Please give me tips about couples counseling.
February 23, 2008 8:47 PM   Subscribe

Ever gone to couples therapy? What worked? What didn't? What different approaches are there? What should we expect?

My boyfriend of 3 years and I care a lot about each other and generally have a strong relationship (we're both 31). But there is a certain issue about how we communicate that I keep having a problem with, and we haven't gotten far with solving it ourselves, even though we have tough conversations on the topic every six weeks or so. I feel committed to him, but I also feel we can't move forward together without making some progress on that.

So, I asked if he'd go to couples therapy, and he said he would. (Yay!) I like the idea that we might not only work through this issue but also learn how to better work through other issues that might arise. Now, our plan is to get recommendations from friends, talk to two or three counselors, and then choose one.

I've never done this before, so I don't have any idea what it will be like or how best to approach it. Do you have any tips for finding a good counselor? Do you have any tips about how we should approach the counseling itself? Any stories about what worked and didn't for you? What should we expect? (Surprisingly, I found no broad question about couples counseling in the AskMe archives.)

One particular question -- are there different schools of thought among relationship counselors? (You know, the way individual therapy approaches include CBT, Jungian, etc.) I have no idea what different approaches there might be, and I'd like to think about what would work best for us.

One particular concern -- I've heard of people whose sessions seemed to make everything worse and worse (hey, maybe it was inevitable, but maybe not). I am worried that maybe some therapists' approach is to go on a search-and-destroy mission and get the couple to focus on all the things that are bad. It's not that I'm unwilling to face tough issues (I've done individual therapy before), and I'm not saying that I want a purely behavioral, emotionless, skill-teaching approach either. But I would like to find someone who is more about building on what's working, troubleshooting problems as they arise (rather than going digging), and helping people get closer.

Any stories about your own relationship counseling experiences would be much welcome. Throwaway email for questions or personal stories:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A good therapist will help you to communicate. A bad one will destroy you as a couple if you are not already destroyed. The person who is right for one couple is death for another, although good ones tend to be good for most couples. The issue as to whether the therapist is positive or negative never leaves the room. Nevertheless....

Most couples fail due to failures in communication, not because they are fundamentally incompatible, at least the ones that make it for three years. Open the lines of communication, and some of it might be downright painful, and let the therapist help your through it. Good luck.
posted by caddis at 9:01 PM on February 23, 2008

The sooner the better. Counseling only brings your current issues to light, it only "causes" problems if you wait too long to do it.
posted by mynameismandab at 9:03 PM on February 23, 2008

Look for a counselor who calls him/herself a mediator, mediation specialist, etc. They're all about improving communication.
posted by headnsouth at 9:17 PM on February 23, 2008

I think that if you make it clear to the therapist what you want to accomplish and what your goals are (like you have in this post) and then ask how their style will help you succeed, you might be able to narrow it down. Their answers will not only tell you about their style but also about their flexibility and willingness to work for what the client wants (not what they think the client should want). Also, the first therapist is not always the right one! It took my boyfriend and I three tries until we found the right one. Good luck!
posted by rglass at 9:18 PM on February 23, 2008

The fact that your boyfriend agreed to go to couples therapy is a major plus in and of itself. Just make sure your therapist doesn't "take sides" and you'll be fine. Your therapist should be an impartial advocate for the health of your relationship, not a person who determines who is right and who is wrong.
posted by amyms at 10:33 PM on February 23, 2008

I recommend a counselor trained by the Gottman Institute (they can give you referrals). Most couples counseling is just personal opinion, whereas the Gottmans took a scientific approach to studying what made marriages and other relationships succeed or fail. You might also try reading some of his books together and working through the exercises.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:20 PM on February 23, 2008

I went to couples counseling with my husband for a while. We went to the therapist that I had already been seeing privately. DO NOT go this route. Make sure the therapist you finally decide to go with is someone you BOTH agree on. Make sure that you both are involved in finding candidates, and you both are involved in deciding who to meet with and you both come up with a list of questions to ask each candidate.

If you are a male/female couple, prepare for the fact that one of you is going to feel like the odd-man/woman out gender-wise. This can really suck if you feel like the other two are ganging up on you occasionally. (You might feel this way regardless of the skills of your therapist - it's human.)

