Understanding Couples Therapy: A Guide to Setting Expectations and Achieving Success

by | Last updated May 7, 2024

If you’re experiencing concerns in your relationship, couples therapy can be a helpful way to work through those issues and improve the health and vitality of your partnership. However, if you’ve never been to couples therapy before, it can be difficult to know what to expect and how to prepare for the experience. This guide is designed to provide an overview of what to expect in couples therapy, including common reasons for seeking therapy, the therapy process, expectations for couples therapy, signs that therapy is working, and factors that can influence its success. Whether you’re considering couples therapy for the first time or are a seasoned therapy veteran, this guide can help you prepare for and make the most of the therapy experience.

What is couples therapy?

Couples therapy aims to help couples address issues in their relationship. It entails meeting with a trained mental health professional who can provide a safe and neutral space for the couple to discuss their concerns and work collaboratively to find solutions.

During couples therapy, the therapist helps the couple identify negative patterns of behavior, communication issues, and other challenges that may be affecting their relationship. The therapist may also teach the couple specific skills and techniques for improving communication, enhancing intimacy, and building a stronger bond.

What are common issues that bring people to couples therapy?

There are many issues that can bring people to couples therapy. Here are some common ones:

Communication: Many couples struggle to communicate well together, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts. Couples therapy can help partners learn new techniques to communicate , express feelings, listen, and validate one another in a more productive way.

Infidelity: When one partner has an affair or engages in other forms of cheating, it can be a major blow to the relationship. Couples therapy can help the couple address the root causes of the infidelity, rebuild trust, and move forward.

Sex: Problems with sex and intimacy can cause tension and frustration in a relationship. Couples therapy can help partners address issues related to sexual desire, frequency, satisfaction, and more.

Parenting: When partners have different parenting styles or values, it can lead to conflicts and disagreements. Couples therapy can help the couple find common ground and develop a parenting plan that works for both partners.

Finances: Money can be a major source of stress in a relationship. Couples therapy can help partners discuss their financial goals and concerns, create a budget, and work together to manage their finances.

Trust issues: When trust has been broken in a relationship, it can be difficult to repair. Couples therapy can help partners address issues related to trust and rebuild their bond.

Life transitions: Major life changes, such as moving in together, getting married, or the birth of a child can put stress on a relationship. Couples therapy can help partners navigate these changes and adjust to the new circumstances.

Where is the best place to find a couples therapist?

There are several ways to find a couples therapist. Here are some options:

Online directories: You can use online directories such as Psychology Today, which is a very popular site and has the largest number of therapist listings. Other you can also check out sites like GoodTherapy, and TherapyTribe to search for couples therapists in New York City or whatever area you’re searching for. These directories typically allow you to filter your search based on location, specialties, and other criteria.

Referrals from friends or family: If you know someone who has been to couples therapy and had a positive experience, you can ask them for a referral to their therapist.

Insurance provider: If you have health insurance, you can contact your insurance provider to get a list of therapists who are covered by your plan.

Employee assistance program (EAP): If you have an EAP through your employer, you may be able to get a referral to a couples therapist as part of your benefits.

Professional organizations: You can check with professional organizations such as the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) or the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) to find a licensed couples therapist in your area.

It is important to find a therapist who is trained and experienced in working with couples, and who you feel comfortable talking to. Don’t be afraid to schedule a consultation with a few different therapists to find the one who is the best fit for you and your partner.

What training does a couples therapist have?

Couples therapists can have a variety of graduate training degrees, depending on their educational background and the requirements of their licensing board. Here are some examples of graduate degrees that couples therapists may hold:

Master’s degree in Counseling: Many couples therapists have a Master’s degree in Counseling, which typically includes coursework in couples therapy, individual therapy, and group therapy. This degree is often required for licensure as a professional counselor.

Master’s degree in Social Work: A Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) can also prepare individuals to become couples therapists. This degree program typically includes coursework in clinical practice, human behavior, and social policy.

Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy: A Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) is a specialized degree that focuses specifically on working with couples and families. This degree program often includes coursework in couples therapy, family systems, and human development.

Doctoral degree in Psychology: Some couples therapists may hold a Doctoral degree in Psychology (Ph.D. or Psy.D.). These programs typically require extensive coursework in psychology, clinical training, and research, and can prepare individuals for licensure as a psychologist.

In addition to a graduate degree, couples therapists may also have completed specialized training and certifications from professional organizations such as the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). It is important to find a therapist who has the appropriate training and qualifications to work with couples, and who is licensed in their state.

