Relationship Repair: 8 Questions About Couples Counseling
Every couple can benefit from therapy. Nancy Ryan, MA, LMFT, founder and director of Relationship Therapy Center, says there’s a few stages throughout the course of a relationship when seeing a therapist will help strengthen your foundation. “Before a couple moves in together or gets married, it can be really helpful to meet with a therapist for a few sessions to discuss your relationship—including unspoken expectations, goals, and values—and learn good communication and conflict resolution,” she says. Other pivotal times when couples might benefit from therapy? “When a baby comes, when there are new blended families, or when a couple goes through empty nesting.”
Talal H. Alsaleem, PsyD, LMFT, at Happily Ever After Counseling & Coaching, says “couples shouldn’t only seek counseling when they’re experiencing relationship dissatisfaction, but also before they escalate the level of commitment in the relationship,” he says. “This is why pre-marital counseling tends to increase the potential for having a successful relationship.”
Have you thought about talking to your partner about counseling, but weren’t sure how to start the conversation? We turned to local marriage and family therapists who shared the answers to questions about counseling you might be too afraid to ask.
1) How do I pick the right professional to help with our counseling needs?
Dr. Alsaleem breaks this down into two steps. First, identify the type of counseling services that are best suited for your needs, such as individual counseling, marriage counseling, or family counseling. “Then, before you book your first session, have a consultation with the counselor you plan to work with. The consultation is usually free and designed to help you and the counselor determine whether or not you’re a good fit for each other. For example, do they have the experience, training, and license necessary to provide you with the services you need? Is their counseling style and personality compatible with yours?”
2) How long will we have to be in therapy?
It varies, according to Joe Borders, MFT. “Most commonly, couples therapy is done on a weekly basis and continues until the couple decides to stop for one reason or another,” he says. “Depending on the situations that bring you to therapy, it can be a month, a year, or more. If therapy goes well, however, it often becomes something people choose to continue even after their original presenting problems get better.”
3) Will the therapist take sides?
“Therapists are trained professionals and are required to maintain therapeutic neutrality,” Dr. Alsaleem says. “This stance requires objectivity, which allows the therapists to see both sides of the issue. Keep in mind that neutrality doesn’t mean everyone is right. Because, at the end of the day, the therapist’s job is to identify the breakdown in the relationship and the factors that have contributed to it.”
4) Can I go alone?
Dr. Alsaleem always recommends couples start the therapy process together rather than alone. “This will set the stage for working on the issues as partners rather than adversaries and will also avoid misperception about having the therapist align with the partner who started the sessions individually. Attempting to fix relationship issues solo has limited therapeutic benefits, because the therapist needs to hear both partners’ sides of the issue,” he says.
5) Can we recover from infidelity?
Yes, it is possible. “People often get caught up in the idea that infidelity means the end of a relationship. That is not always true,” Borders says. “We have a cultural assumption that this is the ultimate deal-breaker nobody should tolerate. Affairs happen for many different reasons and can mean many different things to different people. Only you, as an individual and as a couple, can decide if you can heal the relationship after an affair, but it doesn’t have to mean the end. Not all affairs are pre-contemplated or the result of malice, and I have seen a good number of couples recover from them.”
6) Can therapy help if we’re unsure about staying together?
Borders says yes. “The goal of therapy is not always to help a couple stay together. Sometimes it’s to end a relationship in an amicable way and sometimes people come in without solid goals and just want to get un-stuck. If you’re unsure about staying together, therapy can help you talk about all of the issues contributing to this indecision and come to a conclusion together,” he says.
7) How do I suggest therapy to my partner?
Ryan likes to give a sports metaphor to remind couples about the benefits of therapy. “Even athletes at the top of their games have coaches, because we can’t always see objectively what is going on,” she says. “We need other people to do that for us. Even therapists need therapists! We don’t get relationship playbooks. Say to your partner something like, ‘I want us to always feel connected, close, and loving and learn new tools to handle any conflicts. I want us to keep growing and learn ways for us to be the best partners we can be. Would you consider attending a few sessions of therapy so we can stay on track?’ Or if it’s a tougher situation, ‘I really want us to get better at being partners and I am afraid if we don’t get help, we will keep hurting each other. Let’s please go to counseling and learn better ways.’”
8) As partners, what should we both know before starting therapy?
“Negative ways of thinking and behaviors take years to develop and will not disappear overnight,” Dr. Alsaleem says. “The flip side of this is that counseling shouldn’t be forever. It’s a process that should have a beginning, middle, and end. Once you achieve your goals and life is back in balance, stay on top of your mental well-being. It’s kind of like seeing the dentist—you shouldn’t just do it when you have a cavity or need a root canal. Prevention is the best cure.”
by Kourtney Jason