• Fe Robinson

Introduction to Couples Counselling

Couples Counselling can be effective, and make a big difference to intimate relationships. Here’s an introduction to what it is (and isn’t) and how it works.

What Couples Counselling Is

Couples counselling is a specialised kind of talking therapy where two people sit down with a counsellor to talk about the way they are relating. Most often couples counselling is used by two people in a romantic relationship, but it can also be used by any two people wanting to improve their relationship, for example two family members.

Couples counselling exists to help you see clearly what is currently happening in your relationship, to be clear about what you would like to be different, and to enable you to bridge the gap. It’s dynamically different to one to one counselling work because there are three people in the room, but it shares the same confidentiality, code of ethics, and focus on you and your needs. It is not about the opinions or preferred outcomes of the counsellor.

In couples counselling not only will you gain new perspectives about each other and the way you relate, but you will also learn new ways of being together. Couples counselling includes skills work to help you actually do something different, as well as helping you explore your feelings and thoughts with your partner. It has an appreciative focus as well as exploring difficulties, so be prepared to recall what you love and value about each other and to look on your partner with kind eyes.

What it isn’t

Couples counselling is not a magic cure, it requires an investment of honesty, courage and humility. Oftentimes couples come into counselling blaming each other for their difficulties, they may even fall into sitting arguing in front of the counsellor. Couples counsellors are not passive, they will intervene to focus the session on insight and action. For couples, this often involves letting go of fixed perspectives and stepping back to see the process of how you interact. Couples counselling is not a place to avoid emotions, by exploring them and finding different perspectives it helps you decide what you are able and willing to change.

Couples counsellors may well provide you with coaching, for example helping you learn to communicate differently, but what they will not do is give advice about life issues or solve your problems. They are also not there to take sides, they will help you both to be heard.

Couples counselling is not appropriate where a relationship is abusive. If an abuse dynamic is identified your counsellor will help you with onwards referrals to get the help you need, with safety as a priority.

How Common Areas/Problems Are Explored

The most common issue couples come to a couples counsellor with is difficulties in communicating. It is easy over time to fall into unhelpful habits that mean you no longer hear what each other are saying, and you become polarised in your own view of the world.

That said, communication challenges can be a contributing factor, or a reflection of a number of issues couples bring into the room. These can include:

· Affairs and/or betrayal, and issues of trust / jealousy

· Financial issues

· Differing values and goals

· Differing parenting styles

· Wider family conflicts

· Life changes and adjustments (e.g. empty nest, bereavement, illness)

· Sexual issues

· Emotional intimacy issues

· Work related difficulties

· Gender role conflict

· Religion, politics

The job of your counsellor is to help you get underneath and around the presenting issue to work out what it is that is happening for you both. Beyond the issue in hand, you are in a process of relating with each other, and it is in exploring and evolving the way you interact that you can bring a difference to the way you resolve the issue at hand.

Your counsellor may help you explore different dimensions of your fit as a couple, looking at where you are similar, and where you differ, and how you can come to play to strengths and appreciate your differences.

It may also be useful to pay attention to different aspects of your relationship, for example:

  • your level of commitment to each other

  • how you communicate,

  • how you connect and play together,

  • how you compromise and/or resolve disputes,

  • how you nurture and care for yourselves and each other, and

  • how you grow together.

Each counsellor may use a different models to consider these aspects of your relationship, the key thing is them using a model and language that makes sense to you.

The overall process of couples counselling can be described as one of expression, joint discovery, sense making and action planning. You may move through this cycle many times. An ideal outcome from counselling would perhaps be that you are equipped to do this together for yourselves in the future, without the need for ongoing counselling.

Sometimes, however, as a result of couples counselling, clients come to a decision to end their relationship. Counselling can then fulfil a role in helping the couple to end well, and to take care of issues that are important to you (for example caring for children), in a mutually respectful and beneficial way.

Inside a Typical Counselling Session

In your first couples counselling session, your therapist is going to want to work with you to build an understanding of what is happening and how you have arrived at this point. This involves asking questions about your relationship including how it began, how it has developed and how you experience it now. It will also involve asking briefly about your wider families, your history of relationships before this one, and getting a sense of the context in which you live.

For example, your counsellor may ask about your support network, work, religion, age, educational background, culture and other factors. While these questions may seem tangential to what brought you in, they may well be illuminating in understanding similarities and differences between you, and in helping you understand the wider framework in which your difficulties sit. This understanding is likely to develop throughout your counselling and can make a big difference to the way you perceive yourself, each other, and the relationship. Applied knowledge is power after all!

Once you have shared your history, the key task of therapy is to agree clear outcomes you both want to work towards. Your counsellor is there to help you agree MUTUAL goals, and their contract with you is to support you in achieving them. Goals provide a focus, and a way of recognising and measuring progress. Outcomes do evolve as therapy progresses, but having a sense of where you are going can help give a structure and a purpose to your work.

Your counsellor will reflect on the initial information you have given them, and your goals, and then let you know how they think you may work together. This can give a sense of how long they estimate the work might take (sometimes as little as six sessions, sometimes as many as twenty), and what kind of ground you may be covering.

