What to expect when you come to Relationship Counselling
- Couples who are having problems in their relationship may benefit from attending a counselling session that focuses entirely on their relationship.
- Many couples approach their first session with trepidation and apprehension, but they quickly relax into the process and come to value the experience and the benefits.
- The first session is primarily an information gathering session where the couples counsellor will ask you to discuss your history and your troubles.
- Couples counsellors use a variety of modalities and techniques to help you work through your relationship problems. Techniques include: open discussions, role modeling, role playing and analysing negative patterns of behaviour.
- Professional couples counsellors and psychologists are trained to avoid personal bias when counselling a couple.
Many couples are apprehensive if they have never attended a relationship counselling session before. Very often, couples have questions about how the counsellor, psychologist or therapist will conduct themselves during the interview, whether the counsellor will take sides or what they may have to reveal as part of their couples therapy.
While relationship counselling might seem rather intimidating at first, many couples find that their relationship will benefit if they attend with an open mind and a willingness to work with their partner. Not only can couples resolve current conflict and distress, the benefits have been shown to last for years after therapy (1).
In many cases, the couples counsellor is able to narrow down the focus of the therapy in order to identify the primary issues which need addressing. Although every practitioner has their own unique approach to relationship and couples counselling, there are a few common elements to be found. Communication issues, different values and expectations, and trust issues are just a few of the most common areas of conflict in relationships (2).
HOW DO I PREPARE FOR MY FIRST SESSION OF COUPLES COUNSELLING?
You do not need to bring anything to your first session of couples counselling, nor do you need to prepare in any formal way. Many couples like to spend some time thinking about why they are going to counselling, and what issues they might want to discuss whilst there, but this is not essential. An experienced couples counsellor will be able to ‘start the ball rolling’ by asking the right questions to get you thinking and talking about the problems you and your partner are experiencing in your relationship.
WHAT TOPICS ARE COVERED IN THE FIRST SESSION?
The first session is where the ground rules and boundaries for the relationship counselling are set. During this first session, you and your partner can expect the therapist to talk about confidentiality, mandatory reporting situations (for example, in circumstances of child abuse etc), their policies regarding cancellations and what methodologies they use when they work with couples on relationship issues.
Once this information is covered, the couples counsellor or psychologist will generally take a brief history from you, covering the issues or problems that are bringing you to counselling, as well as a history of your relationship. They may ask questions like:-
- What issues have you been experiencing in your relationship?
- How long have these issues been a problem in your relationship?
- Have you ever been in relationship counselling before?
- What have you and your partner done to try to resolve these issues?
- What are your expectations of couples counselling?
In this way, the initial session is more than anything about information–gathering, although real and meaningful issues are often discussed and worked on even at this early stage. The real work of counselling will usually start during the second session, when your couples counsellor has a clear idea of the nature of your problems, and all of the “business” has been taken care of and is clear to everyone.
HOW IS A SESSION CONDUCTED?
Generally speaking, both people in the relationship will attend a couples counselling session together, at least initially. This is to help establish an association with the couples counsellor that is clearly about the couple and their relationship. Some relationship counsellors and indeed some clients then find it beneficial to see the counsellor individually, in turn, before meeting up again as a couple. Some relationship counsellors will only ever see their couples clients when they attend together. If you are in these circumstances, but you have a particular issue that primarily affects you as an individual, such as depression or an addiction, then your couples counsellor might suggest you see another psychologist or clinician for individual therapy to attend to that particular issue.
Usually a session of couples counselling is a combination of several different tasks. The counsellor’s first task is to set you and your partner at ease and make you comfortable. Counselling or therapy is about developing trust with your counsellor or psychologist so that you feel comfortable and safe talking about issues that may be very personal and extremely difficult to discuss. A professional and ethical counsellor will make every effort to allow both of you to tell your side of the issue when it comes to talking about the issues you and your partner are struggling with in your relationship.
The counsellor may use several different types of methods to help you and your partner in the counselling process. This may include:-
- openly discussing difficult topics,
- sharing feelings
- analyzing your behavioural patterns and the ways in which you communicate
- teaching you techniques to help you improve your communication methods,
- role playing,
- role modeling,
- asking you about your childhood and family history or
- pointing out discrepancies in your and your partner’s behaviour.
You may also be asked to undertake projects or practice tasks between sessions (like homework) in order to help with the counselling process. For example, you may be given an assignment regarding how to touch each other (give a massage that is not sexual in nature at least once before the next session), or you may be asked to record your feelings or arguments in a diary and be asked to report back on the experience during the next session.
WHAT ABOUT THERAPIST BIAS?
Professional counsellors, psychologists and therapists work very hard to recognise and contain their own personal biases – if they are concerned about how these might impact on the therapy, they might even disclose to you up front what they are (this may occur at the beginning of therapy or at a time in therapy when an issue comes up that pushes against their own personal feelings). However, many counsellors and psychologists will work through their own biases in their own counselling or supervisory processes (many good therapists strongly believe that they should be in their own therapy if they are practicing). Examples of biases that might confront a therapist include strongly held religious beliefs (or a disdain for them), beliefs about homosexuality and same sex couples, or a belief about the commitment of marriage. If you are concerned about any biases or potential bias that you might face, you should discuss these openly with your therapist.
Another way in which personal bias is often a concern for couples is a fear that the counsellor or psychologist might side with one member of the couple over another during the counselling process. Although this is certainly a cause for concern, what you will probably discover is that most ethical and professional counsellors work very diligently to ensure that this never happens. Both parties are not only allowed to speak about their viewpoints and experiences, but they are even allowed to disagree during the process.
HOW CAN A COUPLE BENEFIT FROM COUPLES THERAPY?
Couples benefit from couples therapy in a variety of ways. Very often, the source of our problems as couples is not that we do not love and care about our partners; it is that we do not know how to communicate well about what we want and need. In fact, research indicates that communication difficulties is the number one cause of relationship breakdowns (3).
The benefits of couples counselling can include:
- Learning better communication skills and how to really listen to our partner without jumping to conclusions or starting an argument;
- Learning how to better understand the struggles, challenges and fears of our partner;
- Learning how to fight and disagree with each other without destroying each other in the process;
- Improving intimacy, both sexual and non-sexual
- Learning how to honor family relationships (particularly in blended families);
- Learning about personal boundaries and past history that we may not have known before;
- Deciding whether there is enough of a relationship to salvage;
- Mediation for a relationship that is ending.
WHERE DO I GO FOR RELATIONSHIP COUNSELLING?
If you and your partner are struggling in your relationship or want to learn how to connect more deeply and emotionally, you may find that talking with a professional counsellor, psychologist or therapist may be very helpful. For more information or to schedule a consultation with a qualified counsellor, contact Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors Sydney.
Wiebe SA, Johnson SM, Lafontaine MF, Burgess Moser M, Dalgleish TL, Tasca GA. Two-year follow-up outcomes in emotionally focused couple therapy: An investigation of relationship satisfaction and attachment trajectories. J Marital Fam Ther. 2017;43(2):227-244. doi:10.1111/jmft.12206.