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Couples therapy

When and How to Choose a Couples Therapist

November 8, 2022
Shan Merchant

When and how to choose a couples therapist

It can be difficult to know when it is time to seek out a couple's therapist. The types of situations that couples get in are wide-ranging and you may not be sure how couples therapy could help. This post will help you to sort through the confusion and get the support you need.

When should we consider couples therapy?

Couples therapy is a powerful process that can bring love, warmth, trust, safety and joy back into your relationship. It can improve an already good relationship by helping you learn new skills. It can even help revive a stagnant or even a dying relationship.

Many couples come to Couples Therapy because they are stuck on a specific issue in their relationship that they've been unable to resolve alone. These can be issues such as constant arguing and criticising, a gone-but-not-forgotten sex life, trust issues and insecurity, jealousy, an affair, or you find yourselves struggling to communicate, and you often feel hurt, misunderstood or ignored.

You might realise a destructive pattern exists or that you're growing apart, but you might not know how to begin to improve things on your own. You may also feel a sense of hopelessness and sadness about the state of your relationship and not understand how or what to do to move forward. Couples therapy will help you shift out of all of this.

In couples therapy you will reach a deeper level of understanding of each other. You'll be able to be more vulnerable with each other and connect in ways that won't be possible to reach alone. You'll have more clarity because in couples therapy the therapist becomes the neutral partner, the mirror to point out your behaviour. We can't see our own blind spots; often we're unconscious to the way we are behaving because we are in our defences and being reactive.

Over the shoulder view of an online therapy session on a laptop screen via video chat, eg. Zoom.
Image: Dylan Ferreira

A good couples therapist will show you what destructive patterns exist in your relationship. Then they'll show you a roadmap of how to get back to loving, joyful connection. A great couples therapist will also provide a safe space where there's zero negativity; no blaming, shaming, guilt-tripping, etc. This gives you a space to work through difficult issues by having honest, safe conversation – without jumping into defensiveness and not hearing each other.

When you're able to reach a deeper level of vulnerability with each other, this leads to more understanding and connection, because a great couples therapist will use 'deepening questions'. Deepening questions help you open up to each other, while keeping the therapy space safe for both of you.

In couples therapy the therapist will also stretch your perspective so you see things from different angles – from each other's point of view but also from that of an objective bystander.

Another thing a great couples therapist will do will be to teach you powerful communication tools that you can use at home, way beyond the time constraints of your therapy. This was actually where my own experience of couples therapy with my partner came into its own – we credit this with saving our relationship.

1. When one of you has had an affair

If you're both willing to work through this together, you'll need to be courageous. Courageous enough to look at how both parties created the conditions that lead to the affair. A couples counselling session is a safe place for you to rebuild your trust and intimacy. If you choose to recommit to each other in this way, you may see over time that the affair – as devastating and hurtful as it has been – may have been the wake-up call you both needed to build a deeper, stronger and more honest love than you ever had before.

2. When you're constantly fighting

It's normal for couples to disagree and not get on from time to time. What isn't healthy is when there's a constant bubbling over of bickering, fighting and arguing in a relationship and for there to be no repair or resolution.

I see this happen when couples argue and one or both partners withdraw for a time and the cause of the argument isn't discussed again. They sweep that thang under the carpet and an unsightly bulge of grudges, resentments, unhappiness and volatility builds incrementally until it's the size of Big Foot and can no longer be ignored. In its shadow are disconnection, coldness and a lack of intimacy.

A couples therapist will help you and your partner learn how to communicate in a safe way so you resolve conflict. I say the following phrase a lot to couples because it's a central tenet of Imago Relationship Therapy:

Conflict isn't a sign that you're not meant to be together, it's growth trying to happen.

It's also important to understand that every dynamic that exists in your relationship (healthy and unhealthy!) is a co-creation between you. You have both contributed to this, and in couples therapy you must be willing to take responsibility for your part.

3. When you want to learn how to communicate better

Couples therapy can be really helpful in addressing the underlying issues in your relationship and will teach you powerful tools to communicate more safely and productively. The biggest mistake most couples make in relationships is not being emotionally safe for each other. They get caught in a blaming / nagging / persecuting / guilting / criticising cycle. In couples therapy you will learn that:

'It isn't what you say, but how you say it.'

The path forward is to learn how to listen to understand, not to listen to defend yourself.

4. When you're deciding whether to leave or stay and work it through

I like to work with couples who want to stay together. Couples therapy does not work out if one or both partners has already checked out. This might mean they're saying that they want to stay together, but they're not actually willing to do the work to listen, to understand the other's point of view, and to take responsibility for their part in the existing relationship dynamic. If a partner agrees to go to therapy but their heart is really not in it, the relationship will most probably end during the therapy.

5. When your children have left home and you're empty nesters

Well, this is it. Your children leaving home marks a brand new chapter in your life. If you've spent years raising your kids and now they're gone, you may find you slipped into fulfilling certain roles that caused you to drift apart and want to find a way back together. Or perhaps the relationship has been dead for years – decades even – and you're in a relationship with someone you feel you don't know or even like anymore! If so, it might be time to get some support from a couples’ therapist to see how you can move forward. Or, you may simply want to build on a good thing and make your already-good marriage even better.

6. When you're not having sex any more

The most common reason for the disappearance of sex with a couple who ‘aren't getting on’ is a lack of emotional safety. Couples who come to couples therapy always think I will be surprised when they tell me there's no sex happening, but when conflict and disconnection exist in your relationship, sex is one of the first things to disappear. I am never surprised!

Couples therapy is a safe place to explore the underlying issues that have lead to the loss of emotional and physical intimacy in your relationship, and pave a path back to loving intimacy.

