What Is Couples Therapy?

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What Is Couples Therapy?

Couples therapy is a form of psychotherapy that can help you and your partner improve your relationship. If you are having relationship difficulties, you can seek couples therapy to help rebuild your relationship.

“Couples therapy can address a wide range of relationship issues, including recurring conflicts, feelings of disconnection, an affair, issues related to sex, or difficulties due to external stressors,” says Brian Mueller, PhD, a psychologist at Columbia University Medical Center who specializes in couples therapy.

Couples therapy can help you at any stage of your relationship, regardless of marital status, age, race, faith, or sexual orientation.

Some forms of this therapy include marriage counseling, premarital counseling, and family therapy. It is typically a short-term form of therapy.

Types of Couples Therapy

According to Mueller, there are numerous approaches to couples therapy, which can include:

  • Emotionally focused therapy (EFT): EFT focuses on improving the attachment and bonding between you and your partner. The therapist helps you understand and change patterns that lead to feelings of disconnection.
  • Gottman method: This method involves addressing areas of conflict and equipping you and your partner with problem-solving skills. It aims to improve the quality of friendship and the level of intimacy between you and your partner. 
  • Ellen Wachtel’s approach: This is a strength-based approach that involves focusing on the positive aspects of the relationship. It focuses on self-reflection rather than blame.
  • Psychodynamic couple’s therapy: Psychodynamic therapy explores the underlying hopes and fears that motivate you and your partner, to help you understand each other better.
  • Behavioral therapy: Also known as behavioral couples therapy (BCT), this form of therapy involves shaping behavior by reinforcing positive behaviors that promote stability and satisfaction, while discouraging behaviors that foster negativity.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Also referred to as cognitive behavioral couples therapy (CBCT), this form of therapy involves identifying and changing thought patterns that negatively influence behavior.

Techniques

Couples therapists often employ an integrated approach to treatment, borrowing techniques from different forms of therapy, depending on your needs.

These are some of the strategies a couples therapist might employ:

  • Getting to know you: “The therapist creates a sense of safety by getting to know you and your partner. They work actively and collaboratively with you to help you understand yourself and your partner better,” says Mueller.
  • Identifying feelings: “The therapist helps you and your partner identify feelings and put them into words to one another,” says Mueller. 
  • Exploring the past: Couples therapy can involve exploring your past, since that can help you better understand your fears, motivations, and behaviors in a relationship. It can also help address unresolved conflicts that affect your present.
  • Focusing on solutions: Your therapist will work with you and your partner to resolve issues, correct negative behavior patterns, and focus on positive aspects of the relationship. 
  • Teaching skills: Couples therapy can help teach you and your partner anger management, problem solving, and conflict resolution skills. The aim is to equip you and your partner with tools to help you deal with issues as they crop up.

What Couples Therapy Can Help With

Couples therapy can give you and your partner the opportunity to discuss and resolve issues related to several aspects of your relationship, which can include:

  • Roles in the relationship: Couples therapy can help you examine the roles you and your partner play in the relationship and identify unhealthy dynamics. It can also help address differences in expectations.
  • Beliefs and values: Couples therapy can help you and your partner discuss your beliefs, values, and religious sentiments and the implications of these aspects on your daily lives.
  • Finances: Finances can be a major source of conflict in relationships. Couples therapy can help promote open dialogue and transparency around income and spending habits.
  • Time spent together: You and your partner can address issues that have been sabotaging your time together. You can discuss activities that you enjoy doing together and how to make time spent together more enjoyable.
  • Children: If you and your partner are not on the same page about whether or not you want to have children or how you would like to raise them, couples therapy can help you communicate these concerns. It can also help with stressors like difficulty conceiving or adopting children.
  • Familial relationships: Couples therapy can help you and your partner work out issues stemming from conflicts with other family members, like parents, children, and siblings.
  • Sex and intimacy: If you and your partner are having issues related to sex and intimacy, or infidelity, couples therapy can offer a safe space for you to share your feelings and needs.
  • Health issues: Physical or mental health illnesses can be hard on you and your partner. Couples therapy can help you deal with the stress it puts on your relationship.
  • External stressors: Therapy can also help you and your partner deal with conflicts caused by external factors, like work for instance, that can put stress on your relationship.

