willing to try just one session: Some people feel overwhelmed by committing to the entire process of treatment. If you suspect that’s the case, ask your partner if they’d be willing to attend just one session with you. This allows them to “get a feel” for what to expect, and it may encourage them to continue going. 

What If Your Partner Won’t Attend Couples Counseling?

Despite your wishes, some people aren’t receptive to seeking counseling. Unfortunately, we still live in a time laden with treatment stigmas. Here’s what you can do. 

Get curious about their defensiveness: Learn more about their refusal. Are they concerned about the price? Do they worry it’s a waste of time? Are they operating from the belief that couples counseling is only for people facing a true emergency? Knowing their answer can help you feel more empathic and understanding. 

Don’t pressure them: It isn’t fair to force someone into counseling if they aren’t ready. Even if they do go to treatment, they may just sulk or disregard what the counselor says. Instead, try to respect your partner’s opinion and ask if they’d be willing to discuss the issue again in the future.

Ask if they are willing to try something else: Maybe they aren’t willing to attend couples counseling at this time. Would they consider trying individual therapy or attending a marriage retreat? Are they receptive to buying a couples therapy workbook and going through the exercises with you? Even if these alternatives aren’t exactly what you want, they may be a step in the right direction.

Get your own counseling: Even if your partner doesn’t want counseling, you can still benefit from going yourself. A therapist can help you explore your own difficulties in the relationship, and they will offer tools and support to help you grow individually. 

Be careful with ultimatums: In serious cases, you may decide to issue an ultimatum to your partner about going to counseling. However, you should choose this option if you are dedicated to implementing your boundary. Setting limits without following them through only conveys allows people to take advantage of you. 

Final Thoughts

Couples counseling can provide immense reassurance and relief for you and your partner. You don’t need to hit rock bottom to seek help. Many people find that speaking to a professional- even if things are going relatively well- is still beneficial. 

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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