A Comprehensive Guide
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. Despite the widespread belief that healthy relationships never experience conflict, this is all normal.
The key to creating a healthy and happy relationship 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. 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—a couples or relationship therapist. This is where Thriveworks couples therapy comes in and makes all the difference.
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, and 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 — the job of a couples therapist 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 couples counselors’ approaches may vary, couples therapy sessions often involve the following elements, among others:
- A focus on specific issues, such as jealousy, codependency, and dissatisfied sex life, along with many other specific relationship issues.
- Change-oriented interventions, which help 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.
What Do Couples Do in Therapy?
In couples therapy, each partner will typically attend sessions together, whether they meet virtually or in person. And in addition to regular couples therapy sessions, they may both be asked to attend a few individual sessions to supplement their progress. 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.
By addressing both individual needs, as well as the relationship’s, a therapist can help you to better express your feelings, discuss issues with your partner, and resolve conflicts.
What Are the Different Types of Couples Counseling?
As we mentioned above, the approaches of couples counselors may vary, because many different types of relationship counseling methods can be utilized in sessions. The couples therapists at Thriveworks pull from different methods, including the Gottman method (as developed by John Gottman). These decisions are based on the couples’ specific needs in order to lead both individuals to a successful outcome.
Here are 5 of the most common and effective approaches to couples therapy:
- The Gottman method: This approach was developed by John 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 horsemen” — 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 for couples, but also for individual 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.
- Emotionally-focused therapy: As you can probably guess, emotionally-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 emotionally-focused therapy help their clients dig deeper 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 (SFT): If there are one or two main problems that you and your partner are hoping to address in couples therapy, SFT 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).
At Thriveworks, our therapists utilize many different therapeutic approaches—these details are often available in their biographies. And they’ll be more than happy to address your questions via email, telephone, or even during your first couples therapy session.
What Kind of Therapist Is Best for Couples?
As you can tell from the list above, there are numerous therapeutic approaches that couples therapists can take—and their methodology will depend on your:
- Personal and shared goals
- Their professional experience and counseling preferences
- The issues at play in your relationship
There’s no best therapist; instead, what’s most important is that both partners feel comfortable and are able to trust their couples therapist to help them address and manage their concerns.
Who Should Talk to a Couples Therapist?
If there are areas of your relationship that could be improved (which, let’s be honest, is true for all of our relationships), you should consider talking to a couples therapist at Thriveworks and making those improvements with professional assistance. 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
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.
Should Couples Who Are Dating Go to Counseling?
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 five months are welcome in couples therapy and are capable of improving their relationship. Besides mutual attraction and trust, relationships also rely on trust and respectful communication—qualities that can be enhanced and improved at any point in a relationship’s timeline.
How Many Couples Stay Together After Couples Therapy?
According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), almost 90% of clients notice improvements in their emotional health after the completion of couples therapy. Long-term divorce or break-up rates vary, though divorce statistics indicate slightly more than half of all married couples split. Thankfully, marriage and couples counseling may affect the long-term outcome of a marriage.
It’s reported that emotionally-focused therapy (EFT) has one of the highest success rates, with 75% of couples reporting that it helped salvage their relationship or at least improved communication and satisfaction. A study that followed up with 32 couples, two years after ending sessions, reported that the benefits gained from EFT couples counseling were still significant, and led to continued relationship satisfaction and secure attachment styles.
Can Couples Counseling Make Things Worse?
There is no statistically significant evidence that suggests couples counseling can worsen a relationship’s health or existing dynamics. That’s because couples counseling is focused on highlighting the positive, supportive aspects of both partners, while skillfully and empathetically addressing the changes that need to be made. What is important though, is that both partners are willing to give couples counseling a try—without equal partner engagement, the relationship is likely not to improve for either individual.
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 couples counseling 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.