Perfection is an unhealthy expectation in a relationship. However, a relationship should be healthy and include communication, respect, safety, compromise and intimacy. The goal of couples counselling is to guide the couple to improve how to interact in their relationship. Couples counselling will provide a safe environment for the couple to identify problems in their relationship and work together to change things. The couple will learn that the opposition is not each other but rather the negative cycle and perceptions that couples have of each other which heighten the problems. The couple will work together to identify this cycle and make appropriate changes in the relationship; concurrently each partner will be working on themselves.
Couples often wait until the problems in their relationship are serious, leaving partners reluctant to believe that therapy will work. It is also not uncommon for couples to arrive assuming that the therapist will “fix” their partner. Through the therapy process, the couple will learn to create a healthy relationship. The structure of couples counselling begins with an intake to collect basic information about the relationship and the partners, develop a rapport with the therapist, create goals and to observe how the partners relate to one another. With the therapist, the couple will study the relationship to discover the stressors in the relationship, the nature of conflicts, behavioural and communication patterns, strengths and weaknesses and qualities that may be missing in the relationship. Couples will learn new methods of communication and the importance of dual participation to make changes. The therapy process includes ongoing learning to understand the desires, thoughts and feelings of each other while validating and empathizing with each other. Couples are also encouraged to express positive feelings which strengthen trust and support healthier relationships. Most importantly, is the couple’s willingness to attend sessions, to be honest, and act on guidance.
Deciding to pursue couples counselling can be a difficult decision to make; it involves admitting that there are problems in your relationship which can be intimidating and difficult to do. The therapeutic process may also be unknown and uncharted territory requiring substantial effort as the couple needs to find an appropriate provider, sort out insurances and finances and also accommodate everyone’s schedule to find a convenient time.
It is not uncommon for couples to sit with the idea of seeing a therapist to address relationship difficulties, but being unsure of how to proceed.
The following are common issues that indicate a couple could potentially benefit from seeking couples counselling:
Poor communication is often the primary reason for couples to reach out for counselling. Over time, couples can develop unhealthy communication styles which can result in difficulties to connect, feel intimate and speak freely. Couples counselling is done in a safe space that allows both parties to speak openly without judgment with feedback from a non-biased observer to provide skills to effectively communicate thoughts, feelings and needs.
The thought of discussing potentially difficult subjects such as finances, parenting, faith, politics, scheduling, household duties and work can create anxiety. Therefore, these topics may be avoided and become points of controversy later in the relationship. Premarital counselling can guide couples in recognizing each other’s strengths, discussing their marital goals and to develop communication and problem-solving skills to achieve these goals.
Sexual problems are common in relationships and couples counselling can help the couple gain better knowledge about sexuality and learn to listen to each other in an accepting and non-judgmental manner. Sex is an important part of a healthy relationship. It can be a healing component to a relationship, but can also be a trigger of anxiety, anger and embarrassment. With a gentle and integrative approach to sexual issues, the therapist will help set you at ease and guide you into talking about sex.
Infidelity and unfaithfulness
Infidelity can severely strain a relationship and obviously, it can end a relationship. But couples can also repair their relationship with the guidance of a therapist. Couples may report feeling confused about maintaining the relationship, having difficulty being in the presence of one another, feeling anxious and obsessive, feeling shame and guilt as well as anger. It takes courage for the couple to face what happened and reach out for support. It is important to remember that regaining trust and intimacy after infidelity will take time and active participation.
Assistance managing other relationships
All couples have many relationships with other people apart from their relationship together; from extended family, coworkers, friends, children and neighbours. These relationships could have an influence on their relationship and often require the practice of assertiveness, healthy boundaries and communication.
Non-traditional or open relationships may seem incongruous and intimidating, but with the guidance and support of a therapist, this approach can be less conflicting. Often, what we consider risky in any relationship is what we consider risky in an open relationship. A therapist will consider those issues along with emotions in which decisions are made.
Blended families have unique challenges and emotional complexities that may require therapeutic intervention. In addition to co-parenting, a therapist can work with the couple in addressing all their relationships such as former spouses, children, siblings, in-laws or grandparents. Setting boundaries, clear communication and nurturing a relationship with the children is important in the success of a blended family.
The end of a relationship
Communication is an important aspect to a healthy end of a relationship and reflection may encourage partners to improve their sense of self and make it easier to move on. The end of a relationship often results in negative feelings. However, it can be helpful to call attention to the personal growth and lessons learned from time spent in the relationship. When the end of a relationship interferes with the ability to cope with daily activities, therapy can help support you during the healing process.
Couples counselling can help couples address and collaborate regarding the difficulties caused by technology, by creating boundaries and re-establishing trust.
Lack of trust can destroy relationships, but through therapy, couples can address and analyze trust issues in their relationship. Couples can work together to build their relationship by re-establishing trust.
How to prepare for couples counselling?
Couples counselling provides a setting in which the couple can surmount difficult issues, but the couple should come prepared for this success. It is not uncommon to allow difficulties to boil before reaching out for help and the longer we wait, the more difficult it is to re-establish the relationship. However, “it’s never too late” to make an effort regardless of how long the issue has been present. Also, keep in mind that therapy is most helpful when both partners have a desire and are committed to improving the relationship. The first step in making this commitment is researching couples therapists in your area and finding a therapist both partners feel comfortable.
Vincent H.K. Poon, MD PsyD FCFP. Model for Counseling People in Relationships, 2007.
Christopher D. Schmidt, Nathan C. Gelhert. Couples Therapy and Empathy: An Evaluation of Impact of Imago Relationship Therapy and Partner Empathy Levels, 2019.
Andrea Bonoir Ph.D. Should You Go To Couples Therapy? 2017
Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. Five Principles of Effective Couples Therapy, 2012.
Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W. What You Can Really Expect From Couple’s Therapy, 2016.