What style or model of therapy is used for couples therapy?

Couples therapy is an area of active research, and its techniques and practices are constantly evolving. As such, it can be conducted in a variety of therapeutic techniques or models. A therapist’s method may vary depending on the couple’s individual concerns, the therapist’s training and experience, and other considerations. Below are some examples of common therapy styles or paradigms used in couples therapy:

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT)

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is an evidence-based couple’s counseling approach that focuses on identifying and correcting problematic patterns of emotional interactions between partners. EFT seeks to assist couples in developing a strong emotional bond and improving communication.

The Gottman Method

The Gottman Method is a research-based method to couples therapy that focuses on relationship building by improving communication, increasing intimacy, and improving emotional connection. Specific tactics for strengthening communication and resolving problems are included in the strategy.

Solution-Focused Brief Therapy

Solution-Focused Brief Therapy is a type of treatment that focuses on finding quick answers to the couple’s problems. The therapist assists the couple in identifying their strengths and resources and works with them to build realistic solutions to their problems.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a popular therapy strategy that focuses on modifying negative thought and behavior patterns. CBT may be used in couples therapy to assist partners in identifying and changing problematic thought patterns that are leading to relationship disputes.

It’s crucial to note that depending on the couple’s individual concerns and requirements, some therapists may utilize an integrated approach, pulling from different styles of treatment.

What does a typical session in couples therapy look like?

A typical couples therapy session can differ based on the therapist’s approach, the couple’s issues, and the stage of the therapy process. But, the following is an example of a normal session:

Check-in: Typically, the therapist will begin by checking in with the couple to see how they are doing and to evaluate any progress achieved since the previous session. The therapist may also inquire about any changes or difficulties that have arisen in the relationship since the previous session.

Discussing concerns: The couple will have the opportunity to address their concerns and any challenges they are having in their relationship. To assist the couple in exploring their thoughts and viewpoints, the therapist may ask particular questions.

Identifying patterns: The therapist may work with the couple to discover patterns of behavior or communication that are contributing to their difficulties. The therapist may assist the couple in seeing how their actions and reactions affect one another.

Skills development: The therapist may teach the couple specific skills or techniques to boost intimacy, improve communication, or address other issues. The therapist may demonstrate these abilities or give the pair activities to practice.

Homework: The therapist may assign homework or particular tasks to the couple to accomplish between sessions. This could include working on a specific topic or practicing specific communication skills.

Closing: Typically, the therapist will finish the session by summarizing what was addressed and discussing any goals or progress accomplished throughout the session. The therapist may also give the couple a sneak peek at what they might expect in the upcoming session.

It’s crucial to remember that each couple’s treatment experience will be unique, and sessions will vary in length, frequency, and content based on the couple’s specific concerns and goals. Also, different models of couples therapy use different timelines and strategies. For example, the first four sessions of EFT follows a predictable pattern and timeline, which you can read more about on our page about EFT.

What to expect in the first session of couples therapy.

The initial session of couples therapy is usually devoted to building a rapport between the therapist and the couple as well as determining their concerns and therapeutic objectives. In the beginning, the therapist will probably introduce themselves and describe how they approach therapy. The pair will next be prompted by the therapist to discuss their worries and the difficulties they hope to address in treatment. In addition to providing information about the therapy process and what to anticipate in subsequent sessions, the therapist may ask questions to elicit further information. The therapist may also work with the couple to decide on therapy objectives and to talk about any issues or questions they may have. In general, the initial session gives the couple a chance to meet their therapist, talk about their issues and objectives, and start the process of repairing their relationship.

How long do couples typically stay in therapy for?

Couples’ duration in therapy might vary depending on a number of things, such as their unique concerns, the therapist’s approach, and how far along they are in therapy. Couples counseling typically lasts a few months to many years.

After just a few sessions, many couples start to notice changes in their relationship; however, some couples may require longer time to address more complicated difficulties. To sustain their progress and avoid relapses, some couples may decide to attend counseling on a regular basis.

Couples who regularly attend sessions and actively participate in the therapeutic process tend to find that couples therapy is more successful. Being open and honest with the therapist and one another, practicing new skills, and completing homework assignments could all be part of this.

The length of time that couples spend in therapy ultimately depends on their unique goals, issues, and therapeutic success. It’s crucial to go over the anticipated time of therapy with the therapist and to be flexible with how the session is run.

How do you know if couples therapy is working?

