Talking Turkey About Couples Counselling

No other kind of counselling is more subject to expectations about the power to transform than couples counselling. Some may disagree with this statement, but it’s my personal opinion.

And I’m not dissing hope or change in counselling. If this were not possible, clients wouldn’t pursue it and counsellors wouldn’t offer it. And I never stop being in awe of people’s capacity for change.

So, just to be clear, change is always possible.

This article is about something a little different. It’s about counselling expectations and counselling realities: my belief that if we are aware of them both, success in couples counselling is maximized. And I’m a little harder-edge and opinionated about this topic than other aspects of counselling that I have written about previously. You may see things differently. And, there will be points I’ve missed as there is no one right way of approaching couples counselling.

So, let’s begin.

If Only My Partner Would Change

“If my partner changed their ways our relationship would be so much better. We wouldn’t have nearly the same problems that we do now.” Whether we want to admit it or not, this is a common reason for choosing couples counselling and it’s rarely as simple as this. A basic focus in couples counselling is working with the couple’s relationship and relationship dynamics–not singling out a sole member of the couple. In-depth individual work is best helped by a one-on-one therapist.

“Who, me?”

Couples counselling also focuses on taking responsibility for personal choices and behaviours that are not helping—or even harming—the relationship; these are referring to behaviours that we have direct control over. As I alluded to above, we also look at how each partner’s behaviours contribute to dynamics and patterns in the relationship. Having a dynamic takes two. Personal responsibility is where the seat of power lies, not convincing the other person to do things our way. And, learning the skills to express our needs to our partner is equally important.

Jump Right In?

Taking the time to understand what is going on in a relationship is important so that interventions can be tailored to that knowledge, rather than based on hunches or guesswork. Going forward without understanding can be like playing darts in the dark, hoping to hit the bullseye. The Gottman approach, one of a number of successful methods of couples counselling, places particular importance on assessment. I’ve written about this in detail on my main couples page.

Magical Mystery Machine?

Couples counselling is not a magical mystery machine; there may be plenty of magic and mystery along the way however it’s not something where we step into it, have the counsellor push a few buttons and emerge transformed. Couples counsellors don’t fix, they facilitate. Which brings me to my next point.

Couples Counselling Can Be a Slog

In couples therapy we are often talking about difficult things—things that have been swept under the rug in your relationship, things you would rather avoid; the counsellor then suggests strategies that could make a difference—ways to change the way you and your partner relate to one another. Then—and this is important—the counsellor asks you to implement these things daily and then repeat. It can be exhausting! (But, potentially very rewarding!)

Rinse and Repeat

Picking up on the last point, couples counselling is often repetitive because unhealthy patterns are usually entrenched and need extra help and support to change. According to the research of psychologists John and Julie Gottman, the average couple wades through 6 years of distress before seeking couples counselling.

Couples that have the greatest success are those that take the time—in what are often very busy schedules—to implement the changes that we talked about in session and make them a part of their day to day lives. And such couples talk about these changes together and how they are working (and whether or not retooling is necessary).

Change Is Not Always Fun

While the result can be enormously gratifying, getting there is not necessarily so. Even if patterns are dysfunctional, they are often comfortable. It takes effort, persistence and the willingness to stumble and try again over time to make things better. And as much as we struggle in our efforts, we have a say in our choices and our responses to our partner.

Some of you may remember the Karate Kid movie, where karate student Daniel is told by his teacher Mr. Myagi, “Never put passion in front of principle, even if you win, you’ll lose.” Many of my clients have heard me say, “Be like Mr. Myagi!” There is so much restraint when it comes to changing unhealthy dynamics. We really need to engage our inner strength!

Couples Counselling Is Not Theoretical

The concept of change is not enough. The concept of couples counselling is not enough. It’s the practice of new strategies that is key. What specific things are changing from week to week? These specific changes stoke hope as skills continue to improve. Such changes are important to review with one another, as well as with the couples counsellor.

Sporadic Couples Counselling Does Not Accelerate Change

While I agree that occasional couples counselling is better than none, when too much time goes by between sessions, we may spend our time catching up rather than continuing with the momentum of the previous session.

There is enormous benefit in creating momentum in therapy, particularly in the early part of therapy. Typically every 1-2 weeks is recommended and gains are more modest when there is a month or more between sessions. If cost is a barrier, please consider a professional subsidized counselling option so you can continue productively with your therapy.

