Couples therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on reducing conflict and communication difficulties within a relationship. It goes by several names including relationship counseling, couples counseling, partner therapy, and marriage counseling.
The therapy sessions are facilitated by a trained therapist, usually a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), which helps both parties communicate their thoughts, feelings, and difficulties with better clarity; and ultimately, resolve any existing conflict and restore satisfaction in the relationship.
In addition to helping resolve issues between partners, couples therapy can also provide insight that will help determine whether a relationship should continue or not. Healthy couples without any major relationship troubles can also take advantage of this therapy to further strengthen their connection with each other.
How does couples therapy work?
There are several forms of therapies developed specifically for couples but the most commonly used today is Systemic Couple Therapy. It is based on what in psychology is known as the systems theory which posits that all parts of a system must be involved in achieving the desired change.
In systemic couple therapy, the relationship is viewed as a system and the couple are parts of this system that must rely on each other. Conflicts and problems are treated together because both parties are on the same team in their fight for improvement. That said, it remains important for both individuals in the relationship to express their personal thoughts and issues in order to increase their understanding of each other within the relationship.
What is the best form of therapy for couples?
Like we have stated earlier, there are other forms of therapies directed at couples. These include:
- Emotional Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) – EFT is focused on helping a couple understand each other’s feelings and reinforcing the feeling of “we” and togetherness.
- Integrative Behavioral Therapy for Couples (IBCT) – IBCT is focused conceptualizing the couple’s underlying emotions so they can achieve acceptance (and eventually, change) for each other’s behaviours and opinions.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Couples (CBT) – CBT for couples employs various exercises that are focused on improving communication and reinforcing positive behaviours.
After the initial session, your therapist can make a recommendation about which type of therapy is most suitable for you and your partner.
What does a couples therapist do?
The role of the therapist is to help the couple listen effectively to each other and develop empathy towards the other’s thoughts, feelings, and concerns. The therapist accomplishes this by guiding the couple with thoughtful questions that stimulate a healthy discussion. He or she will also offer relationship exercises and tips that the couple can use during the session and outside of it. Through the course of the sessions, the therapist will help the couple apply new communication patterns and approaches to problem solving.
The therapist and the couple usually meet every two or three weeks, but it is also possible to meet more often depending on the severity of the case. How often the couple wants to see the therapist and how many sessions there will be are often discussed at the first meeting. A therapy session can be anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours.
How to choose a therapist
Choosing the right therapist is also key to successful counseling. Some of the things to consider are the therapist’s gender, age, education, identification, therapy approach, experience and even something as practical as the distance to the reception and the cost.
What to expect in couples therapy
The therapy begins with interview questions about the history of the couple’s relationship. The therapist may also choose to delve into the cultural background, family history, and values being upheld by each of the couple. In cases where there is intense emotional distress or problems, the therapist may choose to perform a crisis intervention at this stage.
In the phase that follows, the therapist will help the couple identify the main issue to resolve for the duration of the counseling. This is also the time when goals for the therapy sessions will be set along with the specifics of the treatment phase.
Most treatment phases evolve around exploring the dynamics of the couple’s relationship and how each party contributes to the dysfunction that they are experiencing. This process aims to shift the couple’s perspective of the relationship and of each other.
As the couple’s insights about their relationship and each other grows, the therapist will begin to move towards helping them change their behaviours and communication styles with one another. Typically, a form of homework is assigned to the couple so they can practice the skills that they have learned during the therapy sessions during their daily interactions with each other.
For every session, it is the therapist’s job to encourage each party to express themselves fully, even if to express anger. It should be noted that some couples therapists focus on helping the couple accept their partner’s shortcomings and realize that there are traits and behaviors that cannot be changed.
What do you talk about in couples therapy?
The topic of conversations during the therapy sessions will vary from couple to couple although existing conflicts or issues are almost always central in these conversations. The therapist encourages both parties to talk about their problems in order for their partner to gain a deeper understanding of the other’s behaviour. Depending on the situation, the therapist may decide to discuss childhood relationships or traumatic experiences (if there are any) as these can also influence how an individual treats their partner.
Another aspect of the relationship that is examined during therapy are the things that are currently going well for the couple. This is done by a therapist to help ground the couple back to why they decided to be in a relationship in the first place.
