Anyone who is dating, engaged, or married knows, whether they like to admit it or not, that real relationships sometimes call for some real work. And while it’s normal for all couples to go through ups and downs, if you’re beginning to consider options for outside help, that can be a good thing. If you’re curious what couples counseling is really like and whether it might be a fit for you—we’re here to help. For some expert advice, we reached out to Daniel Brewer, a licensed professional counselor in Hoboken, New Jersey, for insight into the world of couples counseling.
What Is Couples Counseling?
“Couples counseling is an attempt to resolve interpersonal conflict in one’s relationship," says Brewer. "It typically entails a thorough assessment of each partner’s psychosocial history to help the clinician grasp each individual’s worldview and conceptualization of the source of the conflict or impasse." Essentially, it's couples working together with a licensed therapist or expert to attempt conflict resolution.
Brewer continues, “This process is also meant to begin the process of empathy between the couple as the clinician offers insight into the efficacy of questions and models active listening—a micro counseling skill.” Couples will share their concerns with one another in this environment while practicing listening and communication skills.
Empathy is critical in all relationships, particularly romantic ones, and it is an important piece to the counseling puzzle. “Developing empathy for one’s partner is the central goal in couples counseling. To that end, clients are encouraged to understand their own bias or worldview, which may be culturally based, class-based, experience-based, or family based,” explains Brewer.
How Does It Work, Exactly?
Through the counseling process, individuals begin to examine their own family system and experiences to try to begin to understand how their own thought patterns and behaviors were shaped. “This includes their role within the family and communication patterns with siblings and adults, e.g., authority figures; and how to resolve conflict, express feelings, or reinforce behavior,” Brewer elaborates. By doing so, you begin to better understand how your experiences shape you now.
Often clients are also introduced to a therapy concept called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. Brewer defined this as, “an evidence-based counseling modality that is highly efficacious in managing mood disturbances that are correlated with one's thought patterns. Accordingly, it is employed to help clients talk themselves through challenges.”
By evaluating your thoughts and moods, you’ll begin to develop insight to understand and enhance your communication, which is key to any positive relationship. “How one communicates determines the perceived level of empathy and usually one’s willingness to work with their partner to resolve conflict," says Brewer. With this in mind, “clients are educated on active listening to help their awareness of their communication style" he explains. "This includes non-verbal cues (body language), tone, repeating back, or paraphrasing/summarizing their partner’s concern.
Clients may then be asked to practice these skills in session when presented with their partner’s concern.”
Through this work, ultimate goals include improving communication to the point that needs of each individual are met, and arguments or other problematic symptoms are reduced in number and frequency.
When to Seek Counseling
If you’re considering counseling, it may be time to check out the options available. “Couples should seek counseling if they are experiencing any deleterious symptoms such as anxious or depressive symptoms that are the result of interpersonal conflict in their relationship," Brewer advises. He identifies relationships with concerning components such as lack of sexual or emotional intimacy, frequent arguing, parenting issues, infidelity, or substance abuse as symptoms that warrant counseling.
Your First Session
As with any new experience, you may at first feel hesitant or anxious about the unknown experience. For your first session, it may help to understand what you can reasonably expect to go down. “The first couple of counseling sessions are meant to gather information and build rapport,” Brewer says. “Some clients have greater urgency than others to air their grievances which may prolong the intake process, but the [these] sessions are meant to familiarize couples with the treatment process and develop goals for their time in counseling.”
Where to Turn?
For those new to the world of counseling, the resources can be a bit overwhelming or confusing. Psychologists, social workers, and therapists are all trained in psychotherapy, but some are more experienced in couples work than others. “This is where I would look at the experience and bio for a given provider. I would ask the provider how they have helped other couples before and to give a synopsis of how she or he conceptualizes treating couples,” advises Brewer.
Among the obvious benefits of, hopefully, forging ahead together with a stronger, more communicative relationship, benefits also include “greater empathy and support for your partner, improved intimacy, stronger family cohesion, increased productivity inside and outside the home, and the elimination of maladaptive coping.”
While it will take some work, counseling is also not a lifetime commitment—though the skills learned in session might be. Brewer explains, “Most couples achieve the greatest improvement in the first one to two months. I encourage clients to plan for twelve weeks, at which time objective treatment goals are reviewed and adjusted accordingly.”
When Will Counseling Not Work?
In the right setting with the right energy and commitment, couples counseling can be highly effective—yet it won’t always work if both parties aren’t present and actively trying. “One of the first points I make to couples is that we are operating on the assumption that both parties are invested in the process, and that if they are compliant with treatment recommendations they are likely to achieve their goals," Brewer says. "Whether one party is already checked out of the relationship, or they are avoiding some other reality they know is likely to seal the fate of the relationship, dishonesty in counseling will not lead to improvement." It’s important to ensure that both you and your partner are willing, open, and committed to the process.
Additionally, Brewer explained that there are little to no downsides of seeking out couples counseling, so the benefit far outweighs the little to no risk involved. “Insight and self-awareness of one’s behavior is worth brief couples counseling alone," he says. "Couples counseling fosters transparency and trust in a relationship through adaptive communication. Asserting one’s needs is imperative to resolving conflict and achieving true happiness regardless of the outcome.”