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What to Expect in Couples Counseling

What to Expect in Couples Counseling

Posted on July 31st, 2015 by Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C

Many clients call up for the first time wanting to know what couples counseling will be like. No doubt there is a nervousness there about starting a process that you don’t know much about. In this post I want to give some basic information about what you can expect from couples counseling and hopefully make it a little less intimidating. It’s a process that really does work!

First of all, there is no special procedure you have to undergo to get an appointment. At least at the Baltimore Therapy Center, all you need to do is call or e-mail us and we will find an available time slot that works with your schedule. Then you and your significant other show up at the appointed time, and the couples counseling begins. (At the first session you will be asked to fill out and sign a few papers, mostly for legal reasons. You can see these all here and even fill them out in advance.)

Your counselor will open the session with a broad and non-threatening question, to the tune of, “What can I help you with?” or “What brings you here today?” This is sort of an invitation to provide a basic summary of what is going on that made you decide to go for counseling. Importantly, please know that whatever you talk about is fine. There is no way you are going to convey the entire situation in one or two sentences, so whatever portion of it you get out is just an opening to the whole issue. In fact, your choice of what aspect to start with already tells the counselor something about you – and that’s a good thing! In order to best help you, your counselor will need to learn, over time,couples counseling about the different aspects of your personalities, your family structure, your background, your beliefs about marriage/sex/parenting, etc. There is a lot to learn about you and your partner – so don’t expect couples counseling to be a two- or three-week process and that’s it!

Now, sometimes it’s true that couples counseling can really be pretty short. This happens when there is a relatively small issue at hand with not a lot of emotional baggage (e.g. the two of you can’t figure out how to work around your conflicting schedules). More often, though, people are only coming to counseling once things have gotten really tough, frequently over issues that are full of raw nerves and longstanding resentments (such as Bob’s mother, who has been a nightmare for his wife for 28 years of marriage, or someone having cheated on the other person). Therefore, the question of “how long do you think this will take?” is usually not answerable. The counselor who is just meeting you has no way of knowing how deep the problem runs, what capacities and motivations the two of you have, who else is involved, etc. – so there’s really no way to offer even a vague estimate of whether we’re looking at days or weeks or months.

After one party or the other opens up the conversation with a description of the problem, it’s common for the counselor to then turn to the other party and ask for their take on it. Was the description we just heard accurate? Is there anything you’d like to add or comment on? As more comes out about the problem at hand, the counselor will start to get an idea of what’s happening and where things might need to go to reach a solution.

This is not to say that therapists have all the answers. The goal is really for us to help you find your own answers. For example, clients sometimes ask me things like, “Who is right?” This might be about what the best way to do the laundry is, how to handle Junior, or what sex should be like. The answer is, I don’t know! It is not our job to tell you how you should be doing these things. We may have ideas about what parenting techniques do or don’t work, for example, but whether to send a child to daycare or not is a decision that has to work for both of you. Generally speaking, whatever the two of you agree on is a good solution for you ­– and it’s our job to help you figure out what that solution is. So the right question is really, “How can we figure out how we should approach this?” – not, “Who’s right here?”

Along the way to discovering the resolutions that work for you, you might find that the counselor will sometimes pause, even interrupt you, or bring up a side point. This is because part of our work is to help you learn how to handle these situations on your own. I do not want to be your therapist forever (even if you’re a really swell person) – I want you to be able to have a great relationship without me there. So sometimes I will interrupt your conversation to help you see a way that you might respond differently to what just happened – in essence, to give you practice at more adaptive communication skills. Practicing these in the therapy room, of course, is much more effective than just hearing someone instruct you on how to do them.

This is in a nutshell what you can expect from couples counseling. Obviously, every couple is different, every situation is different, and we won’t know exactly what will happen in your particular case. We can only find that out by going through the process. If you’d like to know more, I invite you to contact us and ask if you have further questions, or would like to set up an appointment.

Learn more about our couples counseling services here.

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