A Helpful Guide to Couples Counselling: 10 Things You Need to Know
Updated: Jan 25
Do you want a happier marriage or relationship? Relationships can be complex and navigating them is not always easy. If you're feeling stuck in your relationship, couples counselling may be a helpful step! Here are 10 things you need to know about seeking help:
2. What are some signs it’s time to go to relationship therapy? 3. What can we talk about in couples counselling? 4. What can we expect in relationship therapy? 5. How do therapists identify underlying issues causing tension in the relationship? 6. What are the benefits of couples counselling? 7. When is couples counselling effective? 8. When is couples counselling NOT effective? 9. What are some types of couples therapy? 10. How many sessions should couples attend together? Frequently Asked Questions
1. What is couples counselling all about?
Couples counselling is all about you, your partner, you and your partner together, and your therapist.
Couples counselling is a form of therapy that focuses on helping you improve your relationship and learn new ways of interacting with each other. It can help you understand your own and your partner’s behavior, and your dynamics together in the relationship. Therapy offers you a place to connect and communicate with your partner in a respectful, non-judgmental environment. It is a collaborative process with the guidance of an experienced counsellor, to help you understand your individual and relationship needs, make deeper emotional connections with your partner, and better meet your own and each other’s needs.
You don't have to be in crisis to go to couples counselling. Many people go when they feel like their relationship is good, but they want to strengthen it. During couples counselling, each partner can learn to express their thoughts and feelings in a safe, accepting place. Your counselor can help you understand each other's point of view, improve communication, overcome barriers, heal past wounds, and work together to resolve tensions. Couples counselling helps you find a new way forward so you can enjoy a stronger and more fulfilling relationship.
Couples counselling is for anyone who would like to improve their relationships. No matter what stage of life or type of relationship you are in, counselling can help strengthen your bond with the people you love most in this world. This could include spouses, dating partners, or even long-time friends.
Couples counselling is not just for married couples – they’re just the most common words! Relationship therapy is also for poly-amorous partners as well 2SLGBTQIA+ folks and people in unique partnerships.
2. What are some signs it’s time to go to relationship therapy?
If you’re reading this, the time to go is probably now! Just being curious about couples counselling is a good enough reason to go.
Couples therapy can be helpful for all relationships, early and late – don’t wait until it’s worse. If something feels off in your relationship, and you’ve tried to work through it on your own, working with a counsellor can help improve your relationship. You can go to couples therapy if you want to:
connect on a deeper level with your partner
communicate better in your relationship
get unstuck or find a new way forward
feel seen, heard, understood, and supported
repair past wounds or damaged trust
increase your physical or emotional intimacy
relate better with your partner, children, or family
work together through difficult situations
meet your own and your partner’s needs
have more fun with your partner
3. What can we talk about in couples counselling?
You can talk about anything, everything, or nothing at all in couples counselling.
It's okay to be nervous about what you might want to talk about in therapy. Your counsellor will help create a welcoming space for you and your partner to explore whatever is going on for you - even if it's uncomfortable.
Lots of couples spend some time working on communication in therapy so they can talk in healthy ways about what has happened in their marriage or relationship, what’s going on right now, or what is about to happen. You can explore many different topics in your therapy sessions:
parenting or finances
big life changes
values & beliefs
illness or loss
extended family relationships
jealousy or infidelity
intimacy & sex
You don’t have to bring a topic to talk about in therapy. Sometimes, you’ll talk about nothing. Sometimes you’ll just practice feeling, noticing, seeing, listening, tuning in, soothing yourself, and strengthening your bond with your partner.
4. What can we expect in relationship therapy?
You can expect to ask and answer questions, be uncomfortable, listen, feel, laugh, and grow.
When attending couples counselling sessions, try to come with an open mind and sense of curiosity. Feel free to ask questions and share if you feel nervous or hesitant. Your therapist can help set you at ease, provide clarity, and make the process more comfortable for you. Each couples counsellor is unique, but you can expect them to ask questions about you and your relationship, your history, and what brings you to therapy.
Couples therapy can be uncomfortable sometimes. It can bring up difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations. It can be helpful to share what you notice out loud, so your partner can learn something new about you, and your therapist can help you both understand, communicate, and process your experience in a way that will bring you closer to your partner.
Your counsellor might ask you to talk to them or talk directly to your partner about something. Your therapist might interrupt you at times, and guide you to reflect on how you talk, or how your partner feels when you do or say something. Sometimes a therapist will talk for a few minutes with just your partner to explore a thought or feeling more deeply – this is an important time for you to listen carefully to see if you can also learn something new about your partner! Other times, your therapist will work with just you, or with both of you together to build trust, empathy, and shared understanding.
Couples counselling can also be fun! You might share your favorite memories, funny stories, laugh about past mistakes, celebrate successes, and strengthen the spark and joy in your relationship.