Depending on the issue(s) you are bringing to couples counselling, ongoing sessions are likely to involve:

· reflection on what is working, progress made, ways you appreciate each other

· deciding on a goal for the session

· each of you having equal space to express your thoughts and feelings,

· time to reflect on and respond to what you are both hearing,

· sense making with your counsellor, exploring the deeper meaning of what is shared and how the past is impacting the present

· Exploration of how contextual factors (family values, faith, lifestyle, culture, work etc) affect the relationship pattern you are exploring

· exploration of how you each plan to be different in the relationship (focused on your own thoughts about what you would like to commit, not on how you want the other person to change)

· skills development, for example learning new ways to communicate and navigate conflict, addressing care for self and each other

· a review of the progress made and agreement of any actions before next time

While this is an ideal territory for a session, each one will differ, and sometimes you may spend a whole session or more just on one aspect. One size does not fit all, the job of your counsellor is to make sure that your specific needs are recognised and met. Bear in mind though that needs and wants are not always the same thing!

You can expect couples counselling sessions to be uncomfortable, and to go to places you may rather avoid. For example, you are likely to be asked about sex, because it is one of the places in a relationship that wider difficulties tend to be starkly reflected. Your counsellor will be seeking to make sure there are no ‘no-go’ areas, and that you can safely bring up whatever you need to.

Like any therapy, the real work of couples counselling happens outside the room. Your counsellor is likely to give you exercises to go away and do, together or individually, between sessions. Added to this, if you take time to reflect between sessions, and come with a view about how you can positively build on the progress made and overcome the challenges revealed so far, you are much more likely to move forwards as a couple. Seeing the therapy itself as ‘the answer’ on the basis of an hour a week of work is not likely to be successful.

Possible reasons not to go to couples counselling

In couples counselling, it’s common for people to enter either very willing to talk, or very reluctant, often in a couple there is one person who is in each position. On the one hand, speaking up, and risking conflict, can feel tough. On the other, stopping speaking and making space to have to honestly hear what is being said, can be equally difficult. Conflict is so often viewed as bad, and yet differences of opinion and emotions laid bare are the places where mutual understanding and growth can emerge. Your counsellor is there to help you create a space where you can both speak freely, without being interrupted and and knowing the counsellor will ensure you are respected. What you say and what you hear may be challenging, but avoiding what is actually happening and what either of you really feel will get you nowhere fast.

Communication difficulties are a very common part of couples work, sometimes the more we say the less understood we feel! It is easy to judge ourselves by our intention, and others by their impact. When someone speaks, we process what they say through our own ‘filters’ made up of our attitudes, beliefs, values and context. We do not hear what they mean, we hear what it meant to us. Peeling back and exploring these aspects of ourselves is a key part of couples work, once you understand HOW you hear what you hear, you are at choice to change the way you listen. This just might change the situation drastically.

If your goal is to change your partner, couples counselling may not be for you. In couples counselling you will be encouraged to take responsibility for expressing your wants and needs, but that does not mean they will always be met. The counsellor is there to help you both express yourselves openly and respectfully, they are not an arbitrator or mediator. Being open to changing yourself is key to successful couples work.

With this in mind, it is important to know that couples counselling is not able to solve deep individual issues where it is these that are impacting the couple relationship. Sometimes it is useful to pause or end the couples counselling to give one or both partners time to have individual support. Working with more than one counsellor at once is not generally recommended because it is not usually in the best interests of the client.

What to look for in a therapist

If you are considering couples counselling, you will want to find a counsellor who is specifically trained to work with couples. Don’t hesitate to ask what their qualification is and when and where they completed it, and to check out the quality of this before proceeding. Couples and individual work are quite different in approach and technique, an experienced individual counsellor will not necessarily be able to offer the support you need.

Professionals should be registered, or ideally accredited, with a professional body, UKCP, BACP and COSRT are the ones to look out for. Also check that the counsellor has regular clinical supervision with a supervisor who is specifically trained in couples work, and is actively practicing. This makes sure they are receiving current, appropriate clinical guidance when they need it. You may also want to check out the counsellors continuing professional development - when did they last do top up learning, and how do they keep themselves up to date?

Couples counselling is NOT individual counselling

Couples counselling moves at a different pace to individual counselling. Having another person in the room who can respond, real time, to what you are saying provides an immediate feedback loop which can be both beneficial and challenging. Sometimes we all pull the wool over our eyes, not wanting to really acknowledge what is happening. In couples counselling it is hard to deceive yourself or the counsellor because not only is the way you relate there in the room to be observed, but also your partner may well say what they think and feel, shining a light into areas you find uncomfortable.

Couples counselling tends to progress more quickly than one to one work, it also tends to be more dynamic and challenging. It’s far more common for a client to leave a couples session part way through for this reason. My advice is to begin with the end in mind, if you have a good, strong reason for being in counselling then you are more likely to be open to exploring the uncomfortable.

Be careful what you wish for

Couples counselling is often criticised, even though the research findings are that when conducted well, and when both partners are still invested in the relationship, it can be very effective. Do be aware that like any therapy, it will have effects. If deep down you want things to stay as they are, then couples counselling will not be for you. Simply having a third person observe and reflect back the dynamic of your relating changes things, you can’t unknow things that you learn about yourself or each other.

Things do often get worse before they get better, this is a normal part of any therapeutic work but is particularly evident in couples work. Be clear what it is you both want from couples counselling before you go, this will help your counsellor to focus on what matters most to you.


I'm currently offering couples counselling online using the Zoom platform, If you want to find out more, email me at fejrobinson@gmail,com, or call confidentially on 0325 730021.