If you’re reading this article, you’ve likely gotten past two HUGE hurdles towards improving your relationship or marriage:
- Acknowledging that your relationship could benefit from outside help.
- Reaching out to ask for that help.
Both of these steps are very difficult. It’s not easy to ask for help. Now that the appointment with your couples therapist is scheduled, the anticipation about that first therapy session can be rough. (Fun fact: Many couples I meet with actually say the anxious anticipation, leading up to couples counseling, was far worse than the actual session itself). While you wait for the process to begin, it can be helpful to prepare for that first session in the following ways:
1. Fill Out the Paperwork for YOU, Not Just for the Therapist
Your therapist will have you complete a lengthy smattering of paperwork, usually including questions asking you to rank your level of satisfaction with certain aspects of your marriage or relationship. While this information is helpful for the therapist to know, the paperwork serves a dual purpose:
- To catch your therapist up to speed on your concerns.
- To help you identify what those concerns are and how you want your relationship to look in the future.
This paperwork helps you kick off the self-reflection process; a key to successful relationships and couples therapy. Here are some questions your therapist might send your way in the couples therapy intake paperwork:
- What are your goals for counseling?
- What areas of your relationship are you currently experiencing significant problems? (e.g. children or parenting, handling finances, sexual relations, trust or jealousy, religion, alcohol, or drugs, etc.)
- How happy are you, all things considered, in your relationship?
- Do you believe you and your partner can handle whatever conflicts will arise in the future?
- Has your sex life become stale and boring?
- Do you ever think about separation or divorce?
- How do you feel about the future of your relationship?
The intake questions can help you mentally and emotionally prepare for your first session, as well as help you feel more assured that your therapist has a good understanding of your concerns and desires going into it.
2. Check Your Expectations of the Couples Therapy Process
You might consider thinking about or discussing some of these questions together:
- What do you hope the therapist is like?
- What do you want the therapist to help us understand about ourselves? About each other?
- What are some things you are worried about that may go well or not so well in couples therapy?
If you feel like it’s possible to share expectations with your partner without it getting ugly, go ahead and share together. However, many couples at this stage struggle to have these types of conversations, so it’s okay to hold off until you’re in the room with your therapist who can help guide the conversation. This will likely just be the beginning of a more in-depth conversation you have with your couples therapist about what you do and don’t want your relationship to look like.
3. Focus on Growth Areas That Could Make You a Better Person and Partner.
In addition to envisioning the relationship you want to have, also try to foresee the type of partner you want to be. Are there aspects of “who you are” or “who you want to be” that you have strayed from? Perhaps you find yourself being more negative and critical than you used to be, or making negative assumptions about your partner that aren’t helpful for intimacy. Do you want to be more emotionally checked-in with your partner? Do you feel you could improve in how you spend quality time together?
Again, your therapist can help you gain clarity on these growth areas. If you are willing to approach the process eager to understand how you can grow personally, rather than just trying to change your partner, you can hit the ground running and feel like you’re doing everything in your power to get closer to having the relationship you want to be in.
4. Allow Yourself Permission to Feel Whatever You’re Feeling About Starting Couples Therapy
Starting couples counseling or marriage counseling can bring up a ton of feelings and you might be feeling nervous about exposing your relationship struggles to a total stranger. This makes sense. This is valid. You might be feeling hopeful that you and your partner are finally seeking the help your relationship needs. This makes sense. This is valid. On the other hand, you might be teetering on feeling hopeless about salvaging your relationship; wondering if it’s too late. This also makes sense. This is also valid. Whatever it is that you’re feeling, try to just name it, allow yourself to feel it, and be kind to yourself about whatever it is you’re feeling. These feelings likely won’t go away in the near future, so try to make peace with them by extending compassion to yourself the way you would a good friend or loved one (Kristin Neff, self-compassion.org; Tara Brach, Radical Compassion).
5. Identify Any Existing Assumptions
Something your therapist will likely discuss with you early on is what assumptions you and your partner make about each other that spur defensiveness or get in the way of calm, loving interactions. Some examples are:
- My partner doesn’t care about my feelings.
- My partner doesn’t love me.
- My partner isn’t attracted to me anymore.
- My partner doesn’t care to understand me or my pain.
- My partner is incapable of change, so our relationship is doomed to be unhappy.
While some of these might be partly true or partly false, they are still assumptions. Sometimes, if they have been true before, we cling to that negative assumption and it can lead us to assume the worst about our partner, making it more difficult to connect. Your therapist can help you dig deeper into why these assumptions exist in the first place and then guide you through reparative interactions that will help you challenge these assumptions. However, you can prepare for this by trying to identify them in the first place before you get to therapy.
Success Begins With Prepping Ahead of Time for Your First Couples or Marriage Counseling Session
You’ve come this far by making the decision to get help with your relationship, scheduling an appointment, and deciding to attend couples therapy. Now you can set the hook by being deliberate about prepping for the process by filling out the paperwork, thinking through expectations, focusing on growth areas, allowing yourself to feel what you’re feeling, and identifying existing assumptions. We want your first couples or marriage counseling session to be successful from start to finish.