One person in the couple will usually want to come to couple counselling more than the other.
The counsellor will not take sides, but remain neutral to discover what the issues are, and how each person perceives those issues. Sometimes one person can want the relationship to continue, the other to end.
Whether you are married, partnered, same sex couples, boyfriend and girlfriend, relationships can be rewarding but go through periods of transition and change. Each person will bring their own experiences to the shared relationship which can prevent the relationship moving forward.
Couples Counselling focuses on the relationship experience in the room, and the contribution made by each person.
Having an independent person who can look at the relationship dispassionately can give a clarity to the situation, and help towards agreed resolution.
I work to the BACP Code of Ethics
‘Agreeing to therapy shows that you care‘ Couples Counselling
Therapist Andrew G Marshall describes what relationship therapy can do for couples on the rocks and what to expect from your sessions
People often ask me how a couple can tell if they would benefit from relationship therapy; how they can recognise that their problems can no longer be dealt with at home, together. There’s no simple answer, but often we get a sense that things are reaching stalemate.
Perhaps you and your partner are arguing about the stupidest things and these rows quickly escalate into something nasty.
Or your relationship feels stale, and if the two of you were not so busy leading separate lives you feel you would die of boredom. Sometimes there is a big issue – such as money, sex, infidelity, in-laws or children – about which you cannot get your partner to understand your viewpoint.
Beginning any form of counselling is daunting, but in my experience people find it harder to start couple counselling than individual therapy. Instead of exposing your inner-most hopes and fears to a supportive stranger, your partner will be in the seat opposite ready to disagree, and possibly to rubbish your opinions. He or she already knows so much about you from your day-to-day life together that laying bare your soul or secrets can leave you feeling particularly naked.
There is the added fear that the truth will upset or hurt your partner and make a bad situation even worse. When I finish counselling and ask couples to look back over their therapy, most admit that, although they knew I was trained to be impartial, they feared I would side with their partner. This is because couple counselling awakens long dormant sibling rivalry issues: “Will the therapist love me most?”
If you can get over the hump of entering relationship therapy, the rewards are often much greater than those of individual counselling. In many cases, couples get an immediate short-term boost. This is partly down to a sense of relief that something is finally being done, but mainly because our partner agreeing to this ordeal is concrete proof that she or he cares.
Next, it soon becomes clear that a couple counsellor’s responsibility is to the relationship and both of you will get equal time, attention and understanding. On a deeper level, couple work avoids the victim or “poor me” attitude that can be a by-product of individual therapy, which encourages people to dig deeper into their own world view.
If couples have been able to cooperate enough to set up a home together and raise a family, they soon begin to support each other through the necessary changes to their relationship. For this reason, couple counselling often needs fewer sessions than one-to-one work.
There are different types of therapy available: Relationship Counselling for London (counselling4London.com) offers couple counselling, while the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, also in London, provides couple psychotherapy (tccr.org.uk). Couple counselling tends to work with the immediate problems, although the past is used to illuminate the present. Couple psychotherapy, however, starts with the deep-seated problems and by resolving these aims to alleviate any current issues.
Outside London, most towns will have a Relate centre or outpost offering local couple counselling (relate.org.uk). Relate uses two different types of counselling philosophy: psycho-dynamic (looking at how significant figures from the past can influence us today) and systemic (which has its origins in family therapy and focuses on how changing one partner’s behaviour will change the other’s). The advantage of going to these organisations is that you can guarantee the counsellors have been trained in couple work. Unfortunately, there are many private counsellors who are qualified for individual therapy but offer couple counselling as a bolt on.
Inside a counselling session
So once you have found your therapist, where does he or she start? Personally, I’m always interested in what makes a couple seek help right now, as opposed to in the months or years during which the problems have been building. I also like to hear each partner’s individual perspective.
Next, I like to put the couple’s “presenting” problems – what they have come to me specifically to discuss – into the context of the whole relationship. So I ask my clients to tell the story of how they met – it helps relax people and remember the good elements of their relationship, and then slowly work up to the present.
In the second or third session, I will draw up the couple’s joint family tree. This reveals important life events – the death of a parent, any divorces, and the ages of any children – and shows up similarities and differences in the partners’ backgrounds. Although we will generally concentrate on issues arising during the week between sessions, I have a bigger agenda: to help each partner to be emotionally honest, understand each other’s feelings and to engage with the difficult bits.
All too often people try to avoid this pain by denying, ignoring or rationalising it away and diverting themselves with something else. However once all the hidden issues are openly acknowledged – and the fear removed that something worse is lurking in the shadows – even ingrained problems are surprisingly soluble.
After two or three months, I melt into the background. Couples discover they can do this work on their own, that their communication has improved and it’s time to end counselling. Most people leave having not only learned a lot about their partner and their relationship, but about themselves, too.
About your expert
Andrew G Marshall has been a relationship therapist for 25 years. He writes about relationships for a range of publications and is the author of The Single Trap: The Two-Step Guide to Escaping and Finding lasting Love, and I Love You But I’m Not In Love With You (Bloomsbury). andrewgmarshall.com