Couples therapy works best when you and your partner each begin the process ready to “look in the mirror."
People often contact me eager and ready to begin couples therapy in order to change their relationship for the better! Even over the phone or through email, I can hear that many of these people are truly excited about beginning therapy.
Sometimes it’s a couple in the early stages of their relationship with no serious problems and simply looking to explore key relationship areas to prevent future problems.
Other times, it's a couple who are several years into the lifespan of their relationship with several serious problems, perhaps even on the brink of separation or divorce, and desperate to get into the office to see if there is hope for relationship repair and renewal.
Whatever the case, there are key differences between those couples who reach success towards their therapy goals and those who do not. These differences are often apparent from the onset of couples therapy in how they approach the process.
Similar to planting a tree, the beginning of the process of couples therapy is critical and great care must be taken to increase the chances for successful growth – in this case, your growth as a couple.
I’ve created this guide for you as you consider starting couples therapy to give you a better idea of some important considerations BEFORE you make that first appointment!
1) First, are you and your partner both on board with the idea of trying couples therapy?
This may seem like an obvious question but it's the unfortunate truth that many people attempt to begin couples therapy without the knowledge or agreement of their significant other.
In some cases such attempts may be as mild as a phone call to ask about therapy before talking to their partner, or as drastic as coming in for an appointment alone to explain their relationship problems before ever discussing therapy with their partner.
Before you begin couples therapy ask yourself,"Are me and my partner BOTH on board with trying couples therapy right now?"
This question is a critical one because couples therapy is unique from individual therapy in that the client is not you or your partner, but rather your relationship - i.e. the unique dyad formed by both you and your partner together. (It's helpful to remember that for couples “the whole is different than the sum of its parts!”)
If any step of the process is taken with only one partner’s interests in mind, this is certain to hinder treatment progress in the best of cases and completely sabotage treatment progress in the worst.
So before you attempt to begin couples therapy - before you even make that first call - ask yourselves if you're off to the right start for this journey and "pulling out of the station with both passengers on board."
For example, ask yourself :
- "Have my partner and I had a conversation about couples therapy?"
- "Are both my partner and I in agreement that seeking professional help is something that we both want right now?"
- "Are either of us going into this with negative expectations before we've even started?"
2) Are you and your partner ready to commit to the process of therapy?
Couples therapy is a process and not a quick fix treatment. Your relationship won't be magically fixed after one session.
You wouldn't go to the gym one time and expect immediate results for your body, right?
While I’d love nothing more than to be able to wave a magic wand over you and instantly “fix” your relationship, human relationships simply don’t work that way.
Oftentimes couples seeking therapy with me report that they have tried therapy before but that it didn’t work for them. When asked about the details of their previous experiences with, more often than not couples admit that their attempts involved 1 or 2 sessions, or what many call “on and off” therapy in which they tried it for a few sessions here and there when they thought they needed it, with no consistency and low commitment.
So a critical question to ask yourself before you begin couples therapy is, “Are my partner and I both ready to commit to this process?”
This means you’re both ready to show up to your appointments ready to work, do the essential work needed outside of sessions to improve your relationship, minimize barriers and excuses, and willing to stick with the process even during difficult moments.
If you feel ready to commit to these things which are all a part of the process, then your time and money will go much further. And more importantly, your treatment results will reflect your commitment and hard work!
3) Are you and your partner aware of your goals as a couple?
Many people considering couples therapy find it easy to talk in great length about their relationship problems and all of the things that are going wrong. However, when asked about therapy goals, it’s astonishing how many people have very little to say.
It’s not that couples are looking to maintain their relationship problems (otherwise, why would you be considering therapy in the first place, right?)
Rather, many people focus so much on their relationship problems and the negatives that they forget to give some thought to their goals or the positives that they hope to achieve with therapy.
So before you begin couples therapy, give some thought to your relationship goals. This way, you’ll both be in a better position to get more return on your investment for treatment.
It’s important to keep in mind that therapy goals are not simply the absence of something bad (e.g. “I want him to stop yelling at me when I come home late from work.”) but rather the presence of something good (e.g. “I want him to calmly express his concerns and consider my large work volume when I'm late.”)
If you find yourself having trouble coming up with goals before beginning couples therapy, try thinking about the things you most appreciated and enjoyed in your relationship when it felt more satisfying.
For example, you may think “We used to spend a lot of quality time together as a couple – I’d like to have that back again!” And just like that you have yourself a useful goal!
You may even want to take it a step further and not only consider your relationship goals, but also the current strengths that you and your partner already have that will help you both reach those goals. For example, "we're both good at using humor to help deal with heavy situations."
Doing both of these things from the onset of your treatment are sure to maximize your chances of successful outcomes in couples therapy. As your therapist, I will of course help you do these things from the onset but getting a head start is always helpful!
4) Are you and your partner each ready to look in the mirror?
One of the most common and biggest mistakes people make in couples therapy is playing the blame game.
In the most severe cases this may mean that one partner outright refuses to try couples therapy because “all of our problems are his/her fault!”
But ultimately you cannot control the behaviors, thoughts, or emotions of your partner and trying to do so will only leave you feeling drained and frustrated...and it never actually helps a relationship!
So while the blame game is an easy thing for all of us to get pulled into, if you feel that you aren’t ready to step out of that pattern and accept personal personal responsibility for your relationship problems, then you need to consider how ready you actually are for couples therapy.
Couples therapy works best when you and your partner each begin the process ready to “look in the mirror” and explore your individual contribution to your relationship problems.
In this way, you can focus on making changes within yourself and lovingly ask for the changes you desire from your partner. In my experience, couples who get the best results from therapy begin the process eager to know what they can do as individuals to help their relationship thrive and willing to trust that their partner will do his or her part in the same way.
5) Are you and your partner open to change?
Therapy is all about change. Lasting change.
This is obvious and for some couples very exciting! But for many couples they find themselves feeling uncomfortable and scared when they begin therapy because they are being asked to let go of familiar patterns and old ways of behaving, thinking, and feeling.
Even though many people realize their current patterns aren't working or are outdated for the current needs of their relationship, starting couples therapy is often more jarring than you may expect because changing patterns that have existed for a long time (perhaps several years) can be very difficult.
Without even realizing it, you may be finding comfort and value in holding onto old patterns, even bad patterns.
However, while almost all change comes with it's difficulties before you begin couples therapy remember to keep in mind the relationship rewards and satisfaction that await you and your partner once the change becomes natural!
If change the idea of relationship change still feels difficult or impossible, you may also find it helpful to keep in mind that feeling discomfort with change is perfectly normal - it's simply a sign that you and your partner are reaching beyond your normal comfort zones.
Unless you're seeking couples therapy to prevent future problems (for example, for premarital therapy), chances are that you're considering it now because there is some level of dissatisfaction or problems in your relationship.
So before making your first appointment you and your partner may try asking yourselves "Are we really open to change and doing things differently?"
If the answer isn't yet a solid "yes" that is okay and we'll work together to help you feel more open and welcoming of change. However, you and your partner will likely get better results from couples therapy by being aware of your openness to change from the onset.
Now that you've given these areas some careful consideration, hopefully you and your partner feel more ready to begin your journey to a healthier, happier, more resilient relationship. So contact me and let's get started!