Does online couples therapy work?
How does online couples counselling compare to in-person therapy?
The short answer is yes. Online couples counselling works. There are some pros and cons though compared to in-person therapy.
Benefits of online therapy for couples:
Physical safety during pandemics.
This one is, unfortunately, self-explanatory. By far most people on Earth understand this intuitively now.
Convenience of seeing a counsellor from your home.
When you see your therapist online, there is no need to travel to the therapist’s office. There is no sitting in the waiting room being exposed to be seen by other clients. You don’t need to park your car and walk into a clinic or an office with a therapist’s name on it.
Separate locations couples counselling.
Most online platforms now offer meetings with more than two people. Imagine sitting in front of your computer at home. Your partner is in his or her office or on a business trip oversees. Both of you can have a couples counselling session with your therapist. You see each other, and your therapist, on screen at the same time.
You can click the mute button any time. Have a quick confidential interaction with someone in the room or on your phone. That is usually very difficult in the therapist’s office. You would need to physically step outside to do that and waste valuable time. People with little experience in couples counselling will say “You should turn your phone off during therapy.” This statement is logical but inaccurate. After seeing more than a thousand couples I would say that it is not uncommon for the process to be occasionally interrupted by phone.
Limitations of online couples counselling
This is by far the main limitation to the process. No matter what program you use and how good it is, if internet signal goes down enough then your communication will get choppy or impossible. You may need to end the session and reschedule or continue by phone.
Inability to speak simultaneously.
No matter how good your connection is, it is impossible to have fully overlapping speech at the same time. This is a fine point and you may not even notice it if your connection is very good. Basically, you will need to take turns speaking as opposed to talking at the same time. It is actually helpful for couples who interrupt each other, and their therapist, too much. At the same time, it may be annoying for people who have a natural healthy tendency to take turns talking and listening.
If your therapist has not figured out how to use screen sharing, you can miss out on their ability to use a whiteboard to explain complex ideas by drawing or writing things for you. I personally struggled with this point until I leaned how to share my screen with clients and use my desktop as a whiteboard. Not an issue now!
Model-specific couples therapy.
There are some therapy models for couples that work only face-to-face. Some specific interventions and techniques require the therapist to be able to lean back and forth with their body. It helps them get physically closer or further away from one or both partners. There are some role play exercises and therapeutic “sculptures” that partners can do when they are physically in the therapist’s office. If your couples therapist thrives on such interventions then your best bet is to see them in person.
Fear of technology.
Unfortunately, this goes for some couples therapists and some clients. They cannot figure out how to download an online communication platform and feel embarrassed to ask someone to help them or walk them through the process. This is not really a limitation of online counselling itself but I included it here because it can prevent the process before it even begins.
All in all, most couples can benefit significantly from virtual couples therapy provided there is a good internet connection. Some people refuse to try online counselling with their partner because it is new or unnatural. There is no suggestion for that other than simply giving it a try to find out from experience whether it works for you or not. I have had couples who preferred to continue online counselling once they tried it on vacation even though they could drive to my office when they came back home.