What to expect at your first couples therapy session and the 4 relationship skills it can teach you
therapycan help people gain new insight and guide efforts to repair or improve their bond.
- Therapists may ask couples about their individual and shared history and about their joint goals.
Couples therapycan be an effective strategy for addressing a wide range of relationship issues.
No matter how healthy your relationship is, it's normal to experience rocky patches. Whether it's communication, intimacy, or trust issues, a couple's therapist can help both partners gain new insight and guide their efforts to repair or improve their bond.
"It's an opportunity for a couple to resolve any concerns that are getting in the way of them enjoying their emotional and physical relationship with one another to the fullest," says Laurel Steinberg, PhD, clinical sexologist and relationship therapist in New York City.
According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT), over three-fourths of couples report an improvement in their relationship after counseling. Moreover, about 90% report an improvement in their emotional
If you're considering couples therapy, these are the basics about how the process works, and what you can expect to gain from it.
What to expect when you start couples therapy
"The first session is the opportunity for the therapist to gain an understanding of the couple's unique dynamics, and to learn about their strengths and weaknesses," says Steinberg. "The therapist will ask them about their individual histories, their history together, and about what each of their goals are for the work that will follow."
For example, Mary Kay Cocharo, a licensed family and marriage therapist in Los Angeles, will typically ask the couple to imagine what their relationship would ideally look like if counseling is successful. This establishes a positive tone for the sessions that focuses on their connection, rather than everything that's wrong with the relationship.
To have a beneficial outcome, Steinberg says it's also important that both partners are fully invested in the process. You should come to the first session ready to discuss your goals and what you hope to get out of it.
The price of counseling varies significantly based on where you live, as well as the therapist's education and experience, according to Steinberg. On average, couples therapists charge between $70 and $250 per hour.
Important: The price of counseling varies significantly based on where you live, as well as a therapist's education and experience. On average, couples therapists charge between $70 and $250 per hour.
Skills you can learn in couples therapy
There are many common areas of improvement you can gain from couples therapy, such as:
Improving communication. Cocharo says therapy might involve working on skills like "deep listening," an empathy-promoting process of listening without judgment, and "vulnerable sharing," an intimacy-promoting process of describing your innermost thoughts and feelings without over-explanation or justification. Couples might also focus on managing reactivity and communicating better specifically during conflict.
Defining expectations. "Partners must have a clear understanding of what is expected of them and what they can expect from each other," says Steinberg. In couples therapy, you may be able to more clearly communicate and define needs and boundaries - in terms of money, intimacy, or other facets of life.
Finding a rhythm. According to Steinberg, it's essential for both partners to spend meaningful time together and apart in a healthy relationship. The Early Years of Marriage Project, a study that followed nearly 400 couples over 25 years, found that 11.5% of spouses cited a lack of alone time as the reason for unhappiness. Meanwhile, other research has suggested that confidence and satisfaction within a marriage are linked to how much quality time husbands and wives spend together.
Rebuilding trust. If there has been a breach of trust in the relationship, such as a romantic affair or financial infidelity, it's important to rebuild trust. Research has also shown that an ability to forgive can heal most marital problems - and a therapist can help the couple manage these transparent discussions.
When you should try couples counseling
There's a wide range of reasons why couples might decide to seek help from a professional. Some of the most common include:
You're constantly fighting. If your fights are always escalating, or they never seem to find a resolution, Cocharo says therapy can help you find healthier ways to communicate. A small 2002 study revealed that 73% of individuals reported stable or improved levels in their communication skills after undergoing couples therapy, and another 66% reported stable or improved levels of communication for their partners.
You're avoiding conflict. John Gottman, an acclaimed couples therapist and researcher, has found that "stonewalling" - or shutting down and refusing to engage with a partner - can predict divorce with about 93% accuracy. If one or both partners is avoiding conflict, counseling provides a safe space to hash out issues alongside an unbiased therapist.
You're disagreeing on money matters. Not seeing eye to eye on finances is one of the top reasons why people get divorced. Steinberg says that therapy is a great place to get on the same page about how money and other resources are to be allocated.
You're experiencing a lack of intimacy. In a 2008 national survey of married couples, 76% of happy couples stated that their sex lives were satisfying and fulfilling, while only 28% of unhappy couples said the same. When one or both partners is unhappy with the state of their sex life, a therapist can help dig into the root cause.
"Sometimes the negative emotional climate trickles down into the bedroom," says Cocharo. "People tend to withhold affection and sex when they don't feel connected or safe."
Someone has cheated. A betrayal of any kind can be damaging to a relationship on many levels. However, if the couple is committed to staying together, Cocharo says a therapist may be able to help them rebuild a foundation of trust.What research says: A 2005 study found that couples dealing with the aftermath of infidelity who pursue counseling showed improvements in marital satisfaction, greater forgiveness for the transgression, and reduced psychological trauma.
You're considering divorce. Nearly 50% of US marriages end in divorce, and studies have demonstrated that this can take a significant toll on mental health - it's associated with increased risk of depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse.
Cocharo says that couples sometimes come to counseling when they've already decided they want to end their marriage but need help navigating the process and minimizing the impact on their kids. Therapy can help them to dissolve their relationship in a conscious, loving way.
Experts agree that working with a therapist can be a healthier and more effective strategy than relying solely on friends and family - who are often biased - for support.
"Couples therapists are educated and trained to listen without judgment," adds Cocharo. "A good couples therapist will hear your story and help you to understand what's under the surface."
Couples therapy can be an effective short-term strategy for partners in all stages of a relationship to address a wide range of issues.
The effectiveness of the process depends on each partner's investment in the work, which may involve grappling with uncomfortable emotions, digging into past traumas, revealing vulnerabilities, and taking ownership of their shortcomings.
You can tell couples therapy is working if you enjoy your relationship, your partner, and your overall life more than you did before starting the process, adds Steinberg.
"Any two people seeking a deeper, safer, more intimate relationship can benefit from couples therapy," says Cocharo. "But it's not about just showing up. Each person has to be willing to commit to the process for long enough for lasting change to occur."
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