6 Ways To Get The Most Out Of Your Couples Counselling Experience
How can we get the most out of marriage counselling or couples therapy? This is a very important question to ask if you are looking for counselling services to help your relationship.
After helping couples in Vaughan for over 10 years and providing thousands of hours of counselling services to couples in general I came up with simple, but not so obvious, strategies you can use to maximize your success in couples therapy or marriage counselling.
1. Ask the right questions. When choosing a marriage counsellor or couples therapist it is not enough to know that the person is qualified to provide counselling services to couples. For instance, in Ontario and specifically in Vaughan, any qualified counsellor or therapist can legally provide couples counselling services. They do not need to be a specialist in order to say that they work with couples. In fact, most of their case load can consist of individual therapy , family therapy, therapy with small children and such. Marriage counselling or couples therapy may be a very small portion of their work.
What does it mean to you as a client? Simple. When they read professional literature, they probably focus mostly on general counselling services or psychotherapy. A specialist in couples therapy chooses to read articles related to couples counselling or marriage counselling. That specialist probably attends conferences and trainings related to counselling services for couples. When providing counselling services to their community, that specialist probably sees mostly or only couples. It is a very simple and probably the most confusing concept when it comes to choosing someone to help your relationship.
What can you do? Ask “How many couples do you see per week?” Why not simply ask “How long have you been doing this?” – the most common question I hear. The answer is simple. Any generalist can gladly answer “25 years” or “I’ve been working with clients for 10 years” or even “I’ve been working with couples for 20 years”. Does it tell you whether they are a specialist in marriage counselling or couples therapy? No, it doesn’t. What if for the last 10, 20, or 25 years they have been mostly seeing clients with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, general mental health and such? And maybe they saw a couple here and there. Is it going to help you and your partner when it comes to the intricate details of communication, passion, emotional and sexual intimacy, companionship and commitment? Maybe a tiny bit, but not much.
If you ask someone “How many couples do you typically see per week?” and they say “10, 15, 20” then you know you are talking to a specialist. Why? Because a generalist would not have such a high number. A typical successful generalist sees one to three couples per week at best. The rest of their counselling services is probably individuals with various issues and maybe children and youth as well. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. They simply chose to broaden their scope of practice. Others chose to specialize. Which counselling service you choose is up to you.
There are a couple of concerns people describe about that direct question. First, they wonder – so the person is seeing 10-20 couples per week, but for how long? Maybe they started specializing 10 months ago? That is a valid concern. To account for that blind spot you can ask an additional question “How long have you been specializing in couple work?” Please note that “How long have you been doing it?” or “How long have you been working with couples?” is not the same question.
The second concern is that it is awkward to ask about the average number of couples they see per week. I agree, it is a little bit awkward. What if you already like how they sound on the phone and you don’t want to make the conversation uncomfortable by asking that difficult and truly meaningful question. Again, the choice is yours. Hopefully, now it is an informed choice. You can choose your marriage counsellor based on how good they sound on the phone or you can narrow down to an experienced specialist. In an ideal world you can get both! In real life, you may need to choose one or the other.
2. Make the most of your first session. Many people intuitively use the first session to assess whether the marriage counsellor is a good fit for them or not. I agree that, in general, this is a good strategy. There is one caveat though. If you leave the first session and you really liked the therapist, you need to ask yourself one important question. “How is this person going to help us?” If the answer is too general like – “It seems they know what they are doing” or “I feel very comfortable with that person” then there is a good chance you are seeing a generalist. You wonder why?
There is a big difference between an experienced therapist and an experienced couples therapist. Both can make you feel very comfortable with them and seem that they know what they are doing, on a good day at least. A specialist is different in one crucial way. By the end of the first session she or he will clearly formulate their understanding of your issues and – pay special attention here – will describe to you in simple terms how they will approach resolving your specific concerns. As a result, when you ask yourself later “How is this person going to help us?” the answer should not be too general. It should be quite specific. That is the best way to tell if your first consultation was with a true relationship specialist.
For instance, “She or he really understood the central issues in our relationship as opposed to focusing on some peripheral or superficial things. They were able to formulate it to us in simple terms. We know what to do until our second session with them. We know what is likely to happen during the second session. We know approximately how many sessions it will take to see a significant shift in our relationship. The therapist clearly explained where they will begin. Maybe they said they will start by giving us some practical tools on communication because our central issue is going in circles when having difficult conversations. Maybe they will start with sex therapy because that is the most pressing concern. If the central issue is an affair they were clear on their suggestions on how to handle it for now, until they help us process it deeper.”
In a nutshell, your feeling after the first session should be more of “I have more clarity about the situation we are in” as opposed to “I really like him or her”. Please don’t get me wrong, liking your therapist is also very important. It’s hard to work with someone you can’t relate to. The point I am trying to make is that you will like anyone who is really likable. That does not make them a specialist in marriage counselling or couples therapy. They may even be a likable therapist who is also qualified to provide couples counselling services in your geographical area. Now you are better informed to tell whether they are also a specialist or not. Again, the informed choice is yours.
