Couples can allow logistics, work schedules, children, money, and an array of obstacles get in the way of supporting their precious relationship.

For most of us, going to couples therapy is a big deal. Couples therapy is quite different from individual therapy in that choosing a topic involves two people instead of one. Sitting with our partner in front of a new therapist can be intimidating by itself; what’s more, we can’t make things up with our partners there witnessing us. If we do, our partner will probably call us out and there will be consequences as a result.

I compare couples therapy to improv theatre: the actors don’t have any scripts, requiring partners to respond live to each other (in this case, with a therapist supporting them in the process). The stakes may be higher in couples therapy, but the tradeoff can be that we get to resolve communications in person, together, as opposed to talking about what to do or say with our partner in individual therapy.

Why go to couples therapy?

Couples seek out therapy for a number of reasons. Some come to therapy when in high conflict, others when communications have broken down. Some couples are conflict avoidant in that they tend to build up resentments and feelings and explode on a few occasions, which might be when they choose to come to therapy. Some couples come to improve their communication, sexual intimacy, and passion, while others come to get support around navigating mood disorders or addictive behaviors. Further still, premarital counseling is becoming very common these days for its ability to help couples solidify their values, commitment, vision, and dreams.

Of course, I am also a big supporter of individual therapy, as it can be very helpful for individuals to get clarification and confidence around expressing needs in their couples session. Often couples therapists can consult with individual therapists and get more insight into that partner’s motivations, fears, and passions. (That said, not every couple needs to be in both individual and couples therapy.)

Sometimes couples don’t even make it to couples counseling, even after several attempts. Several years ago my neighbor was having a hard time finding the right couples therapist for herself and her husband. What’s interesting is that the therapists whom they had interviewed were well respected in the therapeutic community, and yet she and her husband couldn’t agree on the same one. I heard later that they interviewed a bunch of therapists over a period of six months, but never ended up starting couples counseling. Instead, they ended up divorcing shortly afterward.

Couples can allow logistics, work schedules, children, money, and an array of obstacles get in the way of supporting their precious relationship. If you and your partner are one of these couples, you might want to ask yourself where your priorities lie. Will your improved relationship benefit your children, your work, and your health and well-being?

What if my partner has doubts?

Sometimes one partner refuses to go to couples therapy. What can you do then?

I would suggest that you explore your own needs, desires, fears, and passions in individual therapy. Sometimes, partners change their mind about doing couples therapy once their partner stops nagging them.

When a partner is dragged to therapy, I reflect on this with the couple. I remind them that mandated therapy is typically unsuccessful. Research shows us that mandated therapy really doesn’t work; the individual has to want to be present and participate in the session. The work here with a couple is often about exploring the resistance and the commitment in the relationship. It’s important to begin with exploring the reluctance to being in the room.

It’s not uncommon for one partner to call a therapist and ask that he or she calls their partner. This is something that I refuse to do, simply because I have no idea if the partner is actually interested in doing couples therapy. I am certainly not in the business of recruiting people into couples therapy. Usually, I invite the partner to have their partner call me and I get to engage with both partners either together or separately over the phone before we meet in session. I find that it helps to connect with both partners first so as to determine over the phone if we are an appropriate match.

How do I choose the right couples therapist?

So, how can you assess a therapist in a cost-effective way?

Your initial phone conversation or consultation with a couples therapist can be a great way to assess what kind of couples therapist to work with. Most therapists offer a free consult over the phone.

Choosing any type of therapist is a very personal and intimate experience. Some people like to fixate on a skill or technique that a therapist may have in order to screen the therapist. This is understandable in some cases if the person has a lot of couples therapy experience; however, research shows that the best therapeutic relationships are based mostly on the relationship and not on the skill or technique. Yes, many therapists, including me, have an array of skills and techniques; but whenever I get a referral from someone who wants to focus on a particular technique, I typically explore what’s really beneath this question. Quite often if the person hasn’t been in therapy before, it comes from a place of what an acquaintance recommended or what they read online.

Before you pick up the phone and call a couples therapist, I invite you to sit down with your partner and reflect on the following:

1. Your therapeutic goals

Create space for you both to sit down and discuss what your expectations are for couples therapy. Perhaps you’re both on the same page with the goals but have different expectations, or vice versa. If you agree to differ in your goals, it’s just as important to present this too.

2. Your level of commitment to working on your relationship.

Given that you are seeking out help, we might assume that you are open to exploring new ways of communicating or relating. Most couples who start therapy like to focus on changing their partner’s behavior. I invite partners to look at their own behavior before projecting or pointing a finger at their partner’s behavior, in order to support each person in coming back to themselves.

The following questions might help you in your process:

  • What are you willing to do or be differently to support the growth of your relationship?
  • What is getting in the way of your compassion or empathy for your partner?
  • What is getting in the way of your communication with your partner?

3. Assessing the couples therapist.

Whether it’s on the phone or in person, it’s important that both of you feel heard and seen in an unbiased manner by the couples therapist. The intake session will consist of some history taking—and this alone can cause some clients to talk anxiously, shut down, or anything in between. Personally, I like to minimize history taking in favor of allowing the couple to have an interpersonal experience, as history and background can sometimes cause clients to become anxious.

A common theme with couples is that they don’t have much time, and they often want immediate resolution. So, choosing a couples therapist who takes a more direct approach can be beneficial. Among other things, this could mean that the therapist would introduce your therapeutic goals or previous topics from last session at the beginning of each session.

This helps prevent partners from spending a lot of time talking about issues that are not related to their dynamic. This is particularly supportive if the sessions are limited to 50 minutes or one hour. It would be helpful to have a conversation with your partner about what qualities are most important to you, and be sure to look for these qualities from the outset of your search.

Committing to couples therapy is a process, and the more you both are willing to give to this process, the more that you will get out of it. I encourage the couples clients I work with to allow for time after each session to either take a walk or get dinner, decompress, and appreciate their commitment to each other.

Clodagh O’Herlihy, MFT

Clodagh understands how much courage it can take a couple to collaborate with a therapist. She has a warm and grounded approach inviting clients to feel more at ease and safe in her presence. Her intention is to support couples explore their differences and their love for each other. In her work, Clodagh is client-centered and focuses her attention on the couple’s specific goals.