7. When you want to improve an already good relationship

You don't have to be struggling to come to couples therapy! Couples also come to improve an already happy or healthy relationship. You might be wanting to learn how to communicate better, or to try out new relationship skills and tools.

As children, we see our parents' relationship as our relationship template: "This is how to have a relationship." However, our parents' relationship often wasn't a healthy model. Couples counselling is a beautiful way to future-proof your relationship against challenges you may have seen your parents struggling through, and a way to build a deeper, more loving and conscious partnership.

Mid-shot of a happy couple smiling in a park at dusk.
Image: Ben White

Does couples therapy work?

Yes! Couples therapy – and especially Imago couples therapy – works if both partners are equally committed to the process and are willing to put in the work. Therapy can be a great way to improve communication, resolve conflict, and build a stronger relationship. It's also important to choose a therapist that you feel comfortable with and who has plenty of experience working with couples.

What if my partner won’t go?

Couples counselling requires you both to attend the sessions and be willing to do the work. If your partner won't go, find out why. Often one partner is afraid of the therapy itself not being safe for them, of sharing private problems, of being judged, or of simply 'not being able to do it'. As therapists we are always in service of the relationship and we don't ever 'take sides'. Sometimes, if it's appropriate, I speak to each partner separately before the first couples session – this gives them both a chance to tell me their fears and I can address these over a phone call.

What if one of you is already in therapy?

It's totally fine if one or both of you is in individual therapy with another therapist. This will actually help the couples therapy process! This is because you will be working in your individual therapy to have greater emotional intelligence and self-awareness, and this will be of benefit to you in couples therapy. However, clients that I am seeing for couples therapy cannot be in individual therapy with me at the same time.

Couples therapy is a specialism

Couples therapy is a specialism – it requires different skills to the tools and techniques that a therapist may use when working with individual clients. Many therapists offer couples therapy as an add-on to their practice, but have not formally trained in this area. Choosing a therapist that has invested in their own couples therapy training indicates that this is a specialism for them in their therapy practice, so I highly recommend choosing a couples specialist.

Is There a Difference Between Couples Therapy Vs Marriage Counselling?

No. Couples therapy is also known as couples counselling or marriage counselling in the UK.

Why choose Imago couples therapy?

Imago relationship therapy is the modality I trained in and it is what I used in my own 13-year relationship to bring us back from the brink of breaking up. The work was so powerful I decided to train in Imago therapy myself.

Harville Hendrix and Helen La Kelly Hunt, creators of Imago Relationship Therapy
Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, creators of Imago Couples Therapy

Imago Relationship Therapy was created in the US by Dr. Harville Hendrix and his wife, Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, and detailed in their bestselling book, 'Getting The Love You Want'.

Imago is focused on bringing back the joy, safety, connection, love and sex back into your relationship. The main tool we use is the Imago dialogue process, which is a powerful tool to help you listen and communicate safely with each other. You will learn to love and connect on a much deeper level.

Steps for Finding the Right Couple Therapist

  1. Make sure your partner is on board
  2. Search for 'Couples Therapist near me' on Google
  3. Find a practitioner who specialises in couples therapy
  4. Find out what couples therapy technique they use – Imago Therapy is one of them.
  5. As a couple, decide which topics or issues you want to work on together
  6. Ask your potential couples therapist any questions you might have
  7. Book your first session

What to Ask a Potential Couples Therapist

When looking for a couple therapist you can ask a potential therapist what percentage of clients in their therapy practice are couples? If this is 50% to 100% of their case load, this is a good sign because it means they have specialised in couples. Ask them what specific methods they use and if they have had any formal training in couples work.

How to Prepare for Your First Couples Therapy Session

There is no preparation required for the first session. The first session (usually 60 mins) is an opportunity for you both to tell your story to your therapist, and explain what you are both struggling with. There will be an opportunity for you both to speak and be heard. It's also a time to ask questions of your therapist, if you have any. In the first session it is also necessary for you both to commit to the work that is required to bring you back into loving connection.

Decide What You Want to Work on Together

Before you can decide if you need a therapist, you and your partner need to be on the same page about what you want to achieve in therapy. If you're not sure what you want to work on, that's OK. A therapist can help you and your partner figure out what you need to work on and how to best address those issues.

Some common reasons couples seek therapy include communication problems, infidelity, relationship boredom, sexual difficulties, and jealousy.

What to Consider after a Few Sessions

If you and your partner are still deciding if therapy is right for you, it’s important to consider a few things. After a few sessions, ask yourselves if you feel more understood, if your communication has improved, and if you feel more hopeful about your relationship. If the answer to all three is “no,” it may be time to try a different therapist or approach. But if you’re seeing progress, even if it’s slow, stick with it.

How do we choose a couples therapist?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of when and how to choose a couples therapist. Ultimately, the decision depends on the specific needs and concerns of the couple. Some couples may benefit from therapy at the first sign of trouble, while others may wait until the relationship is in crisis.

There are a number of factors to consider when choosing a couples therapist. It is important to find a therapist who is trained in couples therapy and has experience working with the specific issues that the couple is facing. It is also important to find a therapist who is a good fit for the couple, in terms of personality and style.

Schedule an Initial Consultation

Once you've chosen a therapist, you'll need to schedule an initial consultation. This is typically a meeting (on average 60 minutes) where the therapist will ask you and your partner about your relationship and what you hope to achieve in therapy.

The therapist will then ask you both to come back for a longer session (1-2 hours) so they can get to know you and begin the work. Usually I would recommend committing to 6-12 sessions or longer, depending on the types of issues you bring.

If you would like to book your initial session of Imago Relationship Therapy with me, book a free consultation call with me.

Or you can email me.

Read next: What it really means to be Emotionally Unavailable and the 5 Main Signs.

Learn how to communicate, resolve conflict & show more of yourself in relationship.