How can a couple tell if they would benefit from relationship counselling?
How might they recognise that their problems can no longer be resolved together?
There are no simple answers, but often there are rows about apparently trivial things which quickly intensify and become nasty and upsetting. Sometimes the relationship feels stale, 'we've got into a rut' and the couple end up leading separate lives. Often there are issues such as an affair, jealousy, debt, sex, parenting, in-laws, where the couple cannot understand each other's point of view. If you feel you are going round in circles, or are afraid to talk about a certain issue in case it makes things worse, or have nothing left to say to each other, then it might be the right time to try counselling.
People often find it more difficult to start couples counselling than individual therapy. They worry that telling the truth about how they feel will upset or anger their partner and make the situation even worse. When talking about their innermost hopes and fears, they are concerned that their partner might be dismissive or disagree with them. People also worry that the counsellor will take their partner's side in any disagreement.
As the therapy progresses it soon becomes apparent that a couples counsellor has a responsibility to both individuals and the focus of the therapy is their relationship issues. Both partners will be given equal 'air time' and understanding. Confidential individual sessions after the initial couples session help the counsellor understand each partner's perspective and to clarify what they both want. This enables the couples therapy to be more focused and effective.
Couples who overcome these hurdles and enter relationship therapy often experience an immediate uplift. This is partly due to relief that their problems are being addressed, but mainly because agreeing to attend couples counselling is usually a sign that your partner cares.
What happens in the sessions?
In the first session the couple are each given the opportunity to talk about the issues which have brought them to counselling and why they have decided to seek help at this point. They will be asked to give a 'potted history' of their relationship: how they met, what attracted them to each other and significant events, to enable their counsellor to place their present difficulties in the context of the whole relationship. It sometimes helps couples to remember the good things they experienced before their current difficulties and to reflect on why the relationship might be worth improving or saving.
The counsellor acts as a bridge to help each partner connect to the other's world. Helping couples communicate with more emotional honesty and find ways of talking about the 'difficult stuff' safely is an important element of couples therapy.
The therapist might make links between their past experiences of significant people, usually family members, and their influence on present feelings, behaviour and difficulties with their partner. Sometimes a family tree called a genogram is made to highlight differences and similarities in their respective family backgrounds. When two people form a relationship, they bring their individual family cultures, their life histories and experiences, beliefs and expectations into the new relationship. Relationship therapy helps couples to understand each other and themselves, and explains how they can meet each other's hidden emotional needs by making them conscious.
If a couple is experiencing difficulties in their sexual relationship, this can be explored with their couples counsellor, who will help them to talk about and resolve their problems. (If further, more specialised help is required, they can be referred to a psychosexual therapist).
When an issue or problem has been explored and understood, the counsellor will help the couple decide what changes can be realistically implemented to make their relationship happier and more fulfilling.
Separation and divorce counselling
If a couple, or one partner, decides that they cannot continue in the relationship, the counsellor's role is to help them manage the separation. The focus will be on working through their feelings of loss, helping the couple work together to resolve practical issues and prioritising the needs of any children. This therapy can help separating couples cooperate so that they can use family mediation and /or collaborative family lawyers, which can help reduce the emotional and financial costs of divorce. Separation counselling can be beneficial for couples and individuals.
How many sessions will we need?
This depends on the couple's problems and the commitment of both partners to engage with the counselling, but the average number is 8 sessions.
Can I attend by myself?
If possible it's best for a couple to attend relationship counselling together. Sometimes if one person starts the ball rolling the other partner will attend the next session too.
If your partner refuses to go with you, counselling can still help you. There may be changes you can make which will improve your relationship, or you can share insights and strategies with your partner.
Some people work out their feelings with a counsellor on their own before seeing a different counsellor with their partner for couples therapy.