Benefits of Couples Therapy 

“People report feeling more connected to their partner and their own feelings, as well as more secure, spontaneous, and playful in the relationship. When people feel more secure in their relationship, they can become more assertive and adventurous in other parts of their life,” says Mueller.

Brain Mueller, PhD

Benefits of couples therapy include reduced relationship distress and increased relationship satisfaction.

— Brain Mueller, PhD

These are some of the benefits couples therapy can offer:

  • Understand each other better: Couples therapy can help you understand yourself and your partner better. It can help both of you express your feelings, hopes, fears, priorities, values, and beliefs.
  • Identify relationship issues: Your therapist can help you and your partner identify issues that are leading to recurring conflicts, lack of trust, and feelings of disconnection, says Mueller.
  • Improve communication skills: Therapy can help you and your partner communicate with each other. It can help you express yourself and ask for what you need without attacking or blaming your partner.
  • Resolve conflicts: Your therapist can help you and your partner work through your issues and resolve them.
  • Strengthen friendship and attachment: Couples therapy can help strengthen the friendship, attachment, bonding, and intimacy between you and your partner.
  • Terminate dysfunctional behavior: Your therapist can identify dysfunctional behaviors and help eliminate them.
  • Learn skills: Couples therapy is not a long-term form of therapy. Instead, it is a short-term therapy that aims to equip you and your partner with skills to help you prevent and manage conflicts that arise down the road.
  • Improve relationship satisfaction: Couples therapy can help improve the overall quality of your relationship, so that you and your partner are happier together.

Effectiveness

According to a 2014 summary, couples therapy can help with relationship satisfaction, communication, forgiveness, problem solving, and resolution of needs and feelings.

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) particularly has strong research support across a wide range of concerns, according to Mueller. He says numerous studies have shown that couples who receive eight to 12 sessions of EFT report reduced distress and increased relationship satisfaction for both partners, with benefits lasting even two years after treatment.

Things to Consider

Couples therapy ideally requires participation from you and your partner. However, if your partner is not open to it, you can also opt to do couples therapy alone, to better understand your relationship and how you can improve it.

If you and your partner undertake it together, you may find that one or both of you also need separate therapy sessions to help deal with the issues brought up in couples therapy.

If you or your partner are also dealing with other issues, like substance abuse for instance, your therapist might suggest specialized therapy for treatment.

Couples therapy can help resolve issues related to domestic abuse. However, if you are afraid of your partner or don’t want to be in the relationship anymore, contact the police or a shelter near you for help.

How to Get Started

If you feel your relationship would benefit from couples therapy, discuss it with your partner and see if they’re open to it. If they’re resistant to it, explain why it’s important to you and how you think it might help your relationship.

The next step is to find a practitioner. Couples therapy is often provided by licensed therapists known as marriage and family therapists; however, other psychologists and psychiatrists may offer it as well. Friends or family might be able to suggest someone you can go to, or if you’re seeing a therapist for other reasons, they may be able to refer you to a specialist.

Check with your partner what days and timings work for them. Try to find a therapist who is conveniently located, if you and your partner prefer in-person sessions. Make sure the therapist takes your insurance plan

When you start therapy, you and your partner will probably have to fill out forms detailing your medical history and insurance information. You may also have to fill out questionnaires to help your therapist better understand your relationship, the issues you’re facing, and what you hope to gain from therapy.

Your therapist will work with you and your partner to outline the goals for therapy. While couples therapy typically involves joint sessions, your therapist may also do individual sessions with you or your partner. They may also assign homework.

A Word From Verywell

If you and your partner are going through a rough patch, couples therapy can help you work on your relationship and improve it. Your therapist can help you express your feelings, discuss issues with your partner, and resolve conflicts.

Couples therapy can help increase understanding, respect, affection, and intimacy between you and your partner, which can help you be happier together.

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  1. Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health. Couples therapy for adults experiencing relationship distress: a review of the clinical evidence and guidelines. 2014.