This article was updated October, 2021.
Have you ever wondered what happens in couples counselling?
I’ve often noticed people are curious about what happens behind the closed doors of a relationship counselling office or during online relationship counselling.
Perhaps there’s the intrigue about what relationship issues and relationship concerns people are divulging to me in their relationship counselling sessions.
And I think other couples are naturally curious about other people’s lives and wonder if the relationship difficulties others struggle with are similar to their own problems.
Then there are the people that love gossip and drama, and just want to know the juicy details about others.
Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but what goes on in couples counselling is less about listening to the content of what people share and more about the process of how people are relating to each other.
What is couples counselling?
Couple counselling, as the name suggests, is counselling provided by relationship experts in a safe environment for helping couples who are in a relationship, marriage, or separated and considering reconciliation.
Relationship counselling offers a confidential space with both partners present either in-person at a counselling office or online via videoconference.
This is distinct from family counselling where a family therapist may see the couple along with combinations of other family members to address family challenges and help the overall family relationship.
It’s important to note that not all family therapists are trained in couples therapy and not all couples therapists are trained in family therapy.
According to relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, couples wait for an average of 6 years while being unhappy with relationship problems before seeking help. But the good news is that an Australian study of couple counselling by Relationships Australia has shown that it’s as effective as that reported in international research. And internationally, modern approaches to marriage counselling are showing success rates of 75% and above.
Some people try to improve their relationship satisfaction by buying self-help books and online courses, however, when you access counselling services, experienced relationship therapists will use evidence-based interventions such as Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, the Gottman Method, and PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy) to help you overcome your relationship difficulties and create a rewarding relationship.
If you’re considering accessing a counselling service for your current relationship, here are some of the most common things you can expect in the therapeutic process of an effective couples counselling session.
Your current problems and issues in your relationship
When I meet a couple in the first session I generally begin by asking, “What’s brought us together today and what do you want to accomplish?”
It’s a pretty basic question, but I want to know what relationship issues, problems, struggles, challenging times, or negative patterns led you to reach out for relationship counselling in the first place. This includes your communication styles, dysfunctional patterns of relating, and any other common relationship issues causing you distress.
Some common issues that a relationship psychologist or counsellor works with include:
- communication difficulties and how to have open communication
- how your communication style can help or hinder conflict resolution and recurring arguments
- hurt from a betrayal, affair or personal involvement that has hurt one person in the relationship
- sexual desire issues that lead to partners feeling neglected
Other areas of sexual functioning issues such as painful intercourse or erectile dysfunction can be addressed in terms of how it impacts the relationship, but these issues sometimes require a referral to a sexual health expert such as a gynecologist or men’s health physician. If one partner has experienced sexual abuse or trauma, this may require individual therapy before starting marriage counselling.
When I work with a couple, I want to know if relationship separation has been discussed at all, so I know if there are any threats to end the relationship or if there have been relationship breakdowns.
And I want to know what each partner is wanting from the marriage counselling.
This is the most logical place to start so that I have a handle on what’s going on, so we are all on the same page.
And it goes without saying that all good couples counsellors will help you feel comfortable by providing a non-judgemental, safe and supportive space where you can honestly share your feelings and you both feel heard.
How your relationship started
This is a really important question when you attend relationship therapy.
I want to know what’s drawn both you and your partner together? What were you attracted to? Why did you choose each other? Under what circumstances did you meet?
The answers to these questions help me evaluate important milestones in your relationship, as well as have a mud map of where you’ve come from and where you want to get to.
Many couples often remember when they last had a happy relationship and this is where counselling can help couples reconnect with the reasons they chose each other.
Your individual histories and family of origin
It’s essential that your therapist asks you about your individual histories, including relevant family issues, so they can take note of any important historical issues that may have affected you in your life.
The family relationship is significant. We are all shaped by our relationships in our family of origin, and this, in turn, shapes how we relate to others and contribute to the development of personal issues.
When I work with a couple, I want to know about their previous relationship experiences and what patterns have recurred when one or both re-partner and start new relationships. Many people tend to repeat the same relationship patterns over and over again before seeking professional help.
Our life experiences and previous relationships also impact how we conduct our adult relationships.
So with these questions, I’m listening for any significant life experiences that may be impacting the couple’s relationship.
What kind of relationship do you desire?
If you don’t have a map, you can’t get to your destination. So it’s important that you share what type of rewarding relationship you want to create with your partner.
Most couples come to couples counselling because they are unhappy or dissatisfied with an aspect of their relationship and they want to create positive change for a happier life.
So to get off to a strong start, I assist couples by finding out what they each desire in their relationship so they can begin to create a healthy relationship and fulfilled lives.
