Whether you have scheduled your first session or you are just now looking into couples therapy for the first time, you might be asking yourself “what is couples counseling like?”. The first session can be a difficult and vulnerable place to be in as you discuss your relationship and feelings both with a stranger and your partner. Understanding what to expect can help ease some of that tension as you walk into your first session.
Paperwork, Relationship Assessment & Building Trust
The first thing you can expect from your first couples counseling session is a quick, but slightly boring overview of the paperwork you completed before the session. This will mainly include a review of the consent forms you signed, an overview of the confidentiality agreement between you and your therapist, as well as a discussion about fees and the therapist’s cancellation policy.
The first session is largely for the therapist to gather information, get to know you, and start to synthesize some of what you share about your life and relationship dynamics.
It requires a lot of courage to trust a stranger with sensitive information about you and your romantic relationship. As your therapist gets to know you, hopefully, you will start to feel more comfortable and begin to trust them and the process of couples counseling. Research shows that the more clients trust their therapist and believe that therapy can help, the more likely they are to feel like therapy was helpful.
If you have doubts or concerns about the process of couples therapy, the first session is a great time to bring these up. Often, a couples therapist will ask their clients if they have concerns or questions about the process.
2 Common Concerns about Starting Couples Counseling:
1. Therapist “picking sides”
Rest assured, a good couple’s therapist is not there to pick sides, but rather to help the couple understand and change for themselves what they personally can to advocate for a different and better relationship. Sometimes when a therapist challenges the client, it can feel like the therapist is picking sides when defensiveness is present. However, ideally, if you are committed to bettering yourself and your relationship, you and your partner can both integrate difficult feedback. It is the therapist’s job to challenge both partners (not just one) and help each member of a relationship see their blind spots and growth areas.
2. Dredging up sensitive issues that bring about more conflict – issues we are avoiding on purpose
This is a valid concern, to be sure. If you are considering couples counseling, it is likely that you have one or more topics in your relationship that feel like hot-button issues. A skilled couples counselor will do everything in their power to ensure that you and your partner don’t replicate the same unhelpful patterns in sessions that you tend toward outside of sessions. While the same sensitive issues may come up, the therapist will help guide you and your partner through the conversations in a way that promotes understanding and connection, providing you an opportunity to have a new, reparative, and corrective experience around old topics. Some of this is done through communication skills building, and some of it through each individual partner digging into their personal thoughts and feelings to better understand why they react the way they do. That newfound awareness can then be used to create a new pattern of behavior.
These are just two common concerns you might be experiencing and will want to share with your couples therapist, but if you have any other concerns, share those openly with your counselor and they can work to ease your mind and reassure you.
Discuss Your Relationship History
After going through paperwork and addressing questions, concerns, your couples counselor will dive in by discussing your relationship history, inquiring about things such as:
- How did you two meet?
- What attracted you to each other?
- When did issues start to show up for the two of you?
A common question many couples therapists will ask early on is “Why now? What made you decide to make the leap to seek couples counseling today?”. This question can flush out recent events that have led to conflict worsening or connection waning that may help the therapist hone in on particularly sensitive issues. Once these issues come up, the therapist can start to learn more about how the couple interacts around these hot topics. This then leads into the therapist assessing for Conflict Patterns – how the couple typically engages around difficult topics. Your couples therapist will likely want to know:
- What issues feel perpetually unresolved?
- How does conflict typically look for the two of you?
- When conflict escalates, what happens?
- When your partner starts to escalate, what do you do in reaction? (and vice versa)
- Are you two able to de-escalate from a fight? If so, how?
- Are you two able to repair after a fight? If so, how?
As your couples therapist becomes more familiar with your conflict cycle, they can then start to help each of you identify what your personal role in perpetuating the cycle is. The therapist will prompt you to self-reflect on ways you might be coping in unhelpful ways that feed into patterns of misunderstanding. This serves as a natural segway into setting personal goals.
Set Personal Goals for Improvement as a Partner
This is arguably the most important step of successful couples therapy that results in lasting positive change. In order for a couple to restructure their dynamics in a sustainable way, each partner has to be personally invested in becoming a better version of themselves. One of the biggest deterrents to improving a couple’s relationship is one or both partners assuming they share no part of the blame for why the relationship is suffering; however, just as it takes two people to make a happy relationship, it also takes two people to improve one.
Your couples therapist will help you get clear on what areas you feel like you are diverging from the best version of yourself, and to help you identify aspects of your communication that could benefit from improvement. Each partner having a set of specific personal goals helps couples take more ownership for their part of problematic patterns and reduce blaming and criticizing behaviors that tend to incite defensiveness (and escalate conflict). Some common goals partners find helpful in working toward in couples counseling include:
- Regulating emotions such as anger, hurt, or feeling rejected more effectively.
- Increasing self-worth so I don’t overly rely on my partner to soothe my ego.
- Become more aware of unhelpful ways my insecurities show up in my relationship.
- Communicate about my thoughts, feelings, and wants in ways that make it easier for my partner to hear me and understand.
- Reduce defensiveness (and understand what triggers defensiveness for me – what things am I taking personally that may not actually be so personal?).
Next Steps after Your First Couples Counseling Session
At the end of your first session, your therapist will give you a rough road map of where you’ll most likely go next and what to expect for the first few sessions going forward if you decide to reschedule. This is often an opportunity for the therapist to give the couple a brief synopsis of how they are conceptualizing the couple’s issues and check in with the clients to see if it checks out. This is also often a juncture where the couple’s therapist will assign some homework for the couple to begin tackling issues in the meantime – this can include anything from practicing taking proper time-outs during conflict to journaling or making an effort to comment on what they appreciate about their partner throughout the week.
Finding the Right Fit
Seeking professional help for something as personal as your romantic relationship can be extremely difficult and requires you to be vulnerable. We know how scary it can be to be open and upfront with a stranger and your partner about your pain, disappointment, or frustrations with your relationship. Our team understands how emotionally taxing this work is, and we want to do everything we can to make sure that you get the most out of the process. This is a service you are paying for, so we encourage clients to advocate for themselves and the best service possible by being open about how the experience feels for them. Given that the first few sessions require a lot of information gathering and getting to know one another, it can be helpful to give the therapist and the process anywhere from 2-5 sessions before switching tactics. If you don’t feel like things are moving in the right direction by the 2nd or 3rd session with your couples therapist, it might not be the best fit, or the best time for treatment. The more committed you are to getting the most out of therapy for your personal improvement as an individual, the more likely you are to find the process to be helpful.