A Guide to Couples Therapy
Romantic relationships are complicated, to say the least. Throughout their duration, we encounter a smorgasbord of emotions — from profound happiness and elation to unbelievable despair and anger, and everything in between. This, despite the popular belief that healthy relationships remain on the upside of emotions, is normal.
The key to creating a healthy and happy relationship that lasts is learning to navigate the ups and downs effectively, together. Common “downs” in relationships, otherwise known as relationship issues, are lack of trust and poor communication. Now sometimes, we’re able to work out these challenges with our partner, depending on their severity and our own abilities to communicate well (which, if your problem is poor communication, your abilities here probably aren’t great). But more often than not, we can better manage these problems with the help of a professional, unbiased third party. This is where couples therapy comes in and makes all the difference.
At Thriveworks, we employ our very own couples therapy curriculum: Sparkworks, an evidence-based program that provides that crucial expert relationship help and support. Tested by couples and led by skilled licensed professionals, Sparkworks helps clients manage their unique relationship issues and works to improve the overall foundation of their relationship.
What Exactly Is Couples Therapy?
First thing’s first: What exactly is couples therapy? Couples therapy, also known as couples counseling or relationship therapy, is a form of counseling that helps couples work through their relationship issues. When the couple is married, couples therapy might also be referred to as marriage counseling.
Couples therapy is, of course, led by licensed professionals — often Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) — who are experts in their field and equipped to help couples work through their unique challenges. This journey often involves tough, yet productive conversations about one’s relationship, which requires both partners to communicate in an honest but respectful manner.
If you’re worried about being completely open with your partner or communicating calmly, don’t be — a couples therapist’s job is to mediate these discussions. They can help you and your partner improve your communication skills so that you’re better able to understand, listen to, and talk with each other.
How Does Couples Counseling Work?
The short, simple answer is that couples therapy works by helping couples identify and manage their unique challenges. While a couples counselor’s approach may vary, couples therapy sessions typically revolve around three elements:
- A focus on specific issues, such as jealousy, codependency, or dissatisfied sex life.
- Change-oriented interventions, which will guide the two partners to better relationship satisfaction.
- A clear outline of treatment objectives to track progress and paint a clear picture of where the couple is headed.
In addition to regular couples therapy sessions, the couple may be asked to attend a few individual sessions. This will allow their counselor to get to know each individual better, assess each of their personal needs, and develop the best plan moving forward.
What Are the Different Types of Couples Counseling?
As we mentioned above, a couples counselor’s approach may vary — why? Because there are many different types of relationship counseling that can be utilized. The couples therapists at Thriveworks pull from different approaches to therapy, including the Gottman Method (as developed by John Gottman). These decisions are based on the couples’ specific needs, an essential component of Sparkworks that leads to successful outcomes.
Here are 5 of the most common and effective approaches to couples therapy:
- The Gottman Method: This approach was developed by John Gottman and Julie Gottman, based on 40 years of research findings related to behavioral patterns in both successful and unsuccessful relationships. The Gottman Method focuses on a few key behaviors that are detrimental to couples, which are deemed “the four horseman” — criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. If your couples counselor utilizes this method, you can expect to share some background on past relationships, discuss areas of contention, talk through triggers, find values you both share, and learn tools for managing present and future conflict.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): You’ve probably heard of CBT, as it’s one of the most common and effective approaches to therapy — not just couples therapy but individual therapy for issues like depression and anxiety. When it comes to CBT for couples, your therapist will help you and your partner identify your relationship issues and talk about them from your individual perspectives. Through CBT, you’ll be able to get to the root of the problem, dispel false beliefs, and develop more effective communication techniques.
- Emotion-Focused Therapy: As you can probably guess, emotion-focused therapy focuses on emotions. It’s easy to get caught up in a heated debate and call yourself angry — but in reality, there are likely other underlying emotions, such as fear or resentment. Couples therapists who use emotion-focused therapy help their clients dig deep and find these emotions that hide beneath the surface. Once these emotions are uncovered, the couple can address unmet needs and desires.
- Imago Relationship Therapy: This next approach to couples therapy explores pain and patterns that go beyond one’s current romantic relationship — it looks at a couple’s challenges as an outcome of any neglect from childhood or needs that went unmet. This neglect or these unmet needs lead to conflicts in one’s relationships later in life. If your couples therapist utilizes imago relationship therapy, they’ll help you and your partner explore your respective childhoods and understand how past experiences may have affected your current view of relationships. Then, they’ll guide you in correcting any unfair behaviors or negative feelings you’ve falsely attributed to your partner.