This includes your communication skills, levels of physical intimacy, stress management, and practical tools you are already using.
This then helps us chart a course for what you want and don’t want in your future together. The vision is the destination and we can start to plan the journey of how to get there.
Your strengths as a couple
I don’t believe relationship counselling is all about looking for problems.
I believe all good relationship counsellors will highlight the strengths they are seeing in your relationship. Counselling can help by connecting you to the strengths and resources you already have that help you relate in new ways.
This is important because it then means you can build on the strengths you already have in your relationship, especially if you’re doing pre-marriage counselling.
One of the additional services I offer is to assess your relationship strengths and challenges by having you take the Gottman Couple Checkup. This comprehensive online assessment of your relationship, created by couples researchers Drs. John and Julie Gottman, founders of the Gottman Institute, can help you understand the areas you need to focus on to get the best version of your relationship.
Your individual relationship blocks
All good relationship counsellors will help you get very clear about what you (yes, you the individual!) need to start doing differently to improve your relationship issues.
The quickest way to bring your couples counselling to a standstill is to keep focusing on what your partner needs to change in order for you to be happy.
Let me be very clear: That approach is a losing strategy.
The quickest way to start to improve your relationship is to be open to discover your own individual blocks to relating effectively, and start to work on them for yourself. This includes any individual issues that may be impacting one partner’s well-being.
Occasionally, one partner may require their own counselling to work in-depth and gain a deeper understanding of specific issues (such as serious mental health issues, chronic illness, or addiction issues) that are impacting the couple.
An effective relationship counsellor will help each of you develop individual goals for couples therapy and be upfront about this from the beginning.
How to relate in a different way in the session
Talk therapy can only get you so far.
Effective couples counselling involves you speaking with your partner (not the therapist) about the issues that matter to you.
And your relationship counsellor will be inviting you to relate in different ways in the session.
I often use a coaching approach and will coach my couples live in the session, so they can experience how it feels to start relating in more productive ways and find solutions to long-standing problems.
This is a powerful way of learning and bringing about change.
Your couples therapist is proactive and gives ongoing feedback
I approach the relationship counselling process very differently from individual counselling.
Most people are familiar with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that you often experience if you work individually with a psychologist. But relationship counselling is a completely different modality and approach to working with couples.
I believe to be an effective relationship counsellor you need to be very proactive and responsive to help the couple move forward.
Couples counselling is very dynamic, so it requires a dynamic counsellor who’s not afraid to step in and intervene when needed throughout the session.
If you attend counselling and your couples counsellor is sitting back and letting you fight in front of them for long periods of time, it’s likely you won’t experience any long-lasting change.
A good couples therapist will lead the session so you’re both heard and any escalations are interrupted.
That said, it’s important you enter couples counselling with an open mind, realistic expectations, and the desire and motivation to work on your relationship in and out of your therapy sessions.
Change comes from doing things differently, not repeating the same problem dynamics over and over again.
Homework for outside of the sessions
While I don’t give my couples homework after every relationship counselling session, I do believe it’s important to support couples by requesting they do homework on occasion. This is so you can practice more effective ways of relating and communicating outside of the therapy office.
A good relationship counsellor will encourage you to notice unhelpful ways of communicating outside of the sessions, so you can start to respond differently and resolve conflicts and relationship issues.
If your relationship counsellor never gives you homework or asks you to experiment with new behaviours outside of sessions, you may want to ask them why this is so.
Regularly review your work together
When you attend counselling, it’s rarely something that you start doing with no end date in the future. Many people want to know how many sessions will be required.
An effective couples therapist will pause and review your work together on a regular basis. This is so you can track what’s working and what’s not working in relationship counselling.
This also opens up the lines of feedback, so your therapist can also change tack if needed.
Any effective relationship therapist is open to feedback- positive and negative, so don’t be afraid to tell your counsellor how you’re finding the therapy and if there’s anything you want to be done differently.
This will help you get the most out of your work together and support you in getting the best possible results.
And don’t forget that counselling online is a great option if you’re not able to get to a counsellor’s office. Since the pandemic, more couples than ever are accessing online counselling services and getting results as good as in-person sessions.
A final note
It’s important to remember that many counsellors are not trained in marriage counselling because it’s considered a distinct therapeutic modality and approach to working with people so requires specific training and experience.
It’s essential that you work with a counsellor that has undergone high standards of rigorous couples therapy training and has extensive experience working with couples. The best way to ensure this is to ask the therapist about their couples therapy training and experience before you make an appointment.
Do you need relationship help?
If you’re considering relationship counselling services, Clinton Power has extensive experience helping people create better relationships through his counselling process of using evidence-based therapeutic approaches based on the science of healthy relationships.
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.