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Healthy relationships are a fundamental human need. We’re wired to connect—it’s key to our survival. Research ties strong relationships to better physical and mental health. And when those relationships face challenges, couples therapy can help you sustain the benefits that make them worth the effort and commitment.
Couples therapy helps people in romantic and intimate relationships resolve conflicts, improve how they relate to each other, and strengthen their connection with one another. During couples counseling, a specially trained relationship counselor provides an accepting, safe space where you can feel comfortable talking about difficult topics.
Couples counseling can be useful at any stage in a relationship—from one that’s brand new to decades-old partnerships. Participating in relationship counseling can help you gain insights into yourself and your partner, develop healthier communication, and ultimately create a more satisfying and fulfilling relationship.
Therapy for couples addresses relationship-focused goals. Both members of the couple engage in the therapy process during each session. Individual therapy is focused on treatment for one person or partner, and most of the time that person attends sessions alone.
In the first couples therapy session, you’ll share why you’re seeking out relationship counseling and when and how the issues started in your relationship. You’ll also discuss what you hope to gain from therapy and create goals. Your relationship counselor will tell you about their approach and what you can expect during sessions.
There are many different types of couples therapy. Sometimes couples therapy is referred to as marriage counseling, but you don’t need to be married or in a monogamous relationship to attend couples counseling. Relationship counseling is for all kinds of partners, including unmarried, LGBTQIA+, nonmonogamous, or polyamorous relationships. As long as everyone shares the same expectations for the relationship, couples counseling can bring about positive changes.
Therapy for couples can take place in person or virtually. Research shows telehealth is just as effective as in-person relationship counseling. In addition to being convenient and easily accessible, online couples therapy may help people feel more emotionally or physically safe.
Each couple’s goals are unique to them. Improving communication is one of the most common goals in therapy for couples. Many times one or both partners aren’t feeling heard, seen, or understood by the other. Couples learn to recognize ineffective behaviors and conflict patterns so they can create healthier communication around those issues and learn how to connect with each other in situations when they’d previously get caught in a pattern of disconnecting.
Some couples experience a 70 percent improvement after relationship counseling. There are several research-based couples treatments that have shown significant and sustained gains from treatment. Many people question whether relationships can recover from difficult experiences like infidelity. A growing body of research indicates they can.
Therapy for couples is most successful when everyone is committed to the process and the structure of the relationship moving forward. For example, using couples therapy as a way to decide if you’re going to stay with your partner is daunting because it doesn’t allow for the emotional safety needed to address relationship issues. The stakes are too high. You don’t need to know if you’re going to be with this person forever, but you should at least be committed to the relationship for the foreseeable future.
Relationship counseling also tends to be more effective when there’s a baseline level of steadiness in the relationship. Couples therapy can bring up intense emotions, so you need stability to tolerate and navigate strong feelings. It’s tough to make progress in couples counseling when there’s an unresolved affair, threats of infidelity, recent substance use, or physical abuse. Those issues should be addressed first so the root causes of relationship issues aren’t drowned out by the external signs of the problem. In these situations, couples may feel chronically unsafe with each other, so they may need to do some individual work first to be able to show up in couples counseling in a way that’s resilient, respectful, and productive.
The cost of couples therapy varies based on factors like location, therapist credentials, session length, therapy type, and insurance coverage. Without insurance, fees can range from $75 to $200 or more per session. Some therapists offer sliding scale fees or online couples therapy, which can be more affordable. Therapy for couples may also be available through a company-provided mental health benefit like Lyra Health.
For many people, relationship counseling is a worthwhile investment. Healthy relationships are like a protective shield against life’s stressors as well as many physical and mental health conditions. Couples counseling won’t make your relationship perfect, but it can help you learn how to come back together and buffer each other during difficult times.
Couples counseling can vary based on your needs and the relationship counselor. It typically occurs weekly and may include homework assignments between sessions.
Therapy usually begins with an initial assessment to set goals and explore concerns. An assessment helps the relationship counselor develop a treatment plan personalized to the couple’s needs, taking into consideration their relationship history, dynamics, and communication patterns.
Assessments are an essential component of relationship counseling because they provide a structured and objective way to understand the relationship. Assessments provide insight into areas like relationship satisfaction, conflicts, mental health and well-being, commitment level, substance use, parenting styles, attachment styles, and relationship resources and strengths. Research shows that when relationship counselors conduct an assessment at the start of treatment and track outcomes data throughout care, clients are far likelier to benefit from therapy.
There are many therapy approaches depending on the couple’s needs. Some of these include:
EFT considers the ways we relate to others based on early or significant relationships. It emphasizes the importance of emotional connections in relationships and helps couples identify and express their feelings, understand attachment needs, and create more secure emotional bonds.
IBCT combines elements from behavioral and emotion-focused therapies to help couples navigate conflicts, enhance communication, and improve emotional intimacy. IBCT emphasizes the importance of both acceptance and change, promoting emotional regulation and problem-solving skills.
Developed by doctors John and Julie Gottman, this approach helps couples assess and address specific relationship dynamics, behaviors, and patterns. The Gottman method aims to improve communication, build trust, and enhance intimacy while targeting the “Four Horsemen” (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling).
CBCT is rooted in cognitive behavioral principles and focuses on identifying and changing thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to relationship issues. Couples learn effective communication and problem-solving skills as well as strategies to manage conflicts and reduce negative interactions.
Couples therapy can be transformative. Sometimes people expect their relationship to improve immediately. While that’s the experience for some people, more often couples start to unpack things they’ve gotten into a pattern of avoiding. So don’t be discouraged if things hurt a little bit more at first. You may feel emotions you’ve gotten used to not feeling or having conversations you’ve never had before, so emotional bumps and bruises may surface for a time. That’s why it’s important to be in a place where you have the emotional capacity to do that kind of work. If you don’t feel ready, individual therapy can be a great place to start.
Sometimes we have internal barriers that keep us from going to therapy, whether that’s due to the stigma around mental health or worries about talking about uncomfortable topics or being put on the spot. Sharing research with your partner on relationship counseling outcomes or what to expect may help them get past these barriers.
Often the conversation about couples counseling goes something like, “We need therapy because of you.” But finger-pointing isn’t an effective approach. Instead, bring yourself into the conversation and take part ownership. For example, “I have things that I know I need to work on in our relationship, and I don’t feel like I can do that on my own.” You can explain that you’re not feeling effective at communicating your needs and you would like another perspective. “I’d like someone else to look at what’s happening between the two of us so I can know what to do differently.”
If your partner remains unwilling to attend couples counseling, consider starting therapy on your own. Individual therapy can provide you with valuable insights and coping strategies for dealing with relationship issues, and it may eventually help your partner become more open to the idea of couples therapy.
Couples counseling can be helpful at any stage of a relationship. It’s best to seek professional support as early as possible rather than waiting for a crisis or viewing therapy as a last-ditch effort to save the relationship.
With that being said, it may be time to consider couples therapy if you’re having difficulty:
Some couples who already have a positive relationship choose to attend relationship counseling as a way to strengthen their connection, improve communication, and address minor issues before they become major problems.
Couples therapy can be a ray of hope for anyone experiencing relationship challenges. It demonstrates a commitment to understanding and strengthening your partnership and can lead to greater communication, empathy, and ultimately, a deeper and more fulfilling connection.