Some people believe you will know you are truly in love, when everything feels easy and falls exactly into place. However, the reality is that love, even true love, is not always easy. This is because relationships are not easy. No matter how much you like and love one another, and how compatible you may be, there will be times when you disagree or even argue. When you recognize your relationship is not all that you want it to be, you might consider relationship counseling. Many people use relationship counseling for many different reasons. Learn more about this approach and how it can help you:
What is Relationship Counseling?
It is highly likely that you have heard of relationship counseling and have at least some ideas of what it might entail. Relationship counseling is similar in some ways to individual counseling. One difference is that you attend with your partner or partners. Another big difference is that the focus will be on the relationship, rather than any one person. However, in some cases, relationship counseling might reveal that one or both partners could also benefit from some individual counseling to address certain issues.
Relationship counseling usually involves regular sessions with one or more mental health providers. Sometimes couples may benefit from meeting with a pair of counselors, perhaps a pair that are themselves in a relationship. The relationship counseling sessions may be weekly or every other week, depending on the counselors’ recommendations and the couples’ preferences.
Why Relationship Counseling?
Relationship counseling can be beneficial at different points in a relationship and it can be used to address many different concerns. Some couples pursue relationship counseling early on to start well and establish healthy communication patterns. Many couples choose to pursue couples counseling before they marry or make a big commitment to one another to smooth out any potential problems.
There are also many other common concerns that might lead a couple to seek relationship counseling. One problem that sends many couples into counseling is infidelity. Many couples want help moving past this and are able to either repair the relationship or let the counseling process assist in bringing the relationship to an end. Obviously, it is ideal to seek counseling prior to this, to prevent the infidelity.
Couples who experience a loss, such as through miscarriage or the death of a child, often seek counseling to help them cope with their grief. Aside from this type of unexpected challenge, parenting is generally difficult. Many couples use relationship counseling to help them co-parent effectively and to balance that with also maintaining their core relationship.
Other issues that can drive couples into relationship counseling can be ongoing disagreements, new changes and challenges, and a sense of growing apart rather than together. Moreover, research from John Gottman has suggested that individuals with relationship problems tend to share some common challenges. Gottman entitled these challenges, the four horsemen.
Gottman’s Four Horsemen
After extensive research, Gottman found four factors that, when present, suggest major relationship problems likely to cause the end of a relationship or divorce. Gottman described these using the analogy of The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. In the relationship arena, these represent criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Learn more about each:
In Gottman’s model, criticism is more than just a critique of a specific issue. Instead, it is described as attacks on one’s partner. These attacks may go after more than just a specific characteristic and instead target their entire core character. When partners are too critical of one another, it can lead to feelings of rejection and emotional pain. Overtime, the behavior and the resulting feelings can eat away at a relationship, until it dissolves entirely.
Gottman’s second horsemen is contempt. When someone is feeling contempt towards another person, they behave in ways that are downright disrespectful. This may show up in behaviors such as name calling, making sarcastic comments, mimicking body language, and eye-rolling. The target of the contempt eventually feels worthless and despised. Both are unhappy.
Defensiveness is another horseman. This typically appears when one partner is responding to critique. It may appear as excuse making or even playing the innocent victim. This is not helpful because no improvement or growth can occur in the relationship. It will often leave the partner who made the critique feeling as though their concerns are not being taken seriously. Ultimately, they may also start to feel hopeless about whether there can be any improvement.
The final horseman is stonewalling. In this, one partner withdraws and shuts down, rather than participating in discussion. Again, this keeps problems from getting resolved. If left unaddressed it can be deleterious for a relationship. The exhibition of this or any of the other three horsemen typically suggests that a couple needs the help of relationship counseling.
From Boredom to Growth
Another issue that can drive couples to seek relationship counseling is boredom. Often when couples become bored it is because things have become standard and routine. This may occur both in and outside the bedroom. When a couple is feeling bored, and perhaps as though they are stagnating, relationship counseling can give them the boost they need. A couples counselor can help the partners identify the areas for improvement to move away from boredom. In a healthy relationship, both partners should instead feel they are able to grow in the relationship.
What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)?
Many couples struggle to communicate because one or both partners are unable to identify their own emotions and unable to recognize the way those emotions affect the relationship. For this reason, Emotion-Focused Therapy is a helpful approach in relationship counseling. In EFT, the partners are taught more about emotions, how to recognize them, how to express them, and how to manage them well as a couple, rather than letting those emotions run wild and negatively affect the relationship.
