Dr. Wendy Zhao
Considering Couples Therapy? A Beginners Guide
Updated: Dec 28, 2020
Falling in love is easy, sharing a life with another human is wonderfully complicated. There is no blueprint for how to build and maintain a healthy partnership, yet the quality of your intimate relationships can make the most significant impact on your mental and physical health. It's not surprising that relationship difficulties is one of the most common reasons people pursue therapy. Once you've decided to talk to someone, it's not always clear whether the challenges you are facing are better addressed in individual therapy or explored jointly with your partner.
Key Differences Between Individual and Couples Therapy
A fundamental difference between individual and couples therapy is the identified "client." In couples therapy, the relationship is the client, and the focus of therapy is to change the relationship rather than the two people in it. That's not to say that you won't experience personal growth. In fact, many people who have undergone couples therapy report greater self-understanding and enduring behavioural change. However, if your only goal is to change yourself or your partner, couples therapy is likely not the right place to start.
Not all therapists are trained to work with couples. Your therapist should be knowledgeable in specific therapeutic models for couples and be proficient with navigating the unique dynamics that exist in couples therapy. You want to make sure that your therapist has the appropriate background and experience to provide the kind of support you need.
Since couples therapy require both partners to be present, it's not always easy to schedule sessions that work for you, your partner, and your therapist. Most therapists assign a longer session time for couples, often 75 minutes instead of 50 minutes typical of individual therapy sessions. The length and frequency of sessions can be negotiated with your therapist, but consistently is important so it's best to find a time that works for both partners on an ongoing basis.
Is Individual or Couples Therapy Right for Right Now?
People absolutely can, and do, work on relationship issues in individual therapy. Changing your own behaviours will change the way your partner responds and relates to you. However, long-standing patterns can be difficult to shift and your partner may not be receptive to the changes you are trying to make. In these circumstances, trying to amend the relationship on your own can feel like steering a boat by rowing only one roar -- you find yourself going around in circles and eventually too exhausted to resist the currents. This is where it can be incredibly helpful to have a trained professional observe your relationship and help you identify the unhelpful and unproductive processes that occur, where and why you are getting stuck, and guide you towards healthier patterns of interaction.
Most therapists agree that couples should seek help long before they feel that they "need" to. There are misconceptions that couples therapy is reserved for really troubled relationships or a last resort to separation. On the contrary, couples therapy can play an instrumental role in relationship maintenance. Therapy can strengthen parts of your relationship and curtail problematic relational cycles before significant damage has been done. Some of the common issues couples work on in therapy include:
Preparing for big changes in your lives. Relationships are most strained during periods of transition and even happy events can be stressful. Couples therapy can help you plan for the unknown and ease into the unfamiliar that comes with relationship milestones such as moving in together, getting married or having children.
Something feels off and you're not sure what or why. A trained professional can help you identify, articulate, and create a shared understanding of the ways in which the relationship is failing to meet the expectations and needs of each partner.
Trust has been broken. Whether it's infidelity or a series of deceptions and lies, it can be extremely difficult to recover from the resultant emotional injury and rebuild trust. Therapy can provide a safe space for both partners to explore and express their feelings and work towards forgiveness and healing.
Arguments are getting worse and you're no longer able to communicate and problem solve effectively. Couples often report having the same fight over and over again, which makes it hard to see the issues from a fresh perspective. Couples therapy can provide insight into how each partner may be unknowingly contributing to the dysfunctional cycles that keep you stuck and equip you with new skills to approach conflict resolution.
Diminished physical and emotional intimacy. Life can get hectic, and even a perfectly good relationship will wither when neglected. Once you sense a distance growing, it can be hard to know how to reconnect or where to begin. A couples therapist can help you work through any blocks to intimacy and provide strategies to revive the passion you once shared.
Ambivalence about staying together. Perhaps you're unsure if remaining in the relationship is the best choice, or you've already decided to separate and would like to do so amicably. Couples therapy can help you and your partner reach a consensus about the relationship and support you both through the emotionally arduous process of uncoupling.
Whether you wish to take preventative measures or resolve a crisis situation, it's never too early or too late to seek couples therapy. If your partner is not willing to go to therapy together just yet, individual therapy can provide coping strategies and guide you towards next steps. Although therapy can understandably feel daunting, it is a worthwhile investment in your well-being and the long-term health of your relationship.