Who can benefit from partner therapy?
Couples therapy can be advantageous to just about any kind of couple including interracial couples, couples with significant age gaps, same sex couples, teen couples, and even couples who are engaged to be married.
Couples therapy can also bring a wealth of benefits to any relationship stage. For couples in long term relationships, this could mean rekindling their romance or excitement. On the other hand, couples who are only starting out can also seek a therapist’s expertise to help them adjust to their new life together.
Various relationship problems that couples therapy can help resolve
Therapy for couples is meant to address a wide variety of conflicts. Some of the common relationship problems that couples can address during therapy include:
- Infidelity or a cheating spouse
- Unsatisfactory sex life or other sexual difficulties
- Possibility of divorce
- Financial difficulties
- Mental or physical abuse
- Communication problems
- Differences in parenting
- Change in relationship dynamics
- Lack of trust and insecurity
Different relationship difficulties may require different types of couples therapy. It is up to the therapist to listen to the problems and decide which structure to use for the therapy sessions.
When to seek relationship counseling
Couples do not need to wait for a major relationship crisis before considering couples therapy. Even a couple with minor difficulties can benefit from a few conversations with a therapist.
However, there are situations where couples therapy becomes a necessity for the relationship not to collapse. Seek relationship therapy immediately if:
- You lack of trust in your partner
- You are unwilling to express yourself, discuss problems, or even engage in simple daily conversations with your partner
- When the relationship is draining your energy
- You are experiencing feelings of loneliness even when you are with your partner
- Quarrels are frequent or are happening daily
- Quarrels have become a vicious circle in the relationship
- You have resentment over unresolved conflicts
- You are considering divorce or leaving the relationship
- You are having difficulty being close and spending time with your partner
- There is a long-standing silence and lack of communication
- It is no longer possible to forgive your partner
Should we go to marriage counseling or get a divorce?
Not every difficult relationship leads to divorce or separation. Marriage counseling can do wonders for marriages that seem to be falling apart. If your relationship with your spouse is rocky but you want to stay married, marriage counseling can help you and your partner reset and start anew. If you are leaning towards getting a divorce, counseling can also help you determine if this is indeed the best decision.
Is couples therapy effective?
Partner therapy brings about different resolutions for every couple. Sometimes, a couples therapist is able to reintroduce love and understanding, ultimately saving the relationship. There are also times when the best outcome is helping the couple realize that it is time to part ways and find peace and healing with that decision.
There are many studies that point out the positive results of couples therapy. In an American study conducted by psychology professor Andrew Christensen at UCLA,it is shown that couples therapy has helped half of 134 deeply unhappy couples to improve their relationships. Although 50% may seem like a small number, the result is still proof of the success of couples therapy. The effectiveness of couples therapy depends largely on the couple’s willingness to cooperate and actually try to improve the relationship.
Systemic, psychodynamic, humanistic, solution focused, cognitive behavioral and integrative therapies are all approaches that are used in couples therapy in the UK. A study by the Tavistock reported a significant increase in relationship satisfaction from the beginning of therapy to the end.
Relationship exercises and tips
Every couples therapist has their own techniques and will develop relationship exercises especially adapted for the couple that they are treating. If you are looking for simple ways or exercises to help improve your relationship quickly, you can do the following:
- Regularly reflect on or remind yourself of what you appreciate about your partner and what originally made you attracted to him/her;
- Be concrete and detailed with your thoughts, feelings and desires when communicating with your partner;
- Reaffirm each other often and show appreciation and interest in your partner;
- Learn to quit your arguments and repair your quarrels, and make sure that none of you leave the quarrel feeling bitter;
- Accept your partner and realize that you can not change everything;
- Be present;
- Learn the difference between a criticism and a complaint;
- Think about what you say, and how you say it (these are equally important);
- Write letters of gratitude to each other to show respect and gratitude
How much does couples therapy cost?
The price of couples therapy depends on where you are in the UK and what kind of therapist you want or need. An hour of counselling with a counsellor may cost between £10-£70, whilst with a clinical or counselling psychologist may cost £120-£180. Therapy via the NHS is free and local charities may also be able to offer free or low cost therapies.
Last updated on: 2022.03.02
Author: Monica Macaraeg