How to Get The Most from Couples Therapy Risa Davis-Ganel, LCMFT

(Adapted with permission from The Couples Institute by Ellyn Bader, Ph.D and Peter Pearson, Ph.D)

You’ve agonized over it. You want to, but at the same time you don’t want to. Then one day, the disagreements become too much. You can’t take it anymore. You have to do something different. So, you take the leap, pick up the phone and make an appointment for couples therapy.

Whew! You may feel some relief already. Just knowing you’ve taken a step toward addressing the problems that have plagued your relationship can make you breathe a bit easier. But what happens next? This article will help you get the most benefit from your couples therapy sessions.

What Should You Expect at the First Appointment?

Therapy generally begins from the first phone call, or nowadays, from the first click of the mouse! It’s in the first moment of contact with the therapist that you get a feel for his/her personality, tone of voice, and way of doing business. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about experience, licensure, fees, and so on. It’s important that you find a therapist trained and licensed to do couples therapy, and with whom you feel comfortable.

At the first session, there will likely be forms you’ll need to complete. Plan to arrive about 10 minutes prior to the session to complete that paperwork. This way you don’t lose time with the therapist. Sessions usually last 45-50 minutes and office policies and paperwork are reviewed at the beginning of the first session. The remaining time is spent getting to know you and your partner, the issues you’re concerned about, and your goals for therapy.

Goals and Objectives of Couples Therapy

The primary goal of most couples therapy is to increase your knowledge about yourself, your partner, and the patterns of interaction between you. Therapy becomes effective as you apply this new knowledge to break ineffective patterns and develop more productive and satisfying ways to interact.

It’s important that you establish objectives that include ideas about:

    • The kind of life you want to build together;
    • The kind of partner you aspire to be in order to build the kind of life and relationship you desire; and
    • Your individual blocks to becoming the kind of partner you want to be.

To create sustained improvement in your relationship you need:

    • A vision of the life you want to build, together and individually;
    • The appropriate attitudes and skills needed to work as a team;
    • The motivation to persist; and
    • Time to review progress.

Important Concepts to Consider for Your Relationship to THRIVE

Below are some ideas to consider and discuss with your partner and your therapist. These may help you identify areas of concern in your couples therapy sessions and help you keep focused during treatment.

Love is a behavior, not just an emotion. Ask yourself, “Am I behaving in a loving way?”

Focus on changing yourself, rather than your partner.

The hardest part about couples therapy is accepting that you will need to improve your response to a problem (how you think about it, feel about it, and/or what you do about it). Very few people want to focus on improving their own responses. It’s more common, and unfortunately much less productive, to build a strong case for why your partner should do the improving.

Trust is the foundational building block of a thriving relationship. You create trust by doing what you say you will do.

It’s not what you say…It’s what they hear.

Communication is the number one reason couples seek therapy. To be an effective communicator you need to pay attention to the following:

    • Managing your emotions (unruly anger, overwhelming sadness, etc.);
    • How you communicate (blaming, whining, yelling, being vague, etc.);
    • What the problem means to you;
    • The outcome you want from the discussion;
    • Your partner’s major concerns (Are you listening?); and
    • The beliefs and attitudes you have about the problem.

How to Maximize the Value from your Couples Therapy Sessions

Now you have an appointment scheduled, know what to expect during the first visit, and have some idea of your goals and objectives for therapy. So, how do you keep things on track and make the most out of each session?

First, let’s talk about what not to do. There are very common, yet unproductive patterns that can occur in couples therapy. The first is being reactive, and thus ineffective, when addressing problems that arise. It’s not helpful in the long run to make the focus of each session be whatever problem happens to be on someone’s mind at the moment.

A second unproductive pattern is showing up with each person saying, “I don’t know what to talk about, do you?” Few people would call an important meeting and then say, “Well, I don’t have anything to bring up, does anyone else have anything on their agenda?” You are investing time and money in each session you attend. This investment can pay dividends with a bit of preparation and reflection before each session.

A third common and unproductive pattern is to discuss whatever fight you had since the last session. While discussing the argument may need to be done to some degree, it must be done within the larger context of what you wish to learn from the experience.

As I mentioned above, it is most productive for each person in therapy to concentrate on his/her contribution to the pattern of behaviors within the relationship. Remember, that’s what you have the power to change…yourself. Concentrating on what your partner should do will foster resistance and resentment, and give away all power over progress to the other person.

Before each couples therapy session, each person should do the following:

    • Reflect on your objectives for being in therapy; and
    • Think about your next step that supports or relates to the larger objectives for the relationship you wish to create, or the partner you aspire to be.

The majority of work takes place outside of session. It takes diligence, work, effort, and awareness. Make the most of your investment and you make it more likely that your marriage will THRIVE…not just survive.