Seeking couples counseling can be an emotionally draining process for both spouses. Initially couples may experience a sense of hope followed by acute episodes of anxiety and depression. It is normal to feel more distant after sessions. Each spouse may experience feelings of anger, guilt and shame. Depending on each person’s past experience with therapy, couples vary in their ability to communicate and problem solve. Many couples give up before seeing results. Typically this is the time that core issues come to the surface. This is also a time when couples feel most vulnerable. There is something comforting about what feels “normal” and for some this means tolerating the problems instead of taking risks.
1. What are some common interventions in couples counseling?
Couples counseling involves emotion focused therapy, communication skills training, problem solving strategies, and exploring emotional patterns and values that impact the couple dynamics. The role of the therapist is to mediate and coach each spouse to express their thoughts and feelings in a safe and productive manner.
2. What is the duration of counseling?
Couples should expect to meet 2-4 times per month for the initial 6 months. As each spouse becomes more equipped to problem solve, session can be reduced to 1-2 times per month. For real change, couples should expect to be in treatment between 6-18 months. Solution focused interventions are helpful for some couples with acute distress and do not yield the same results for couples with more chronic issues. There are individual differences in how we benefit from therapy. Some of us are more prone to resist change and may feel forced into the process.
3. What are some common issues that bring couples to seek counseling?
Communication problems, parenting conflict, in-law issues, blended family issues, lack of intimacy, infidelity, conflict in values, financial in-equality, alcoholism, substance abuse, and abuse are common reasons couples seek counseling.
4. What couples do in between sessions?
It is recommended that each spouse does their best to maintain normalcy between sessions. Couples should avoid letting marital issues dictate their lives. This is especially important for couples with small children. The purpose of marital counseling is to allocate that time to those core issues. Discussing difficult topics outside of sessions is not recommended especially in the initial 2-4 months of therapy. This is because change takes time. Some therapists recommend no discussions while others give specific guidelines and homework assignments targeted at practicing communication skills. It’s important to communicate your needs to your therapist. Some of us do better with structure and having something to do in between sessions and for others this time can be utilized to exercise self-reflection.
5. When are couples vulnerable for marital distress?
It is best to seek help before problems dominate our relationship. Couples are most vulnerable for marital distress during life transitions. Couples who have small children under the age of 5 are at highest risk due to the challenges of becoming new parents and role changes.
6. Who benefits from couples counseling?
Couples who have equal investment in staying married have the best chance of recovering. It’s important to communicate ground rules before beginning the process. This includes, both spouses making a commitment to invest their energy into making changes and refrain from making threats of divorce or separation while seeking help. Many therapists also implement a “no secrets” clause during this process to promote mutual trust. Couples who take the team approach are also more likely to take responsibility for their actions, offer support, and embrace the idea of change.
7. What are some tips to surviving couples counseling?
- Pick a therapist you trust and is competent in their work.
- Be kind and forgiving to yourself during this process.Let a trusting friend and family member know you are seeking help without sharing details.
- Be mindful of how the process may be impacting you (e.g. noted signs of depression, poor self- esteem, negative self-talk, symptoms of anxiety). Ask for help if you need support or referral for individual therapy.
- Avoid isolating
- Be present with your spouse. Acknowledge that both of you are going through this process together. Show support and respect your spouse’s need for personal space and emotional reflection.
- Be aware of your language and avoid taking your frustrations out on family members
- Make it a point to create a positive outlet to your emotions. Show gratitude for having the opportunity to get help and re-evaluate your relationship.
- Plan a vacation. Give yourself permission to take a break.
About the Author: Mahtab had earned her Masters in Psychology (Marriage and Family Therapy) at University of Houston – Clear Lake and an undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin. She completed a postgraduate fellowship at UTMB in Behavioral Medicine and Medical Family Therapy. Her work currently focuses on severe mental illness and helping young adults cope with schizophrenia, bipolar and recovery. She helps families embrace change, identify core issues and explore opportunities for growth.