Common Questions about Couples Therapy
Does something have to be really wrong for a couple to engage in couples therapy?
Not at all. There are many reasons to engage in couple’s therapy and there is no one-size-fits-all reason or goal for therapy. Some couples notice patterns of relating that are not overly problematic but also not their ideal. Perhaps a life stressor (like parenting, a new job or a move) have strained a relationship. Early intervention when negative patterns do arise is a strong indicator of a successful engagement in couples therapy, so this approach can often be very productive.
Other couples have a very low (or no) conflict relationship but feel there is a deeper connection missing that they’d like to explore. For example, perhaps the members of a couple find themselves relating more as roommates than lovers. This is another great use of couples therapy, a skillful therapist can help clients to cultivate deeper more intimate ways of relating.
Couples therapy is a dedicated hour a week (in most cases) in which the relationship between two people takes center stage. In our fast-paced, busy lives this kind of intentional time is rare and valuable. All relationships need to be tended to and couples therapy is a highly impactful form of relationship care. In short, there is really no wrong reason to start couples therapy and many right reasons.
What if a couple has a lot of conflict in their relationship, can couples therapy help de-escalate and reduce conflict?
Yes. Many couples who seek couples therapy are in a highly conflictual cycle of relating, oftentimes, a cycle that has often been going on for years. This is a painful situation and the blame that is passed back and forth between conflictual partners makes it more so. Couples therapy can be an extremely effective way to stop negative cycles of relating. This is especially true if both individuals are willing to look deeply at their contribution to the current state of affairs.
As a couples therapist, helping clients reduce conflict is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. I’m often amazed by how quickly things can begin to change between a couple once the negative cycle is better understood and the couple has tools for making changes. Once conflict is under control, clients often find themselves in a second honeymoon period of sorts, where they begin to see eachother with new eyes.
What if one partner is more motivated to attend couples therapy than the other partner, does that start the therapy out on a bad foot?
No, and I might go as far as saying this is almost always the case, to varying degrees. Oftentimes, one partner has more experience in therapy or in self reflective practices, making them naturally more comfortable to begin couples work. Other times, a partner fears that they will be ganged up on by their partner and the couple’s therapist. There are many reasons why an imbalance in motivation exists between partners. Whatever the reason, in my experience, a willingness to start does not always translate to a willingness to do the work and vice versa. So for me, it doesn’t wave any red flags when one person is less inclined to attend than the other. The truth is, our partners are often the motivating forces behind the things we do. It can be a healthy dance of push and pull when done tactfully. Showing up consistently week after week, and doing the hard work couples therapy entails, is a much stronger indicator of success than how a person feels about showing up in the first place.
How does couples therapy work and how long does it take?
There is no prescription that works for every couple. Couples therapy works best when there is a creative collaboration between the three people in the room (or on zoom). However, there are some general stages that I’m keeping in mind when I see a couple. If the clients are involved in a volatile cycle of relating or having a lot of intense conflict, it is essential to address that first. Before a couple can deepen their relationship, they must feel safe with one another and this is impossible if a couple is relating mostly with resentment, criticism and blame. Once the couple has successfully reduced toxic ways of interacting and have developed tools for engaging in more skillful conflict, therapy can progress towards connection building.
In the second phase, couples access more vulnerable feelings and learn how to speak to and listen, in a way that is supportive to the other person. Additionally, couples learn how to engage in productive conflict. In the final stage of couples therapy couples continue to build on their connection and work towards even more intimacy and depth (this is often when sex is addressed more directly). As is true in all therapy, these stages are not entirely sequential and will overlap and bleed into one another depending on the needs of the client. Not every couple will want to engage in all three stages of therapy. Some couples come into therapy at stage two or three. Some couples would like to lessen conflict in their relationship and stop after stage one.
Similarly, there is no one timeline or designated finish-line that works for all couples. I’ve seen highly conflictual couples make great strides towards more amicable relating in only a few months and feel they got what they needed. Other couples have enjoyed years-long couples processes where their one hour a week (or every other week) is a purposeful and protected space to connect and check in. Oftentimes, couples start coming once a week and eventually move to an as-needed basis. Most couples do not come into therapy knowing exactly what they want to get out of therapy or for how long they wish to engage. I encourage couples to have an ongoing dialogue with their couple’s therapist about how therapy is going, what their evolving goals are and how long they wish to continue.
If a couple is on the verge of separating, can couples’ therapy help clarify whether to separate or to try and make things work?
Yes. Many of the same skills that are needed to build a more healthful relationship are the same skills that are needed to separate amicably. Namely, a reduction in conflict, an ability to listen deeply to one another, and a practice of engaging in honest and ongoing dialogue. Once these skills are developed, clients can have very meaningful conversations about what they each want in the future. In my experience, when couples begin to connect on a deeper level, they often want to continue working on their relationship. Even if a couple decides to separate, couples therapy can help them do it in a way that is imbued with respect and kindness. However, if one or both members of the couple are not actually interested in trying to relate in more skillful ways, and only wish for the therapist to confirm they are a hopeless case, the therapy may become self fulfilling.
Can a couples’ therapist help a partner with sex and intimacy issues?
Yes. A skilled couples therapist will be interested in a couples sex life (if that is of importance to the couple). Sex is often a very important part of relating in a couple and if it is leftout of the conversation for too long, couples therapy can begin to feel a bit stilted. That being said, some couples therapists have specific training in sex therapy and that might be valuable if sex is going to be the main focus of the therapy. Either way, a couple who wishes to have sex be a part of the discussions in couples therapy should ask a prospective therapist about the level of training and comfortability around issues of sex and intimacy.
Can a couples’ therapist help address differences in parenting approaches?
Yes, similar to the answer above, most couples therapists have engaged many couples in conversations about parenting, children and family. However, some couples therapists will have more specific training or comfortability in this area. When seeking a couples therapist be sure to ask specific questions of your therapist to ensure they have experience exploring the areas that are important to you and your partner.
What if there is an unequal division of household or emotional labor? Does couples’ therapy address equity in a relationship?
Yes. For me, equality is always on my mind when sitting with couples. An inequitable division of labor naturally leads to resentment. Oftentimes, in order to build connection in a relationship equity needs to be addressed first. However, this is not a simple equation. Fairness looks different between people, and oftentimes there is labor being done by both partners that is not recognized by the other person.
Can couples therapy make a relationship worse?
The short answer is no. There are extreme exceptions such as domestic violence situations, in which case a therapist with very specific training is needed. And there are rare examples of couple’s therapists acting in unethical and harmful ways. But in most cases, couples therapy does not make a relationship worse, however it sometimes does not make it better. This can be because the therapist is not a great match for the couple or the therapist is not adequately experienced in couples work. It can also be because one or both partners are unwilling to take responsibility for their part in the problems, or because one or both members of the couple have no desire to change and couples therapy is just a last box to check before separating. I have been lucky in my career so far, most of my clients have reported positive changes in their relationships and I’ve found the work extremely rewarding. But if couples therapy does not seem to be helping, I would encourage people to speak with their therapist and if things are still not working perhaps try a different therapist.
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