- Solution-Focused Therapy: If there are one or two main problems that you and your partner are hoping to address in couples therapy, solution-focused therapy is probably a good fit for you. Your couples therapist will help you envision and manifest the changes that you want to make in your relationship. They work with you and your partner to develop a plan with actionable steps that’ll help you accomplish your goal(s).
Who Should Talk to a Couples Therapist?
If there are areas of your relationship that could be improved (which, let’s be honest, this is true for all of our relationships), you should consider talking to a couples therapist at Thriveworks and making those improvements throughout the Sparkworks program.
Many of us have this idea that couples therapy is only for relationships that are hanging by a thread — but the reality is that couples therapy can help with big and small threats alike. Here are a few common relationship issues, both big and small, that couples counselors help their clients work through:
- Opposing values
- Different visions for the future
- Disagreements in parenting
- Lack of trust
- Financial distress
- Sex issues
You might run into any of the above problems early or late in your relationship. On any given timeline, couples therapy can help. Couples who have been married for 50+ years as well as those who’ve been dating for 5 months are welcome in couples therapy and capable of improving their relationship.
How to Encourage Your Partner to Give Couples Counseling a Try
Let’s get this out of the way: There is no “trick” for getting your partner to join you in couple counseling or marriage therapy. However, if your partner feels hesitant and needs encouragement, the following tips can help you encourage your spouse to explore the benefits of Sparkworks with you:
- Show signs of change, yourself. Oftentimes, when someone avoids couples counseling it’s because they don’t think it will be effective in facilitating real change in their partner or relationship. Counter this worry by helping your partner see that you’re not only willing to change but also that you have already begun improving yourself. Going to counseling on your own is a good way to show that you are serious about committing to a self-improvement process.
- Stress that you and your partner are in this together. Remind your partner that, while your relationship has difficulties, you want to work with him or her to improve the relationship together. Show solidarity and openness to doing whatever is necessary for a healthy, happy partnership.
- Explain to your partner that the counselor is a neutral party. If you have spoken with a couples counselor by telephone, or perhaps even met with a counselor in person, make sure that you stress their neutrality to your partner — explain that the counselor is by no means “on your side,” but will work with both of you impartially. Alternatively, offer to see a new couples counselor that neither of you has had contact with.
- Prompt them to consider the rewards of couples counseling. If you suggest couples counseling, your partner may have some resistance because it was “your idea.” Make couples counseling a shared idea by asking your partner, “Hypothetically, if we were to go to couples counseling, what would you most want to get out of our sessions?” This question may also help your partner to begin thinking about his or her potential gains from couples counseling.
- Talk about “even if.” Your partner may say that he or she doesn’t want to go to counseling because there is no hope for the relationship. You can respond to this argument by using “even if.” The idea here is that “even if” the relationship has “no hope,” counseling can still help the two of you to part on good terms and may help each of you to learn from the experience so that you don’t make similar mistakes in future relationships.
What Is the Sparkworks Curriculum?
When couples struggle, they often feel stuck, hopeless, or powerless over their ability to make positive changes in their relationship. In response, Sparkworks empowers couples to create the relationship outcomes that they desire.
To achieve this, we pulled insights and techniques from professional research and theories (including Rogerian and solution-focused therapy), evidence-based treatment methods (including emotion-focused therapy and the Gottman Method), and real clinical experiences.
Ultimately, Sparkworks is designed to help couples:
- Understand and view each other more positively
- Improve the way they experience and navigate conflict
- Implement solutions that improve overall relationship satisfaction
Throughout their couples therapy journey, partners will learn what healthy relationships look like and how to move through conflict to reach their desired outcomes in three phases of treatment and a total of 15 sessions:
Phase One: Priming for Success
- Establish rapport, trust, and hope
- Assess one’s relationship, including beliefs and Problem Patterns
- Identify relationship goals
- De-intensify perceptions of relationship problems
- Increase interpersonal understanding and Dyadic Positive Regard
Phase Two: Customizing Solutions
- Identify and practice new skills, behaviors, and pragmatic strategies
- Examine ineffective argument behaviors and the two types of problems
- Practice new ways to communicate and interact
- Identify the best ways of giving and receiving affection
- Explore conflict recovery and prevention
Phase Three: Protecting an Improved Relationship
- Accept the new status quo
- Normalize setbacks
- Begin relationship health monitoring
- Review strategies for keeping the relationship strong
- Create a better future together