Knowing whether couples counseling is effective can be challenging, especially when changes may take time to take place and not always be obvious. But, there are several telltale signals that may point to the partnership benefiting from couples counseling. Here are some typical signs that couples counseling is effective:

Improved communication: One of the main objectives of couples therapy is to help partners communicate better. A sign that treatment is having an impact on a relationship is if the couple is able to speak more clearly and listen to one another with more empathy and understanding.

Reduced conflict: Couples therapy can assist partners in finding more effective ways to resolve disagreements. It may be a sign that therapy is working if the couple can settle disputes more amicably and without as much strain.

Increased intimacy: Counseling can assist couples in developing more emotional and sexual intimacy in their relationship. The ability of the couple to feel closer and more devoted to one another may indicate that the therapy is bearing fruit.

Greater self-awareness: Couples counseling can assist partners in being more conscious of their own feelings, thoughts, and actions. Positive evidence that treatment is working for a couple is when they are able to understand themselves and their relationship better.

Achievement of therapy goals: Setting and achieving specific goals for the therapy process is common in couples therapy. If the couple succeeds in achieving these objectives, it may indicate that therapy is having an effect.

It’s crucial to remember that therapy progress isn’t always linear and might sometimes be sluggish. Couples frequently go with difficulties or obstacles along the way. Nonetheless, many couples are able to significantly improve their relationship through couples counseling with tenacity and a dedication to the therapy process.

Factors that make couples therapy more successful

Couples therapy can be successful in helping couples improve their relationship, but success rates can vary depending on a variety of factors. Here are some factors that can influence the success of couples therapy:

Motivation and commitment: Couples who are motivated to improve their relationship and who are committed to the therapy process are more likely to experience success in couples therapy.

Severity of concerns: Couples who are experiencing more severe or chronic concerns may require more extensive or long-term therapy to achieve significant improvements.

Openness to change: Couples who are open to learning and trying new skills and behaviors are more likely to experience success in couples therapy.

Fit with therapist: Couples who feel a good fit with their therapist and who feel comfortable and safe during therapy sessions are more likely to experience success.

Therapist training and experience: Therapists who have specialized training and experience working with couples are generally more effective in helping couples achieve positive outcomes.

Timing: The timing of couples therapy can also be an important factor in its success. Some couples may benefit from seeking therapy earlier in their relationship, before issues become more deeply ingrained.

Support system: Couples who have a strong support system outside of therapy, such as friends or family members who are supportive of their relationship, may be more likely to experience success in therapy.

It’s important to remember that success in couples therapy depends on the unique circumstances of each couple, and that the therapy process can be different for each individual. The most important factor is the willingness of both partners to engage in the therapy process and to work towards positive change in their relationship.

What should you do if you’re not seeing improvements in your relationship with couples therapy?

It’s crucial to communicate your worries with your therapist and look into alternative therapies if couples therapy isn’t working. If you believe that counseling isn’t working, try these steps:

Talk to your therapist: It’s crucial to voice your concerns to your therapist if you believe therapy isn’t working. To better suit your needs, your therapist might be able to change how treatment is conducted or how it is approached.

Consider switching therapists: If you don’t think your present therapist is a good fit, you might want to think about finding a new therapist with an alternative method or viewpoint.

Explore alternative therapy options: If traditional couples therapy isn’t working, you might want to look into alternative counseling choices, such internet therapy, group therapy, or a different approach to therapy.

Reassess your goals: It could be beneficial to reevaluate your therapeutic goals and make any necessary adjustments. It could be time to reconsider your strategy if your objectives are unrealistic or are not being achieved.

Consider taking a break: If treatment is adding to the stress or conflict in your relationship, it might be beneficial to stop going to therapy and put your attention on alternative ways to strengthen your bond.

Keep in mind that couples counseling can be a difficult and complicated process, and that development might not always be linear. Yet, you can continue to work towards constructive change in your relationship by being open and honest with your therapist, investigating more possibilities, and reevaluating your goals.

Final thoughts on expectations for couples therapy

In conclusion, couples therapy can be an effective tool for improving communication, resolving conflicts, and strengthening emotional bonds between partners. The therapy process can be different for each couple, and success depends on a variety of factors, including motivation, commitment, therapist experience, and openness to change. By understanding what to expect in couples therapy, identifying the factors that can influence its success, and staying committed to the therapy process, couples can work towards creating a healthier, more fulfilling relationship. If you are experiencing concerns in your relationship, seeking the guidance of a qualified therapist can be an important first step towards building a stronger and more resilient partnership.

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