Making the Most Out of Couples Counselling
by Catherine Morris | February 15, 2021, updated almost 2 years ago
Even the most committed partnership has its ups and downs. If you find yourself getting too low during the lows, it might be a good idea to enlist professional help—to break a stalemate, work through a recurring issue, figure out what's next, or simply do a relationship check-in to make sure you're on track.
It's not always easy to take that step. If the thought of therapy has you or your partner in a cold sweat, don't worry. Nerves are totally normal for first-timers—even those who've been through the process are sometimes hesitant.
Being prepared and knowing what couples counselling actually entails will ease those jitters. Here are some tips on making the most of your session—from finding the right therapist, to setting goals and boundaries.
When couples connect with a counsellor, it's usually to address something that's been simmering for a while. Before jumping into therapy, it's a good idea to have an open and honest conversation with your partner about what you both want to get out of it.
Intimacy coach and relationship specialist Viktoria Kalenteris says it's especially important to zone in on the why before embarking on your therapy journey, adding—
“Identify the issue. Is it connection? Communication? A traumatic background? That needs to be taken care of [before you book].”
It's a sensitive discussion to have, and all sorts of uncomfortable and ugly feelings may be exposed—anger, fear, loneliness, shame. The latter is particularly painful as shame can lead us to shut down and tune out.
Rule number one: it's not shameful to ask for help. In fact, it's the responsible thing to do, for yourself and for your partner. You both deserve to be happy, and taking steps to make that happen isn't something to be embarrassed about. You're looking at the situation and being proactive and courageous about how to address it. Counsellors are there to help and you don't have to fix everything yourselves.
“There is a stigma,” says Kalenteris. “But it is slowly dissipating as people are realizing they cannot do it alone and it is possible for someone to take your hand and guide you through it.”
It can take time to find the right match, but don't be afraid to make those connections and schedule some introductory chats. Most therapists will offer free getting-to-know-you appointments, without any commitment for further treatment, and they will understand that you want to be 100% sure it's a good fit before proceeding.
When you do find someone, it's crucial that both parties agree it's a match—if your partner's not happy with the pick, they'll be less invested in the process and more on edge as you work through it. They may even feel as if the counsellor is there to represent the other partner, not them.
“You have to be with a counsellor or coach that does not side with one partner, because that creates more resentment. People want to be heard completely and fully, that is the most important part. You need empathetic connection and compassionate communication.”
Before the Session
Now you talk… even if things are so bad that communicating seems impossible. It's crucial that you're both involved and engaged, so talk about what you want to achieve and what a 'good' result would look like.
Be wary of going into your counselling with unrealistic expectations, however. Reconciliation might not be possible, you might just want to reach a point where you can amicably separate, and that's okay. Counselling may not solve all your issues, it may not reignite your romance, but that doesn't mean it's not a good idea or ineffective.
In her work with clients, Kalenteris takes a clear-eyed approach and encourages honesty about the work involved, saying—“I try to bring it back to ground level and come back to a realistic understanding of what is happening. Going back to the honeymoon phase [if that's what clients want] takes work. You have to be fully present and engaged and curious about your partner, not berating them. You have to do it in a mindful, respectful way.”
She also urges couples to remember that just taking that step into counselling together is a good sign—“When you decide to ask for help you are invested in the relationship, you are invested in the outcome [of therapy] and figuring out the best avenue for your well being.”
During the Session
The unfortunate reality is that things can get heated during couples counselling. There's a lot of emotions in the room, and the counsellor's role is to ensure both parties have space to speak and feel supported.
The key to creating that supportive environment is ensuring each partner feels heard, according to Kalenteris, who continually checks in with her clients throughout the session, not just listening but reading body language and tone.
“They are vulnerable so you need a checklist—are they feeling uncomfortable, are they feeling like they are being favoured, is the conversation in a safe space for them, do they feel comfortable by the end of the session so there's no bomb they take home. They need to leave feeling comforted that whatever arose in the session is not volatile or explosive.”
If you find things surfacing that are impeding your progress as a couple it might be a sign that you need to step back. We often carry old issues into relationships and if they are holding you back, that should be addressed before working together as a couple.
“Certain imprints we carry with us and they affect us and our relationships. Step back and deal with that first. Connect to yourself before you connect with your partner,” says Kalenteris.
Relationship issues are rarely solved in one session, so prepare yourself for at least a few. If you or your partner get discouraged it might be a good idea to have another check-in, keeping the lines of communication open and reminding each other of the ultimate goal.
Take the opportunity to remind each other why you're embarking on therapy and recommit to the journey.
A good counsellor will share advice that couples can put into action right away so even if you walk out of your first session at odds, you will have a toolkit to work from. According to Kalenteris.
“Anything given during a session can be applied in everyday life moving forward. You can implement these tools right away. Counselling is the gift that keeps on giving.”
If you're dealing with relationship issues and need help, connect with Viktoria Kalenteris or one of our many Which Doctor therapists, counsellors or coaches. All offer either in-person or virtual appointments, available through our easy to use booking platform.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.