The Counsellor Is Not a Judge, Nor the Counselling, a Courtroom

As psychologists John and Julie Gottman have said, when one member of the couple “wins” and the other “loses,” the relationship loses. If one member pushes the therapist to side with them then the other member of the couple is alienated. None of this serves the purpose of couples counselling: to make your relationship better. If you think the counsellor likes your partner better than you, bring this up in the session to see how your counsellor reacts, and whether this response makes sense to you. Often this has more to do with the counsellor calling out unhealthy behaviours–for example, The 4 Horsemen–which one member of the couple may be displaying more than the other. If your therapist is ethical, this is not intended as a personal attack, but rather, a behavioural target for change.

Getting Lost In The Details or Telling Stories Usually Serves Little Purpose

While it’s tempting, and common, to want to tell the couples counsellor all the details of your recent argument and why you are right, this doesn’t  help us get to the heart of the matter. Couples counsellors are most often interested in helping you to identify what is really driving the argument: the underlying feelings, hopes, resentments, or experiences which predate your relationship, often originating from earlier life experiences.

Mediating disputes is typically just treating symptoms and not the cause(s). For those that are seeking deeper change, understanding surface things in a deeper manner is essential.

All Counselling Is The Same, Right?

While couples counselling shares similarities with 1:1 therapy, couples counselling is somewhat of a different beast. In individual sessions, the therapist has only one client and their job is to help their client feel uniquely supported. This support is being funnelled directly to the individual.

In couples therapy, the counsellor actually has three clients: each member of the couple and the relationship itself, with the relationship being the primary client. For those familiar with individual counselling, this therapeutic support can feel  somewhat diluted. This may throw us off and make members of the coupleship feel like the therapist doesn’t like them or likes them less than their partner. If this is happening, please bring this up with your therapist so this can be addressed.

The Limits of Mixing and Matching

From time to time, clients may ask their individual counsellor to be their couples therapist too. While the answer can vary depending on the client and counsellor concerned, my general practice, as is many other therapists’, is not to do double-duty. Why? The new client—the member of the couple that the counsellor has not previously worked with—is at an immediate disadvantage since the counsellor has a preexisting therapeutic relationship with their partner. Simultaneously continuing with separate individual therapy can also constitute a conflict of interest for the couples therapy. A separate couples counsellor is almost always the preferred choice.

“How’s it going?” Is Not The Primary Purpose of Your Session

This is not to say that a brief review is not important. Counsellors do want to know how couples are doing. And from there, it’s important to zero in on a target for change and/or a skill that would benefit from further development, or, a focused discussion aimed at deepening understanding or a particular issue. And some homework too at the end.

One Counsellor Can’t Help All Couples

As much as I hate to say this, I can’t help all couples. But this isn’t unique to me as a counsellor and it doesn’t mean that couples are unhelpable. There can be a number of reasons for this including, but not limited to:

  • A poor therapeutic fit between the couple and the counsellor
  • The couple is very busy and doesn’t have the time to dedicate to regular couples counselling
  • One or both members of the couple are “done” and see no hope or value in couples counselling
  • A general mistrust of counselling
  • Couple is no longer in conflict with one another but disconnection is so profound that there is little energy or motivation to pursue change.

It’s Not All Bad

Let us celebrate what is going well in your relationship.

As much as it is important to attend to urgent issues, using and noticing the good stuff can be a powerful ally in building strength and helping with the tougher stuff.

Still have questions about couples counselling? Don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Further Reading

The book links on this page are Amazon Associate links; if you choose to make a purchase through them, I may earn a small commission which I use to fund my low-cost counselling resource lists. Your support is greatly appreciated.

More Than Words: The Science of Deepening Love and Connection In Any Relationship by John Howard (2022)

By leveraging the research on neuroscience, the author shows the reader simple, straightforward steps that they can take to improve the quality of connection in their close relationships. While focusing primarily on romantic partnerships, this book’s principles can be extended to any close relationships. Highly recommended.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman and Nan Silver (2015).

Professor of psychology, John Gottman, shares the principles for a successful relationship, culled from his years of longitudinal research on couples. John Gottman’s most popular book and best for couples who are seeking a research-informed approach to making changes in their relationship.