How Couples Counseling Can Help With Addiction Issues

Models pose as a couple counseling triad
Couples counseling can improve relationships and addiction problems. Ned Frisk/Getty Images

Couples counseling is a type of therapy in which both partners attend counseling with the same counselor, at the same time. The intention of couples counseling is to resolve problems in the relationship, which can sometimes include an addiction or substance use problem which one or both partners have. Couples counseling can be used for other issues as well and is particularly helpful when couples are experiencing conflict or are thinking about separating. The therapy is designed to improve the relationship, even if the couple still decides to separate or divorce.

What Is Involved in Couples Counseling?

This type of treatment involves both partners in an intimate relationship forming a therapeutic relationship with a trained counselor, during sessions of about an hour, that they attend together, usually about once a week for several months. Initially, it will involve the couple making an appointment to meet the counselor to talk about what brought them to treatment, what their hopes and goals are for therapy, and to decide whether both partners and the counselor, want to continue to work together on therapy.

If they do, the counselor will help the couple to identify goals for future sessions. Both partners will have the opportunity to communicate their point of view, and the counselor will provide feedback, and sometimes homework for the couple to complete between sessions. This might be practicing a particular type of communication or taking or resisting certain actions that have been the source of difficulties.

What If We Don't Like the Therapist?

Sometimes, one or both partners decide not to go ahead with couple counseling. There can be several different reasons for this. Sometimes, the differences in background or worldview between the counselor and the couple may be too big for the couple to feel that they are really being understood by the counselor. At other times, one partner may like the counselor, while the other may feel less enthusiastic. While couples counseling can be effective even if there is an imbalance in motivation between the two partners, if one person feels blamed, and is cast in the role of "bad partner," couples counseling may feel more like a punishment to them than a treatment, and making it hard to get any benefit from the process.

Sometimes, a counselor may decide not to go ahead with providing counseling to a specific couple. If one partner or both partners are being abusive and the couple does not appear to see this as a problem, a counselor may feel they will make little progress. Similarly, if one or both partners have serious addiction issues that they are continuing to deny or minimize, the counselor may feel they are fighting a losing battle.

As it is very important that the couple and therapist work together on addressing the problems in the relationship, the process of finding a therapist that is the right fit for the couple should be respected. It does not mean that the couple can't still be successful with another counselor, perhaps at a different time.

How It Helps Addiction

Relationship difficulties often underlie addiction issues — even if the relationship problems related to the addiction go back to childhood, they can continue to play out in adult romantic relationships. Similarly, addiction problems always affect the quality of a relationship.

Counseling can help both partners become aware of these relationship patterns, and can learn new ways of communicating and behaving that support each other to live without addictions.

Couples counseling is often an important part of effective treatment for addictions, although not all treatment programs offer couples counseling. Typically, you can get couples counseling outside of your addictions treatment program, although it is a good idea to let your addiction counselor know so that the two therapists can collaborate to work on complementary goals.

The focus of couples counseling is on improving the quality of the relationship for both partners. Couples counseling looks at issues like communication, honesty, shared responsibilities, commitment, and mutual support. Problems such as abuse will also be addressed.

Many types of partnership can benefit from couples counseling, including married couples, couples preparing for marriage, cohabiting couples, dating couples, separated couples, and couples preparing for a divorce. Although originally developed as marital therapy, couples counseling now equally recognizes and works with unmarried couples, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples.