Whether you’ve been together for three years or three decades, any relationship can benefit from couples counseling. If you’re thinking of heading down this route, your first few sessions may introduce you to common relationship therapy terms that are helpful to learn in order to make your time with your counselor as productive as possible.
“Relationship therapy is typically about finding our way back to connection and communication with our partner(s),” explains marriage and family therapist Steve Wilson. “If we are speaking a different language from our partner, it is easier to miss each other in conversation. Spending time discussing therapy lingo can give you a window into your partners’ thinking, as well as an opportunity to share your take on things.”
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To that end, even if you have a firm grasp on a term, if it’s coming up regularly in your sessions, it’s a good idea for everyone involved to settle on a common understanding. “Many of these terms have entered popular vernacular, and can have one meaning out in the world and another in the therapy room,” Wilson warns. “They can also, unfortunately, be misused in order to gain the upper hand in arguments and obscure and avoid the truth.”
Looking for a place to start the discussion? Read on for Wilson’s expert take on 11 common relationship therapy terms, as well as a look into the difference between a relationship therapist and a counselor.
What’s the difference between a counselor and a therapist?
From a couple’s perspective, not much—so don’t let it impact your search for a counselor you both like. Licenses in this field are generally not uniform across states, so professionals offering the same services may be called different things depending on where you’re located. “Rather than getting caught up in the title or license type, focus on how well you match with the professional you choose to work with and how ‘bought-in’ you feel with their style of therapy,” suggests Wilson. “Study after study highlights that a key indicator of success in therapy is the strength of the bond between client and therapist.”
That said, a few common licenses you may encounter include:
- Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC)
In the broadest of terms, the first of the three is more-so trained to focus on relationships between people, while the other two tend to prioritize individual or community needs in their education. Each of the three requires a master’s degree and will be equipped to help you with relationship issues.
Common Relationship Therapy Terms to Know
Per Wilson, monogamy is the practice of limiting emotional and physical intimacy to one partner. These limits can look different to different people, so it’s important to establish agreed upon boundaries. Determining your own definition of monogamy can, in turn, help you clarify what infidelity looks like in your relationship.
Developing intimacy is both a physical and emotional practice. “It’s when we let our guard down and allow others to know us in vulnerable places in a consensual and connected way,” says Wilson. “This can be in the form of touching and exploration of bodies, or emotional closeness that lets our partner(s) experience our softer side.”
Projection is the act of placing your own worries about yourself onto someone else. “Often, this takes the form of an assessment of yourself that you assume your partner is thinking,” says Wilson. (e.g., you’re worried about being too needy, so you assume your partner thinks you’re too needy.)
Stonewalling is an emotional coping mechanism most often employed when a person is feeling unsafe or overwhelmed in a relationship. “It looks like a refusal to connect or communicate,” says Wilson, which can take the form of one-word answers, the silent treatment, or intentional emotional distance. “If your partner is stonewalling, ask yourself what you know about them and what might help them regain a sense of safety, comfort, and calm that can help them express what they need to say,” Wilson adds.
“Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which one partner habitually casts doubt on their partner’s perceptions,” explains Wilson, who urges that the term shouldn’t be used lightly. The manipulative tactic is used to provoke insecurity and self-doubt in another person, and differs from miscommunication in that it appears hand-in-hand with blatant dishonesty. “‘I think you misunderstood me, what I meant to say was…’ is an offer for clarification and connection,” Wilson explains. “Telling someone, ‘You’re overreacting. I never said that,’ when you did say that is gaslighting.”
A potential relationship killer if left unchecked—and a common reason for seeking out couples counseling in the first place—contempt is built-up anger and resentment. It lacks empathy, and often manifests as extreme reactions to minor infractions, such as leaving dirty socks on the floor, or a feeling of being angry with your partner despite not having an immediate, tangible reason for feeling the anger. “When you start to notice resentment bubbling up, this is a sign that there is an unmet need to discuss and resolve before it grows into something much more difficult to root out,” says Wilson.
First categorized by Dr. Gary Chapman in 1992, the five love languages are different ways in which individuals give and receive love, care and affection. They include: words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, gifts, and physical touch. “Well-attuned couples know what and when each partner needs to feel loved, seen, and understood, but it doesn’t just happen magically,” says Wilson. “Have no shame in taking time to educate each other about what you like to see.”
Toxic positivity is the practice of persistently focusing on positive feelings while leaving little to no space for difficult emotions. (Key phrases include “Quit being so negative!”, “Everything happens for a reason” and “Look on the bright side!”) This practice is considered detrimental because it can prevent people from adequately processing pain and grief. “Hurt needs to be held as a first step back to contentment and joy,” says Wilson.
Stress can manifest in physical symptoms: shallow breath, a racing heart, and sweaty palms. Regulation is the practice of minimizing these responses, which will help you move through difficult situations without becoming overwhelmed. “Stretch, take a walk, take five deep, slow breaths, or wear a weighted blanket and sip your favorite tea until you feel more grounded,” says Wilson.
Co-regulation is the ability to assist your partner, and vice versa, in this calming practice. “Once you can read your partner’s embodied emotional cues, you can then assist them in turning down the heat and keeping away from overwhelm or shutdown,” Wilson adds.
Humans subconsciously learn to bond with and rely on caregivers as a means of survival. Modern attachment theory posits that we carry what we learn in our early years into relationships with significant others, and that manifests in four attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. While the last three produce fewer functional relationships, all hope is not lost. “Even if you learn an insecure attachment style as a child, you and your partner can work together to make a secure base and earn a sense of security together,” assures Wilson.
Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM)
“Many terms live under the umbrella of CNM: “Open relationships, swinging, and polyamory, to name a few,” says Wilson. “Each of these terms has shades of difference from one another, but all include the possibility of having sexual and/or emotional intimacy with more than just one person.”
In these arrangements, it is important to note that consent and understanding between partners are absolutely critical. “This is not a free pass to do everything your body and heart desire,” Wilson adds. “It takes considerable negotiation, capacity for difficult emotions, and a secure foundation to explore from.”