3. Look for a different experience than you have at home. Think of it this way – if you escalate and argue during sessions like you do at home, how is couples therapy being helpful? If you rehash the same things you talk about at home without adding anything valuable, how is marriage counselling benefiting you? If your partner is withdrawn during couples counselling sessions just like he or she is withdrawn at home and you are the only one talking, how is this counselling service helpful? You are right, it is probably not very helpful. Here are some things you want to see by session 3 or 4.
The one thing your marriage counselling specialist should be good at is leading the session. Couples counselling is very different from personal counselling or individual psychotherapy. In individual counselling you are the only client. The therapist can follow you for a while without saying much or interfering in any way. An experienced marriage counsellor would not allow you to speak for too long simply because she or he doesn’t have that “luxury”. If they pull back and observe your interaction with your spouse you will probably keep interacting the way you do it at home. Considering that you are sitting in the therapist’s couch, your natural way is probably not very effective. Therefore, your marriage counsellor needs to be skilled at guiding your interactions, not following them. You still know your relationship and your partner better than the counsellor does. However, the counsellor should know the process of marriage counselling better than you and they need to guide it.
So, if by session 4 you are going in circles, chances are that by session 14 you will still be going in circles. Change your therapist. Find a specialist.
The best indicator of your need to change counsellors by session 3 or 4 is when you start thinking things like “He is really nice (remember you liked him on the phone and he made a really good impression in the first session) but he is just not doing much. We are kind of going in circles”.
It may be difficult to end therapy with someone you like and it would cost you extra to start with someone else. All true. On the other hand, it’s your relationship that is on the line.
4. There needs to be comfort discussing sexual topics. Any specialist in marriage counselling and couples therapy will be comfortable talking about sex with you. In fact, many counsellors in the field are also experienced sex therapists. At some point in couples therapy, if you did not bring it up yourself, your marriage counsellor should probably ask you something like “How is your physical intimacy?” or “Many couples have sexual concerns. I wonder if you have any?”
If you don’t have any sexual concerns, you will say so. I find that if that question is asked, many couples describe at least some sexual issues. Most common sexual concerns include frequency and quality of sexual intimacy. In that case, sex therapy is necessary either as a part of your couples therapy process or you can be referred to a separate sex therapist. You or your partner may also be referred for sex therapy individually in order to then resume couples therapy.
If you feel that there are some sexual concerns and your therapist is not asking that question, try to bring it up yourself. It may be awkward initially to break the ice. That is why many couples counsellors are also experienced in sex therapy. They need to be comfortable enough absorbing the discomfort of breaking the ice. If they don’t, I suggest you do. One exception would be if there was significant sexual trauma and your partner is uncomfortable discussing it with the couples counsellor. You need to respect that. It is still a good idea to discuss with your partner at home how this “elephant in the room” may be slowing down or interfering with your couples counselling process.
5. Facing each other during sessions helps. Most successful models of couples therapy will sooner or later ask you to face each other and say things to one another. This is yet another way to tell a specialist from a generalist. Most generalists will keep talking and listening to you for the whole hour, every single session. Most specialists will get you to a place of talking to each other.
In order for the therapist to ask you to turn to each other and talk they need to know how to facilitate that process. As discussed earlier, they need to know how to make sure you do not start arguing, or shutting down, or interrupting each other, like you usually do at home. They need to be able to foster a productive dialogue between the two of you. The kind of dialogue that is different from your communication at home.
If you had a few sessions with your counsellor and they never asked you to face each other and they never helped you communicate directly to one another – you know what to do.
6. There is often a mixture of couple and individual sessions. Sometimes it is important to meet individually in the context of couples counselling. There are multiple reasons for this. The most important one is when you and your partner have polarized goals for couples therapy. For instance, one of you is leaning into the relationship while the other one is leaning out. An experienced marriage counsellor will probably suggest an individual session for each at this point. There are other legitimate reasons for individual sessions too.
Sometimes I sense resistance when I recommend individual sessions to couples. This complicates the process. Your counsellor at this point may try to “sell” this idea to you which may or may not work. You may feel that you are losing trust in your couples counsellor if they oversell it. For that reason, they may be too cautious and not sell it at all but rather continue meeting with you both. This puts your relationship at a direct disadvantage because, clinically speaking, it makes little sense to continue meeting together. It will polarize you even further and you will see that your relationship is getting worse, not better.
Your partner may actually suggest to meet individually for a session. If you are okay with that then there is no problem. I often see resistance though. People start bringing up concerns like “If you have something to say – then say it in front of me” or “I will not accept any secrets in our relationship”.
On the one hand, this position makes sense, at least logically. There can be more to this logic though. Sometimes your partner may not feel comfortable talking in front of you because they are truly concerned about hurting your feelings. Sometimes they may be afraid to lose their face in front of you. Shame is a powerful emotion in relationships.
The point is – if either your marriage counsellor or your partner expresses an interest in individual sessions during your couples therapy – agree to it. Make sure that after a session or two individually you get back as a couple and continue working together. That would be a healthy couples counselling process.
I hope that at this point you are better prepared to look for a specialist in marriage counselling or couples therapy. I also hope that you are able to assess whether your current therapist is a specialist or not. If you are concerned about anything with your current couples counsellor – bring it up to them. It is awkward and uncomfortable. However, once it is on the table, you will either resolve it or move on to someone else. It is that simple.