If you’ve never been to relationship counseling before, the whole thing might seem mysterious, confusing, and downright frightening. The truth is it’s really not as bad as you think it is. The representations of therapy you’ve seen on TV are almost certainly inaccurate – maybe you’ve seen people bopping each other with foam bats, engaging in massive screaming matches in front of the therapist, or being asked about their deepest personal secrets. That’s not therapy; that’s Hollywood. To help you get a feel for what to expect, here are some of the things you will do in couples counseling:
1. Learn communication skills
You may have found that you and your partner can’t seem to communicate about serious issues, or maybe about even the smallest things. Somehow the wrong thing gets communicated – he takes offense at what was meant as a totally neutral comment; she misinterprets your words and flips out. It can be infuriating! But the truth is, it’s totally normal.
Raise your hand if you took a class in school about how to communicate with a significant other. Anyone? I didn’t think so. Talking about emotional issues is not a simple undertaking, but unfortunately, nobody ever taught us how to do it. Nor is it easy getting your meaning across to someone who thinks differently then you, who has a different background with different experiences and different expectations… it’s just not something that comes naturally to most people. In couples counseling, one thing you might do is to learn how to communicate with your partner in a way that is actually effective. We’ll talk about what does work and what doesn’t, and try out new ways of engaging and responding that will help you get your communication back on track.
2. Vent your frustrations
One part of communicating is feeling like you’ve been heard, and often this is an indispensable component of what needs to happen to move forward in your relationship. Learning the communication skills will take time and practice; while you are working on this and growing in your ability to manage discussions and arguments at home, getting your feelings out and validated by your partner as well as by an objective third party can do a lot to relieve the pressure on your relationship.
If you’re angry at your spouse because of a repeated habit of theirs, or you’re hurt because of an incident that happened, or stressed about an unresolved issue that’s lingering, sometimes just putting that out there and getting that feeling acknowledged can take a load off your shoulders. Of course, this has to be done with sensitivity and a proper approach – simply spouting off your negativity can do more harm than good. That’s what the counselor is there for – we can help you get across to your partner what you want to say in a way that can be received, and to help your partner be appropriately receptive and responsive.
3. Learn to understand your partner’s perspective
It is extremely common for partners to differ in how they see an incident, issue, or situation. As I pointed out above, you and your partner are two different people, with different backgrounds, different histories, different personalities – it is to be expected that your perspectives will diverge on many things. Trying to get another person to understand what’s inside your head, and trying to understand what’s in theirs, is not as simple as one might think. If you’ve ever tried to explain to someone a dream you had, you know how tough that can be!
A couples therapist can be a big help here too. We’re trained to pick out the key elements of what you’re saying and to know where to probe further. We can spot where you might be losing the thread of what your partner is trying to say and understand what the obstacle to understanding might be. Imagine what your discussions would be like if you understood why they’re responding the way they do! Understanding is a very effective antidote for arguing.
4. Develop new ways of handling conflict
What’s your usual approach to conflict? Snapping at your partner when you get frustrated? Or ignoring problems altogether but feeling unhappy and annoyed? Do you both yell at each other when you disagree? Or does one of you stuff your feelings in most of the time until you can’t anymore and you explode?
There are many ways to handle conflict that work very poorly. And then there are some that work better. Learning what that looks like and practicing new ways of doing things can make a big difference in your relationship. Whether your relationship seems like a never-ending conflict or whether you avoid conflict at all costs to keep the peace, gaining skills for conflict resolution will give you the confidence to address the problems that are bothering you and the ability to do so without things exploding when you do.
5. Address unresolved issues
Sometimes even in the absence of conflict, couples with decent communication skills may still have trouble solving problems large and small that have plagued their relationships. Issues like when to get married, what to do about your intrusive mother-in-law, and how to discipline children can be thorny topics without clear and simple solutions, and they can certainly be a weight on your relationship.
A couples counselor can help facilitate a discussion on issues like these and explore the various sides of the problem. Sometimes getting a fresh perspective on it is all it takes. Often we can help further by digging a little deeper to explore any underlying issues that may be feeding the trouble, in ways that you might not have thought to. For example, perhaps your girlfriend’s mistrust of your brother stems from something in her past – a previous boyfriend, a parent, etc. – that you may not have considered. An experienced counselor may also have seen similar problems before and be familiar with compromises and solutions that have worked for others. (Not that you can always import a solution from one relationship into another, but as suggestions they can be very helpful.)
6. Bring up issues you always wanted to but never knew how
Touchy subjects can be hard for even close and content couples to broach. We all have personal and cultural sensitivities to certain topics that make them uncomfortable and uneasy. Chief among these are probably money and sex, which our society deems simultaneously fascinating and unmentionable. They are commonly on people’s minds, but consider whether you would bring up topics like your salary or your period in polite company – it just isn’t done.
Having a professional to help navigate these and other difficult subjects can make the difference between getting your financial life on track or racking up more debt, between achieving a satisfying sex life or drifting off into celibacy, infidelity, or separation. That’s not to say it’s going to be an easy conversation – in fact, bringing up sensitive information in front of someone who is essentially a stranger (at least at first) can be extremely daunting – but hopefully the prospect of solving a critical issue is motivating enough to consider taking that bold step. We’re here to help with that.
Ultimately there is probably no one thing you will do in couples counseling that will solve all your problems. And not every couple will engage in all of these activities. Every couple is different, and we’ll offer you the interventions that are most needed and work best for your individual situation. If this is all new to you, it may still seem a little overwhelming – so we invite you to get in touch with us to schedule a free consultation where you can ask any questions you have about the process and get to meet one of our staff members face to face. I promise we don’t bite!