Over the years, many people have asked me a lot of questions about couples counseling. For this column, I’ve boiled those questions down to three, which I call the ABCs of couples counseling:
A: What can it do for my partner and I (the possibilities)?
B: What should we expect (the content)?
C: When is the best time to start (the timing)?
At a 1995 workshop I attended, psychologist Stephen Levine said: “Being in a committed relationship is the most intense therapy possible, because it will bring up all your unresolved shit…even all that stuff you thought you’d handled.” As a psychotherapist, his statement hit me hard: “Really?” I wondered, “Is that true?”
Twenty-one years’ later, after working with hundreds of LGBT and straight couples, I can unequivocably say, “Yes, it’s true.” It’s a lot of work to create a happy, loving, ongoing relationship. There’s this illusion that, “once I find my soul mate, it will all be so easy”. Not true. If you’ve ever been in a relationship, you know that no matter how wonderful your partner is or was, that problems are inevitable:
You feel like your (formerly) loving, attentive partner doesn’t listen to you or respect you anymore
You’re both arguing and in conflict a lot
You feel disconnected, like you’re not in love anymore
There’s a lack of physical and verbal affection
Anger, an affair, jealousy or a lack of trust are hurting your relationship
“What can you do about this?” you may be asking. Let’s take a look at those ABC questions:
What can counseling do for my partner and I?
Most people want to know what’s possible as a result of investing their time and money in couples counseling. What are reasonable/realistic goals?
Better communication with your partner
Feeling loved and “in love” again
More physical and emotional intimacy
Disconnecting from your past history so you can create a new future together
Good couples counseling gives you and your partner the skills you need to improve your communication and connection as well as practical tools to solve problems and resolve conflict.
What should we expect?
Contrary to popular opinion, your initial experience with couples counseling may be one of discomfort. The counseling will probably bring issues to the surface that you and your partner have been avoiding for some time.
That said, there is often a palpable sense of relief that “the cards are on the table” and no more secrets are being kept. You don’t need to keep complaining to your best friend about your partner, now you can talk with her/him directly about what’s been bugging you. This is often accompanied by a huge drop in “relationship tension”: you can stop walking on eggshells around each other, carefully avoiding the issues that just drive you crazy. The door to happiness has been opened and, even if you can’t walk through it yet, you can see that possibilities are there.
It’s the job of the counselor to help you and your partner talk about difficult stuff. If you could do this on your own, you wouldn’t need counseling. The value of paying someone skilled in relationship psychology to help you is that they are getting paid to do the hard stuff: ask you about things that upset both of you, facilitate discussions between the two of you when you both want to wring each other’s necks and teach you skills that necessitate changing some of your old communication patterns that, in all honesty, you don’t really want to change.
Most of us want our partner to change, but we sure as hell don’t want to. This is normal. We think we’re right and he/she is wrong. In couples counseling, no one is wrong and no one is to blame. It’s a joint responsibility.
In couples counseling, it is the couple that is the focus of the therapy, not you and not her/him. A good counselor won’t take sides or get sucked into your story or your partner’s, the goal is not to validate that either one of you is “right”. The goal is to help you both be happier together.
When is the best time to start?
There are different points of view on when it may be helpful. Some people believe that if you need couples therapy early on in a relationship — when it’s supposed to be fun and easy — then it’s the wrong relationship. For some of us, relationships are almost always easy at the beginning. They only get tough later on, when the glitter wears off, you’re no longer able to be on your best behavior and you start seeing each other’s worst qualities.
For some people, relationships are hardest at the beginning. I have clients that, once they make through the first few months of a relationship, it all falls into place. Their anxiety and fears are strongest at the beginning, when they don’t really know the other person and it’s hard to trust someone you don’t really know.
I’d also like to address the thorny, but important question: how can you tell if your counseling isn’t helping?
If nothing seems to be getting better after 3 or 4 sessions, then the strategy or the counselor’s approach may not be a good fit for you and your partner. Instead of bailing, bring this up to your counselor. They may agree that it’s not a good fit and can refer you to someone who might be. Or they can talk with you and your partner and see if another strategy would be more helpful. If you’re not honest with your counselor, they can’t help you very much. If you’re unhappy with the work, speak up! After all, you’re paying for it. Make it worth your while.