It’s important that both partners have realistic expectations when entering couples counselling. While couples counselling is helpful, it won't solve problems overnight; it takes time and effort from both parties for the process to work effectively. If you’re open and committed, you can learn new things, grow, and connect more deeply with your partner.
5. How do therapists identify underlying issues causing tension in the relationship?
Maybe you feel you already know what’s going on or going wrong in your relationship.
What we see and feel is wrong in a relationship is often only one part of the story, and sometimes it’s only the symptom, not the cause. Your therapist can help you figure out what’s causing tension or inhibiting growth individually and together in your relationship. Sometimes it’s about what’s happening underneath the surface within or between you and your partner – each of your inner experiences, and the apparent or subtle dynamics in the relationship.
Counsellors identify deeper issues by asking questions, listening to your concerns and stories, observing your interactions, and reflecting on their own experience in your therapy sessions. Your therapist brings in their knowledge, education, training, and insight to help them recognize patterns, pains, and unmet needs in your relationship.
6. What are the benefits of couples counselling?
Couples counselling holds many benefits for the needs of each unique relationship.
Everyone can benefit from taking some time for quality connection with their partner. If you have a problem in your relationship, going to relationship therapy can help you understand, accept, listen, talk, find clarity, problem-solve, resolve, and move forward. Some benefits of couples counselling include:
Improved Communication – you can learn to express yourself in a healthy way, listen with interest and curiosity, communicate with kindness and clarity, have difficult conversations, and have more fun talking with your partner.
Promote Compassion – you can be more understanding towards your own and your partner’s needs and feelings to create an atmosphere of mutual compassion and respect within the relationship.
Identify Issues – you can identify presenting and underlying issues that are causing problems in the relationship so they can be addressed and dealt with appropriately. By doing this together with the help of a counsellor, it reduces the risk of resentment or misunderstanding.
Enhance Intimacy – Intimacy is physical and emotional - you can learn how to connect on a more intimate level, attune to each other better, increase feelings of love and affection, and keep the spark in your relationship.
Increase Self-Awareness – when you become aware of your own reactions contributing to the relationship dynamic, you can each feel more in control of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Establish Boundaries – you can better understand your own and your partner’s limits, set and communicate healthy boundaries, increase clarity, reduce conflict, and make decisions together.
Improve Trust – you can increase feelings of hopefulness and belief in yourself and each other and rebuild broken trust from past mistakes or unhealthy coping styles.
Manage Conflict – you can reduce verbal and non-verbal aggressive behavior and communication patterns and promote more calm discussions and expressions of opinions.
Resolve Trauma – you can address past trauma from the relationship or early experiences that are impacting the relationship and encourage healing together as a couple.
Deepen Connections – you can learn new things about yourself and partner and find new ways to engage that help you open up, feel closer, and strengthen your connection on a deeper level.
7. When is couples counselling effective?
Couples counselling is effective most of the time!
Couples counselling is mostly helpful when both partners are willing to work together and make changes within their individual lives as well as together as a couple. When both people are open-minded about what they want out of therapy and come ready to communicate honestly about any difficulties they’ve had in the past or present struggles they face now, then they will likely see positive changes in their relationship from couples counselling sessions.
One of the most important aspects of a successful relationship and successful therapy is trust. When engaging in couples counselling, both parties must feel safe enough within their relationship to be honest with one another during therapy sessions as well as outside of them. Building trust creates an environment where each partner feels supported and respected by their mate which then allows them to open up and share their thoughts without fear or judgement.
Couples counselling is most effective when you find a therapist that’s a good match for you and your partner. You can choose a therapist based on personality, approach, identity, culture, specialty, or location. It's okay to shop around for a therapist. Meet them for a free consultation if it helps you feel more comfortable. Online therapy allows you to choose a therapist anywhere in your province, and you can meet from the comfort of your home, even if you and your partner are currently in different locations.
8. When is couples counselling NOT effective?
Couples counselling isn’t effective when partners don’t feel safe, in therapy or at home.
Couples counselling is not likely to be effective if:
your therapist is not a good fit for you and your partner
you are only going to therapy to change your partner
you or your partner have severe or untreated addiction or mental health concerns
one of you have already decided to end the relationship
If any of these feel true for you, you might benefit from seeking a new therapist or going to individual therapy. If you both want to end the relationship and want to do so amicably, a therapist can help you work through this process to minimize harm.
Couples therapy is also not effective, nor recommended, when there is abuse (physical, mental, emotional, sexual, or other abuse) happening in the relationship. Partners should seek individual therapy if there is abuse or they do not feel safe. Couples therapy is a place that increases vulnerability, and this can increase the risk of abuse if what is shared in therapy is later used against a partner. Reach out to a counsellor of find resources here if you are experiencing abuse in your relationship.
9. What are some types of couples therapy?
There are many couples counselling approaches to help partners come together.
