Couples counselling isn’t complicated. But how does couples counselling work?
It’s a specific form of talking therapy where two people sit with a counsellor to discuss their relationship.
The world seemed surprised when Michelle Obama shared that she and Barack had couples counselling. Surely this couple didn’t have relationship problems! But they are just two people, the same as you and I, working out how to be in love and stay in love. So if you’re thinking of having couples counselling, you’re in good company.
Why Couples Need Couples Therapy
When a couple comes to therapy, it indicates that they are looking to bring to an end something that is no longer working for them. That doesn’t mean that the relationship is going to end. More likely, it’s a symbolic death of what the relationship has been, which opens the way to a new beginning and a fresh start.
It’s almost inescapable to avoid disappointment when you realise your relationship isn’t as good or working as well as you wanted. During the earlier romantic phase of a relationship, there’s a tendency to put the relationship and your partner on a pedestal. Letting go of what you have idolised and hoped for hurts. When that hurt is left to grow, it creates a wound and more often than not, it leads to conflict.
And that’s when couples show up in the therapy room. The core of couples counselling is to help couples to face the painful and often bitter reality of this change and to see the opportunity for growth.
Understanding Unconscious Dynamics In Your Relationship
Couple counselling, then, is an opportunity to know yourself better, your partner and your relationship. This awareness, in turn, deepens trust and intimacy.
Everyone enters a relationship carrying the unconscious patterns and beliefs they’ve internalised from childhood. As a result, our relationships reactivate old wounds from our past.
Although we might not realise or want to admit it, we enter a relationship seeking the perfect parent to fit our unmet needs. Couples counselling looks at how these past influences impact your intimate relationships and support you and your partner to see and take responsibility for your projections and transference.
Projection is when we hand over and refuse to acknowledge the parts of us we don’t like. Instead, we make those qualities about the other person. For example, you suppress your anger but find yourself in relationships with passive-aggressive or overtly angry partners.
Transference is different because we make our partner be another significant person, e.g., a parent. So say you craved being protected and cared for by a parent as a child. As an adult, you may substitute, choose and expect your partner to do that.
You find yourself frustrated with their lack of care when you are ill, not helping with the children or when you’ve had a bad day at work. On the other hand, if you were frequently criticised as a child, you will likely be highly sensitive to your partner’s feedback. Of course, you want a supportive partner, but what’s happening under the surface?
Self-Awareness Improves Relationships
Awareness is the most significant gateway to the transformation of your relationship. Self-awareness means you know what you want, need and desire and can ask for it. Awareness of your partner means respecting their needs, wants and desires. You take responsibility for your life without needing someone to do that.
Paradoxically, that is what shifts the dial in a relationship. It paves the way for what most couples want, improving communication, clarity about what you would like to be different and commitment to the changes needed to create the relationship you want.
Once we are aware, we need to take action. So what does that look like?
Relationship Skills For Couples To Deepen Intimacy
Goal setting isn’t just for the workplace. Setting goals and communication are two of the three principal skills you learn in couples therapy.
1. Creating a vision for yourself and your relationship.
Couples counselling allows one to set goals and create an agenda for change.
Firstly there is the vision for the relationship, which helps you see its potential and something to work towards.
Then you focus on each individual’s commitment to change something that will lead to creating the relationship they want to experience. This isn’t agreeing to wash the dishes or changing your personality. Instead, it’s about recognising what stops you from showing up the way you want. For example, suppose you avoid conflict because it causes anxiety. What self-regulating techniques would you need to learn to have a challenging conversation, not brush things under the carpet and set boundaries?
2. Talking and listening.
Learning how to communicate well is essential to couples. Couples counselling is the ideal place to learn and practice.
To communicate intimately, you must know yourself well to articulate what you want and need, make requests, and say what you feel. You also need to allow your partner to do the same. Listening with empathy when you are hearing something challenging is hard but necessary. In couples counselling, you will learn how to stay present in these moments and keep listening so that you deepen your connection.
Working with the Developmental Model, couples learn to share intimately and quickly make breakthroughs.
You are two separate individuals co-creating a relationship. A sign of a healthy relationship is one where each partner takes responsibility for their life and can moderately fulfil their own needs without being overly reliant on their partner. At the same time, each person knows that their partner is there to meet their physical and emotional needs appropriately and meaningfully. Interdependence is the goal of a deeply committed relationship.
This Couples Therapy Isn’t Working.
Everything is information about your relationship in couples counselling. It’s not just about what you say.
Sometimes, however, you feel the therapy isn’t working. But actually, what’s likely happening is that it’s mirroring back to you the way your relationship is functioning on a day-to-day basis and your goals are not aligned.
