Does your relationship need couples counseling?
By Anne Crowley and ledelson and debragordy — Last updated on Aug 08, 2023
Photo: Jacob Lund | Shutterstock
For many couples, the idea of bringing a third party into their intimate relationship is scary — or just plain out of the question.
Luckily, the stigma associated with couples therapy and couples counseling is well on its way out. Healthy couples are enlisting counseling professionals to help work through sticky patches in their marriage, large and small, and are better for it.
Still, it can truly be tricky getting started. So, here are tips to help you decide if marriage therapy is for you, how to talk to your partner about it, maximize your experience, and make sure it’s working once you get there.
Before you go to couples counseling, ask yourself these five questions:
1. When is it time to enlist an expert’s help?
Some people seek out a professional when their pain is too much to manage or when confronting their current reality (and situation) is too overwhelming. Others might seek out a therapist when they start to recognize negative patterns in their marriage.
Marriage therapy offers a way to break patterns, create change and find something different in life.
It is wise to enlist the help and guidance of a professional whenever you can’t find the solutions to the problems you have or the questions you are asking, or the goal you are trying to accomplish in your marriage is not coming together, in spite of your best efforts. If you have been reaching your goal for six months or more, and still don’t see the progress you want, then by all means, reach out for help.
2. We need therapy, but how do I get my partner involved?
It is not uncommon for one spouse to show more interest or motivation in seeking out couples counseling. One way to bring up therapy, especially if you have seen an individual counselor, is to tell your partner that his participation would be beneficial (i.e., offering the therapist another perspective).
Caution: if you have been seeing someone individually for a few months or longer, you may find that your partner is resistant or even, intimidated to visit your therapist. If this is the case, give him the task of finding someone he likes for you both to see.
Another way to talk with your spouse is to tell him you want to increase the positives in the relationship. Sure, we all have our complaints and negative aspects within the relationship, but it is easier to increase the positives than decrease the negatives (although, a good therapist will help you do both!).
Instead of concentrating on negative behaviors (“We need therapy because you do everything wrong!”), focus on the hope for the positive (“I want to laugh more and have fun with you… and therapy can help us do that.”). How can your partner argue with that?
Here are 4 tips for talking to your partner about entering counseling:
In a serious, calm voice, without interruptions, clearly describe your feelings. Briefly review the things you have already tried to “fix” the relationship. Explain that your next (and perhaps, final) attempt is to seek therapy.Do not blame or yell.Keep it brief. Don’t go on and on, sitting for hours recycling the same stories and feelings.Do your research and have the names of therapists handy.
3. Where can we find a therapist or coach?
There are several avenues to finding a compatible relationship professional:
Ask family and friends who you know may have worked with someone.Ask your OB/GYN or primary care physician.Find someone online. When you search online, you’re presented with the opportunity to read professionals’ profiles and get a “feel” for whether you resonate with their approach to therapy.Additionally, you might seek spiritual guidance in whatever way that feels comfortable for you.
4. How do we know if the counselor is right for us?
Most therapists offer a free phone consultation. Take advantage of this. It gives you an opportunity to talk with them and see if they specialize in your presenting issue.
I once had someone tell me she scheduled an appointment because she liked the sound of my voice. Trust your instincts!
When you are ready, contact one or two. See if they offer an initial consultation, during which you can consider the following:
Do you and your partner feel understood?Do you feel a sense of connection with this professional?Has this person been able to help others with similar situations or needs?How does your partner feel about this person?Do you feel that this person is honest and unbiased, in the sense that they can understand both of you, your views, and needs in the relationship — without siding with one of you? Can you see yourself trusting them with your relationship’s tender spots, questions, doubts, and fears?
Answers to these questions are all clues that you have found a compatible pro with whom to work.
5. How do we know if couples counseling is actually working for us?
Once you’ve started couples therapy, make sure you’re both comfortable with the therapist. Be honest, even when it’s difficult. The office should feel safe and professional. Be sure the therapist is totally involved, focused, and offers meaningful feedback.
If you don’t feel good about the therapist, it might be a good idea to look for a better match. A professional therapist should let you know if therapy is not helping, whether to consider separation or divorce, whether you are adequately motivated to reconcile, or if you have individual problems to work on first.
Trust your instincts! If you have a therapist who lets you yell at each other during the session, this does not foster a feeling of safety (with your partner or therapist).
Therapy is working when you have permission to “create a space” for alternative modes of interactions, reconnection, and change, and when it offers you communication tools and coping skills. If you are going to a therapist’s office to do the same thing you do at home, it’s time to try a new professional.
If one or both of you feels that the pro is siding with one of you and no longer balanced, then bring up this concern right away and move on if need be.
Also, sometimes the timing for relationship growth and healing is not the same for both people in a relationship, and while sometimes it’s wise to move on from a pro for couples help, the same pro may, possibly, be a wonderful fit for one of you individually.
Individual help from a pro can tremendously help for your personal relationship patterns, and go a long way in helping you be able to create a happy, thriving relationship and marriage.
Anne Crowley is a licensed psychologist who has over 15 years of experience working with adolescents, adults, and couples in a variety of settings.
Lori Edelson is a psychotherapist who works with adults and children for mood disorders, personality disorders, grief, and more.
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Debra Gordy is a former relationship therapist who has worked in the field of energy psychology for over 30 years.