How Relationship Counseling Works

If you’re considering couples therapy, read our guide to understand the benefits, expectations, and results.

Last updated: Jul 22nd, 2022
How Relationship Counseling Works

It’s no secret that successful relationships require effort and compromise. Even happy couples face conflict, but knowing how to fight fairly and connect with one another is essential.

All relationships require ongoing attentiveness and maintenance. When issues arise, it’s in your best interest to work through them promptly. Doing so can help keep you and your partner on the right track.

Around 30% of couples in serious relationships consider their arguing style unhealthy. While many couples can resolve problems on their own, professional support can help if you’re struggling. A qualified relationship therapist can help you and your partner improve communication, vocalize your needs, and deepen intimacy. Here’s how it works.

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Understanding the basics of relationship counseling

Relationship counseling is a type of therapy specifically designed for couples. The work starts with a thorough intake process. During this intake, your therapist will review how treatment works and collaborate with you to establish appropriate goals.

Relationship counseling, like all counseling, is confidential. That means that almost all information remains private. Your therapist will review the few exceptions to this rule before you begin treatment.

The length of counseling depends on several variables, including:

  • Types of issues addressed
  • Therapist modality or type of treatments used
  • Frequency of sessions
  • Motivation for change

That said, most treatment averages between 3-6 months. Your therapist will likely meet with you once a week. Over time, they may reduce the frequency to every other week or once a month before terminating altogether.

Relationship counseling is “complete” once you and your partner have met your established treatment goals. Of course, that does not mean that things feel “perfect.” Instead, you both should feel confident in your ability to implement your new skills moving forward.

Benefits of relationship counseling

Whether your relationship feels like it’s falling apart or things simply seem stale, counseling can help treat numerous issues. Here are some of the main benefits you can expect.

Enhancing communication

Even if you and your partner love each other deeply, poor communication can create a hostile environment and make you feel frustrated or unsafe. Furthermore, patterns can be persistent, meaning it’s hard to change communication styles without concentrated effort.

Dr. John Gottman, a pioneer in couples therapy, states that the four horsemen — criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling — can be detrimental to intimate relationships.

  1. Criticism happens when you attack your partner’s core self. For example, you might say, “You never pay attention to me!” or “You’re so rude to my mother!”
  2. Contempt occurs when one partner belittles or demoralizes another partner because of a feeling of superiority. A contemptuous statement sounds like, “You’re really going to wear that? I assumed you’d put on something nicer.”
  3. Defensiveness is a reaction to feeling accused or attacked by someone. Instead of taking accountability, defensiveness is an attempt to justify the behavior. For example, you might say, “I’ve been so swamped at work. You know how stressed and tired I am. You’re being a little unreasonable here.”
  4. Stonewalling happens when one partner completely withdraws from an interaction or shuts down entirely. This can mimic the silent treatment but makes the other partner feel guilty, afraid, and even more frustrated.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to develop maladaptive communication habits. So, while arguing is normal, relationship counseling helps you learn how to fight effectively and respectively.

Establishing boundaries

Boundaries help you maintain a sense of integrity and respect. Having these limits — and expressing them when needed — is essential to all healthy relationships.

Relationship problems can emerge when partners have overly rigid or overly loose boundaries. Issues might also occur if you don’t explicitly state your boundaries to your partner.

Relationship counseling can help you identify and implement reasonable boundaries. These will depend on your values and individual preferences. Some examples of healthy boundaries include:

  • Using respectful language with one another
  • Consulting with each other before making significant decisions
  • Allowing time and space to be alone
  • Respecting one another’s personal belongings
  • Having specific rules about sex and intimacy
  • Defining the relationship and your level of commitment to one another

Restoring trust

Lack of trust represents a serious issue in many relationships. For example, research shows that 70% of people admit to looking at their partner’s phone when they leave the room. In addition, 20% of men and 13% of women indicate cheating on their spouses.

Trust takes time to build but can also be shattered in a moment. A single lie or criticism can make it hard to feel safe with your partner.

That said, trust sets the foundation for love, intimacy, and respect. Without it, you tend to feel anxious, clingy, or even withdrawn from the relationship.

Relationship counseling can help you and your partner work through trust barriers. While this process may be painful, it’s often necessary for healing.

Adjusting to change

Whether you two moved to a new house, had a child, or changed jobs, significant life transitions can seriously impact relationships. Even good changes can cause disruptions.

Partners benefit when they learn how to support one another during these changing times. You need to have each other’s backs instead of pointing fingers.

Relationship counseling can help you both adapt to changes and cope with new routines. While your sense of “normal” may be entirely different, it’s possible to unite together to face this uncertainty.

Improving intimacy

Emotional and physical connections are inherently connected. If you aren’t satisfied with your level of intimacy, you may resent one another or withdraw from the relationship. To complicate matters, many couples feel ashamed or afraid to talk about this topic.

Relationship counseling can help you untangle issues related to:

  • Defining intimacy
  • Sexual problems
  • History of infidelity
  • Libido differences
  • Sexual trauma

Strengthening parenting skills

Many couples find that raising children profoundly tests their relationship. Even if they love their children, they often have different values and discipline expectations.

Likewise, parenting often significantly affects your sleep, free time, finances, and sense of independence. Hormonal changes, medical issues, and stress with other family members can add even more complications.

If you struggle to feel united as parents, counseling can help. You can learn to come together to approach necessary tasks. Subsequently, working on your relationship and loving one another provides a healthy model for your children as they navigate intimacy in the future.

Ending the relationship amicably

Relationship counseling doesn’t inherently save or fix relationships. Sometimes, counseling illustrates fundamental incompatibilities between two people. Ultimately, a couple might decide they no longer want to stay committed to one another.

Ending a relationship isn’t easy. But counseling can limit some of the messiness and confusion often associated with breakups.

What should you look for in a relationship counselor?

Once you begin couples therapy, finding the right professional for your needs is essential. Here are some basic tips.

Seek professionals with training

While most therapists receive basic education in couples work, you ideally want someone with specialized training and qualified experience.

Look for professionals who indicate specific certification. Some of the most well-known trainings include:

  • Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT)
  • The Gottman Method Couples Therapy
  • Relational Life Therapy
  • Discernment Counseling
  • Integrative Couples Therapy
  • Couples and Sex Therapy (CCST)
  • Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT)

These trainings require that clinicians provide a certain number of therapy hours within the specified framework. They also work under a qualified supervisor before working on their own.

Schedule a consultation

Most relationship counselors offer complimentary consultations as part of their practice. Keep in mind that a consultation is not therapy — it is a brief exchange where you and your partner get to know a potential provider.

Most consultations last around 15-30 minutes. During this time, you will learn more about the counselor’s process and what you can expect from treatment.

Ask questions

Don’t hesitate to ask a potential counselor questions about your treatment, goals, or expectations. Counseling is most effective when it’s collaborative, and you have a right to ensure that you feel prepared for your work together.