If you have a regular appointment, pick a day/time when you both are relatively free, so that one of you isn't rushing home from work or whatever and therapy doesn't feel like an inconvenience or imposition.

Don't go to the appointment in the same car. Allow time, both before and after, for you both to be alone with your own thoughts. It's really really awkward to travel home in the car and stop for groceries and do normal stuff with someone you've just had an extremely personal knock-down drag-out crying therapy session with.

Talk about the issues outside of therapy too. Don't "save" talks or fights or whatever for therapy sessions (unless you (or he) really feel(s) vulnerable on an issue). Think of your therapist as a trainer or coach. You still have to practice what you learn.

It's really a different experience for everybody, so don't take anything I say as gospel, except for the part about not using your own therapist for couples counseling too. Save your boyfriend's feelings and don't do that. I wish I had.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:14 AM on February 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I attended Imago counseling with my ex-girlfriend. Obviously, it didn't save our relationship, but it did take us from fighting to discussing our differences. In the end, they proved insurmountable - but we parted friends. And I learned valuable lessons about listening, and responding in ways that effectively communicated, "I hear & understand what you are saying!" - which is AMAZINGLY powerful, emotionally.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:35 AM on February 24, 2008

You both have to feel comfortable with the therapist. You might have to talk with more than one before you find the right person. You already know that from your own experience, but it bears repeating and repeating.

It might help for each of you to talk with the therapist separately, early on. In a couple's session, the therapist is coaching you to talk and listen constructively. It can feel frustrating, because it's slow at first. If you go separately, you get to say your piece, develop trust with the therapist, and get comfortable with the new "rules" for communicating.

Even if it seems that the therapist is all about skills and behavior, there's going to be a huge amount of emotional benefit. You try out the skills and they make a difference. You trust each other more, and you start to trust that you really can work things out. All the important work of couple therapy happens when the two of you are alone together. When it works, over time you develop a deep belief that whatever problem arises, the two of you will be able to deal with it.
posted by wryly at 10:37 AM on February 24, 2008

Just make sure your therapist doesn't "take sides" and you'll be fine.

This is actually quite an issue. I have been through this process several times and finding someone who will help the couple versus someone who will pick a side and then help that side is really a challenge. All too often they want to choose sides, and these are people who are incredible therapists, who in a moment of personal crises I would not hesitate to use them. A good therapist who will open communication without trying to analyze and choose sides is pure gold.

This is true even if they are taking your side. Really, that won't help because your partner will feel screwed rather than partnered. Get a neutral person. That lets both of you feel comfortable opening your hearts, and that is the key, you really want to open up, and do so in a safe environment. Ultimately you want to be able to work these things out on your own, without a third party mediating the discussion. Someone who can move you to that point is the goal, and they need to be neutral and prescient about you as people and participants in this union.

In the end, I have to say, you and your partner are far more important than any therapist. Do you want to survive together? If yes, then you will, even if you need the guidance. If not, you won't despite ungodly levels of guidance.

Good luck.
posted by caddis at 10:41 PM on February 24, 2008

It's really really awkward to travel home in the car and stop for groceries and do normal stuff with someone you've just had an extremely personal knock-down drag-out crying therapy session with

I totally disagree with this; some of our best and most important conversations happened immediately after the counseling sessions, when we were at our most vulnerable with each other, and we could say stuff that wouldn't make sense to the therapist. I would definitely plan on some time together afterwards. A good therapist shouldn't leave you royally pissed off at each other at the end of the session. Even if you still disagree, it's a great time to openly communicate, especially if your partner is not usually emotionally expressive.
posted by desjardins at 4:35 PM on February 25, 2008

I would definitely plan on some time together afterwards.

Well, different strokes, I guess. My husband and I, being introverts, both tend to need to retreat to our personal corners periodically. About an hour or so talking in therapy was enough at any one time for us.

Actually, that would be a good point to bring up with a potential therapist - how long are the sessions? And then evaluate if that length is a good fit for you. I've heard of sessions only lasting a half hour, which doesn't sound like enough time to me, but may work for some. Our therapist scheduled us for an hour, but we usually went longer (without extra charges.)
posted by SuperSquirrel at 12:45 PM on February 26, 2008

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