Having said that, there are some times when couples counselling isn’t appropriate.
1. Couples Counselling For Domestic Violence
You might think this is the perfect time to come to therapy because it will help you work out your issues and reduce or prevent further incidents.
Sadly this isn’t the case.
One of the critical components of any counselling, whether it be for an individual or couple counselling is safety. If your relationship is abusive outside of the therapy room, it will be abusive in it.
That means the abused partner mightn’t speak up for fear of what the abusive partner might do when they get home. Alternatively, something is said that has implications out of sight of the therapist. The couple may discuss and agree on what gets discussed in the session before they arrive for therapy, meaning the sessions are controlled. What can also happen is the abused partner wants the therapist to guess what is not being said, which the therapist may or may not do if there is covert abuse. This all means that the therapy isn’t safe.
If there is domestic violence in the relationship, the best thing to do is contact a domestic abuse agency such as Refuge and get specialist support for yourself. In the first instance, that might be individual counselling. I would suggest doing that first, as your safety is the priority.
2. When Couples Keep Secrets In Counselling
Couples counselling involves the therapist seeing and understanding how a couple operates in their day-to-day world. That’s how couples counselling works. A client being dishonest in their life will tend to bring that into the therapy room.
In her book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman writes about the ‘fundamental rule of truth-telling.’ (1)
Truth-telling forms the basis of a solid collaborative relationship with the therapist. Secrets and lies get in the way of healing.
When truth-telling is hard, shame, trauma, fear, and vulnerability are usually in the background. To avoid that, one or both individuals may terminate the therapy sessions early and refuse to continue. This withdrawal may well replicate what happens at home when there is conflict.
Sometimes a client might lie by behaving very differently in a session to how their partner experiences them at home, control what is said in the session or avoid answering questions directly by deflecting.
So that couples counselling can help you identify and unravel your feelings and see the related issues more clearly, honesty is critical. Without the truth, it is impossible to do this.
3. When You Want To Be The Therapist
Usually, one part of the couple feels that the problem belongs to with other. ‘You’re the reason why the relationship isn’t working.’ When you blame, you might want to take the opportunity to practice your therapy skills. Now there are two therapists in the room!
Couple counselling is about exploring the wounds from the past and how these have shaped you and, therefore, your relationship. We all have wounds. In a relationship, both parties, i.e. your partner and you, bring something to the table. Sometimes you can pull the wool over your eyes, not wanting to acknowledge your part.
Couples counselling isn’t about getting one half of the couple to do the work, the other watching and hoping everything will be alright. It won’t. That gives control to one person in the relationship because now their action controls the relationship’s fate. It also means that the opportunity for growth in the relationship is missed.
Is Couples Counselling Effective?
Yes, it is. An increasing number of studies have shown that couples therapy works. The average person receiving couple therapy is better off at the end of the sessions than 70%–80% of couples who did not start. (2)
Getting help when needed is crucial for a healthy relationship. Couples counselling isn’t complicated, but it is challenging. It takes time, patience and commitment.
When couples align on the outcome they want to create, the success rate for couples counselling is high.
A couples therapist isn’t there to make you stay together or tell you what to do. If you are thinking about whether to stay or leave, new awareness about yourself and the relationship will allow you to make better choices. And when you are willing to do the work, committed to each other and to doing something differently, couples therapy creates a safe space to address underlying issues, start productive conversations and strengthen your bond. Starting therapy is courageous and a bold step.
You might also be thinking, how does couples counselling work if nothing is wrong? Is it necessary? Most couples will benefit because many of us have not been taught the tools to create happy long-term relationships. My question would be, why wait?
Over to You
Don’t be afraid to seek couples therapy if you need it – there’s no shame in seeking help when needed. Talking things through in a space such as couples counselling is invaluable.
If you’re stuck and want to know how to fix your struggling relationship, get in touch for a clarity session. I can help.
P.S. PASS IT ON
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© Sandra Harewood 2023
Soul Centred couples therapist, counsellor and Jungian Shadow Work coach Sandra Harewood specialise in working with women and couples stuck at a crossroads in their marriage. Relationships are precious; this is your chance to begin a new journey and experience the connection and intimacy you most deeply desire.
Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore creative solutions to their difficulties and deepen their self-knowledge to discover what keeps them ‘stuck’ in their marriages to create and experience extraordinary relationships.
(1) Herman, J, Trauma and Recovery – The Aftermath of Violence From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, 1997 Basic Books
(2) Lebow, J, Snyder, D K Couple therapy in the 2020s: Current status and emerging developments, 2022, Wiley Online Library