Sometimes therapists train specifically in one type of therapy, other times they integrate multiple approaches together, and use parts of different types of therapy to inform their practice. Regardless of their training, your therapist should tailor their approach specifically to your relationship, and both your needs and preferences. Some approaches to couples therapy include:
Attachment-based Therapy: Attachment-based counselling is based on attachment theory which focuses on the attachment style between two people. It helps couples understand how attachment styles can shape interactions and behaviors within a relationship. The goal of counselling is to build a secure attachment bond by developing healthier relational strategies such as attuning to each other, expressing emotions in healthy ways, validation, empathy, and co-regulation.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is an evidence-based approach that identifies negative thoughts and behaviors impacting the relationship and works to replace them with more positive ones. This includes exploring beliefs about relationships, communication techniques, problem solving strategies, stress management skills, and how emotions affect our behavior within a relationship.
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT): EFT is designed to help partners better recognize and manage their emotions to create healthier bonds. This involves exploring patterns of interaction between partners, identifying underlying emotions associated with behaviors or issues within the relationship, then working together with the therapist to develop new skills for expressing feelings in healthier ways that promote closeness rather than conflict.
Narrative Counselling: Narrative counselling takes an individual's life story into account when helping them make better decisions while navigating relationships. Through storytelling and reflection exercises, partners are encouraged to gain insight into their current beliefs and behaviours while being empowered towards creating a new narrative more aligned with desired outcomes in their relationship.
Gottman Couples Therapy: Gottman Therapy was developed by married researchers Dr. John and Julie Gottman. This evidence-based therapy uses research-backed tools and techniques to help partners recognize and address areas of conflict. They minimize the four horsemen of a dysfunctional relationship (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) with positive interactions and the four antidotes to the horsemen (gentle start up, appreciation, responsibility, and self-soothing). Through the process of therapy, couples gain communication and problem-solving skills.
10. How many sessions should couples attend together?
As many as you want or need to meet your goals and improve your relationship.
Your individual needs and preferences, and the goals you have for your relationship should inform the number of sessions you attend. Most couples find attending at least eight sessions together is helpful for starting to work through conflicts and improving communication. This gives them enough time to explore difficult topics, learn new ways of interacting, and practice skills in a safe environment.
Some couples may find 12 or more sessions are needed to make progress and develop lasting change in their relationship. This could include topics such as rebuilding trust, understanding each other’s needs better, developing positive patterns of interaction, and resolving deep-seated issues from their past.
Most couples are in therapy for less than six months, and you can attend 60- or 90-minute sessions weekly then biweekly to build comfort with your therapist and skills that will help you gain momentum and make improvements in your relationship. Couples counselling requires a commitment of time, effort, energy, and money, so it’s important both partners dedicate themselves to the process to get the most out of it.
Couples Counselling FAQ:
Question: Is couples counselling confidential?
What happens in therapy stays in therapy! Your counsellor is bound by strict confidentiality laws, which means anything you discuss will remain private unless there is reason to believe someone is at risk of harming themselves or others, or they’re legally obliged to share information. However, your therapist is not a secret-keeper. If one partner discloses something in private to the therapist, the therapist will work with that partner to share it in therapy.
Question: What if my partner doesn’t want to go to therapy?
That’s normal! Although almost half of all married couples have already tried some type of counselling, of the other half who haven’t, only 50% of them are open to trying counselling. That leaves 25% of partners who don’t want to go to couples counselling. Maybe your partner already had a bad experience in individual or couples therapy. Maybe they’ve heard bad things, or are nervous. Be patient, get curious, invite, and in the meantime, go to therapy on your own.
Question: Is couples counselling only for married couples?
No! Couples counselling is for friends, dating, cohabitating, married, separated, or divorced and co-parenting partners. Couples counselling is for anyone who wants to improve their relationships.
Question: Do therapists meet with partners individually and together?
Some clients always want to meet for sessions together with their partner, and some therapists don’t offer individual sessions to couples. Some therapists have an intake process that includes a joint session, then two individual sessions, then joint sessions going forward. Sometimes one partner needs more support, and they can have individual sessions with the couples therapist or with a different individual therapist, depending on the couple counsellor’s approach and the couple's preference.
Question: Will we have homework in couples counselling?
Even if you attend weekly, the hour or so you spend in therapy weekly will likely give you something to reflect on between sessions, or practice. If you would like specific homework, you can ask your therapist for tasks to engage in during the week.
Question: Does insurance cover couples counselling?
Most private insurers cover couples counselling under health services. Some employment insurance coverage however, limits therapy to individual counselling, or has separate coverage for couples or family counselling. You can check with your insurance provider to learn about your coverage, or read more about insurance for therapy in Alberta.
At Therapy Alberta, we offer individual, family, and couples counselling exclusively online for folks in Alberta with psychologists, social workers, and certified counsellors. Read more about our approach, our team and our couples counselling services.