5 Tips for Couples Therapy
If you choose to attend therapy, you want to make the most of it and get as much out of it as possible. Aside from finding the right therapist and attending regularly, there are a few other things you can do to make therapy as effective as possible for you and your relationship:
Like most things in life, relationship counseling is better late than never, but it truly is better to start early. You can always use couples therapy to address your struggles at any point. However, when you start noticing signs of problems, seek out relationship counseling before they worsen. The longer you wait, the more likely it is that your relationship will develop the detrimental four horsemen. It also gets increasingly difficult to resolve any differences and improve the relationship.
Commit to the Time
Also, like most things in life, to get anything out of relationship counseling, you really must commit to the time (and the process). Couples counseling will not resolve every problem overnight, especially if those problems have been building up for a long time. So, it will likely take some time. This could be a few weeks or a few months—it all depends on your unique situation. Take your counselors’ recommendation for the time-frame and show up to appointments so you can get help.
Do Your Homework
Relationship counseling takes more than just attending sessions with your therapist. If you only did that, you would likely struggle to take what you learn in therapy into your daily life. To help you take what you discuss and learn into your daily life, your therapist will likely sometimes ask you to complete homework. Now, this is different than the homework you did in school. Often, it involves practicing different newly learned skills and techniques or having discussions about various topics.
Focus on How You Can Change (Not Changing Your Partner)
In relationships, it can often be easier to see the faults in the other person and perhaps lose sight of the problems you bring to the relationship. This can lead many partners to enter relationship counseling with the idea that this will be the perfect setting for their significant other to see what they are doing wrong, and then make a bunch of changes that will fix the relationship. Ultimately, this stance will not be helpful. The reality is, usually, both partners are contributing to the relationship problems in their own way. Each will need to take responsibility to see improvement.
Go “All-In” On the Process
Finally, to really see success in relationship counseling, you need to fully invest yourself in the process. This means having the mindset that you want to work on your relationship and improve it. It also means being open and honest. Use the space of relationship counseling along with the unbiased support of the counselor, to discuss things you might otherwise hold back. Going “all-in” may take bravery and a bit of pushing yourself, but it will be worth it to improve your relationship.
Challenges of Relationship Counseling
Relationship counseling can sometimes be difficult. There can be some logistical barriers in trying to align your schedule, with your partner’s schedule, and the schedule of your chosen therapist. Then, of course, many people still feel a barrier from attending counseling due to a fear of others noticing. This may especially matter if you reside in a small town or have a high-profile relationship.
Beyond the logistical barriers, there can also be emotional barriers. Many people feel hesitant to attend counseling because it can seem scary to discuss your private life with a veritable stranger. The good news is that typically after a session or two, most people become very comfortable with their counselor. Other times, people fear that the process may not work. Here, the good news is that research shows relationship counseling can help most people to achieve the goal of improving their relationship.
There are some instances when relationship counseling may not and perhaps even should not be successful. In cases of abuse, relationship counseling will not necessarily be helpful or recommended. In these cases, the abuser will usually need individual counseling to improve their behaviors. There may also be other times when a counselor observes that one or both members of the couple actually needs individual therapy either concurrently with relationship counseling, or before couples therapy can occur.
At times, a couple may elect to use relationship counseling to facilitate the dissolution of a relationship when they have already decided that is the outcome they want. This can be helpful for divorcing parents, who want to maintain a working relationship, so they can effectively co-parent. This is not necessarily a challenge, but the outcome of counseling may appear different than is typically expected.
Relationship Counseling Online
Today, many people are choosing to seek relationship counseling through online platforms. This approach can offer many benefits over traditional face-to-face couples’ therapy.
For one thing, with online counseling, there is an increased level of confidentiality and privacy. If you are concerned about others (such as nosy neighbors or gossipy grandmothers) noticing that you are seeking counseling, then online relationship counseling can be the perfect solution. Since this approach can be done from the privacy of your home, no one will know you are seeking help.
Online counseling can also be much more convenient. If you and your partner have busy schedules, children to manage, and other barriers that might prevent you from attending weekly in-person sessions, then it may be much easier for you to regularly connect with a therapist online. You will be able to find a provider who can match your busy schedule and limited availability. This is also helpful if you live in a small town or rural area, where there are a limited number of or no qualified providers.