Couples counseling, also called couples therapy or marriage counseling, is a type of psychotherapy that helps partners in an intimate relationship better understand their problems and resolve conflicts. Couples counseling can help partners make important, informed decisions about the goals and future of their relationship.
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What Is Couples Therapy?
Couples therapy helps partners of any marital status, sexual orientation or gender identity strengthen their relationships. Participants in couples therapy may include couples who:
- Have a desire to better understand the needs of their partners
- Plan to marry and wish to pre-emptively work on conflicts
- Wish to understand their own needs
- Want to work on problems that have surfaced in their relationships
Common issues addressed in couples therapy include:
- Desire to improve communication
- Imbalance in needs for sex or intimacy
- Infidelity in the relationship
- Managing emotions like anger or fear
- Conflicts in managing responsibilities, such as child-rearing or meeting financial obligations
- Addiction or substance use in one or both partners
- Mental health conditions in one or both partners
In certain situations, couples therapy can help address intimate partner (domestic) violence. However, if you are afraid in your relationship or fear for your safety, it is important that you seek help from police, crisis centers or other local authorities.
Couples will work with a licensed therapist who has specialized training in identifying and treating relationship problems. The therapist is usually a marriage and family therapist (MFT), but some may have trained as a social worker or clinical psychologist.
What to Expect in Couples Counseling
Before beginning therapy, it is important that participants have a reasonable sense of what to expect from couples counseling. Couples can prepare for counseling either as individuals or together by:
- Making a brief inventory of what they feel should be addressed in therapy
- Finding a therapist (through referral from a primary care provider, insurance provider, employee assistance program or by word of mouth)
- Interviewing the therapist and asking about:
- Background (expertise, experience and education)
- Rates (fees per hour and insurance coverage)
- Treatment timeframe (length of each session and total length of treatment)
- Logistics (location of office and emergency availability)
In most cases, couples attend sessions with the therapist together. In these sessions, couples will discuss what is working in the relationship and what isn’t. Couples will also learn how to make necessary improvements and have productive, honest and open discussions without shaming or blaming one another.
Couples therapy might not be easy. You may be asked to complete work outside of the sessions. The therapy may uncover deeper issues with one or both partners that require work in individual therapy. You will be asked to discuss problems and situations that may be embarrassing, frustrating or unhealthy.
You may be asked to talk about your (or your partner’s) reactions and behaviors that you consider ugly or unsavory. You and your partner might have sessions where you experience anger, resentment or silence. This is a normal and necessary part of identifying problems and finding healthier ways of communicating about them.
Benefits of Couples Counseling
Couples counseling can be difficult, but the benefits of couples therapy can be substantial and lasting. Those who experience the benefits of couples counseling are clients who:
- Increase their ability to express emotions in a productive way
- Deepen understanding of their internal motivations
- Increase problem-solving skills
- Have fewer communication pitfalls
- Experience deeper understanding of their partner’s needs
- Resolve differences in a constructive manner
Goals of Couples Counseling
Couples counseling can significantly change the flight path of a relationship. UCLA psychologist Dr. Lisa Benson and colleagues described the core principles and goals of couples therapy as:
- Changing the view of the relationship
- Modifying dysfunctional behavior
- Decreasing emotional avoidance
- Improving communication
- Promoting strengths
While the specific goals of couples counseling do not always include salvaging a relationship, one goal is to help participants arrive at honest, productive and informed decisions about their relationship. As part of the core principles of therapy, couples counseling treatment goals may include:
- Creating an environment of mutual respect and empathy
- Strengthening bonds and intimacy
- Learning effective problem-solving strategies
- Reducing power struggles
- Creating and fostering healthier relational patterns
Couples Counseling in Addiction and Mental Health Treatment
The presence of addiction or a mental health condition will have an impact on the health of an intimate relationship. The reverse is also true: The quality of an intimate relationship has a direct effect on the recovery prospects of a person suffering from an addiction or mental health condition.
Strength of Addiction/Mental Health Condition ⇆ Vulnerability of Intimate Relationship
Addiction Recovery ⇆ Enhanced Relationship Function
When one or both parties in an intimate relationship suffer from an addiction or a mental health condition, a therapist can help improve the outcomes of both the relationship and the mental health condition or substance use disorder. Couples therapy can help clients understand how unhealthy patterns can develop in addiction and mental health conditions and show how those patterns may be manifesting in a relationship. As couples develop more awareness around their patterns, they can learn healthier, more supportive ways of communicating with each other.
Treatment programs for addiction or mental health conditions sometimes have couples addiction counseling as part of a larger family therapy component. Other times, couples therapy can be pursued in addition to a treatment program. In those instances, it is best to inform the program of the outside therapist so that the therapists can work with each other to maximize understanding and communication.
Couples counseling for sex addiction and love addiction is especially beneficial. Relationships affected by these addictions can display patterns of codependence, passive-aggressive behavior, infidelity and other difficulties. When sex or love addiction is involved, the partners in a relationship often cannot see the problematic behavioral patterns of the addiction until the behaviors have already manifested. If they do see it, they may feel powerless to stop it. When a relationship has been affected by infidelity, couples therapy can help partners reestablish trust and accountability and communicate more productively.
If you or your significant other has been affected by addiction or a mental health condition, The Recovery Village is here to help. We can provide you with valuable recovery resources, including on-site couples therapy with licensed and experienced clinicians. Connect with us today.
Karakurt, Gunnur, Whiting, Kate, Van Esch, Chantal, Bolen, Shari and Calabrese, Joseph. “Couple Therapy for Intimate Partner Violence: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, July 2016. Accessed May 14, 2019.
Benson, Lisa A., McGinn, Meghan M. and Christensen, Andrew. “Common principles of couple therapy.” Behavior Therapy, March 2012. Accessed May 14, 2019.
Fals-Stewart, William, O’Farrell, Timothy J. and Birchler, Gary R. “Behavioral Couples Therapy for Substance Abuse: Rationale, Methods, and Findings.” (2004). Science and Practice Perspectives. Accessed May 14, 2019.