The Importance of Relationship Questions Before Couples Therapy

At Couples Therapy Inc., we understand the importance of relationship questions. Every relationship contains two stories, eagerly waiting to be told.

In this blog post, I’ll discuss assessment tools such as the Gottman Relationship Checkup, as well as our own Big Big Book.

Couples typically enter therapy with preconceived ideas… ideas that seem like good common sense.

One of these ideas is, “if we could just solve this one problem…then we’d be happy.”

But as I’ve said many times before, there is no common sense in science-based couples therapy… There is only science.

Content vs. Process

Couples Therapists are often uncomfortable when discussing power…their own power that is.

That’s why who you choose to work with you is so critical. If you’re like most couples, you believe that if you could just “solve” your problems, everything would work out.

But you soon find out that 69% of your problems are perpetual. They will never be solved. But they can be handled with skill. Many partners are confused by this fact because they want to “find the bad guy” and prevail as the “sensible spouse.”

But you soon learn that we are less interested in what you struggle with. because we are far more curious about how you engage around it.

Welcome to content vs. process.

How will we uncover your particular process? We’ll do a “State of the Union” clinical assessment and ask a lot of relationship questions before commencing with couples therapy.

The Art of Marital Assessment

Science-based couples therapy asks a lot of relationship questions. This is called the Assessment Phase of treatment.

Couples therapists (as opposed to the coaching process) aren’t just working on the presenting problem. They’re studying all of the core issues and the conversations you’re having about them.

There are many assessment tools that ask excellent relationship questions. Previously, Gottman Method Couples Therapists have used the Locke-Wallace Marital Adjustment Test, the Weiss-Cerreto Marital Status Inventory, the SCL-90, and various scales to assess for Domestic Violence.

The Gottman Relationship Checkup

More recently, the Gottman Institute has developed its own assessment tool, the Gottman Relationship Check-up.

Gottman noticed that many couples therapists could not devote the time required to complete a thorough relationship assessment.

The Gottman Relationship Checkup offers therapists a low-cost, easy to use, assessment tool.

One of the benefits of the Gottman Relationship Checkup is how it systematizes and streamlines the relationship assessment process.

It provides personalized, clinical feedback for the couples therapist.  One of the best features is that it also suggests specific interventions for treatment based on the couple’s responses. Clients are also offered to chance to add comments to elaborate on their answers.

The actual time it takes to complete the Gottman Relationship Checkup may vary, but expect to spend between 1-2 hours completing this questionnaire.

Best Practices for Completing Marital Assessment Questionnaires… Like the Big Big Book and the Gottman Relationship Checkup

Similar to the Gottman Relationship Checkup, Couples Therapy Inc. is known for its own assessment tool, the Big Big Book.

The Big Big Book takes a couple of hours to complete, as well. And we also offer advice specific advice on completing it. We believe this advice would be helpful with relationship questions you are answering on any relationship assessment tool:

  • Start Working When You’re Rested and Ready. Don’t tackle any relationship questions if you’re tired, grumpy, irritable, or hungry. Pace yourself.
  • Don’t Try To Complete it in One Sitting. Whether you’re asked to complete the Big Big BookGottman Relationship Checkup, or any other marital assessment tool, please respect the process. Don’t try to plow through it in one sitting. Chip away at it. You may work on it 4-6 times before you finish. If you get irritated or tired (and you will), save your work and go back to it at a later time.
  • Don’t Discuss the Process With Your Spouse. We ask that you refrain from discussing your answers. We even ask you not to discuss the questions. Keep the process clean. Don’t attempt to influence your partner’s responses, and resist any attempts by them to influence your answers as well.

There are many excellent assessment tools for couples entering couples therapy. The Gottman Relationship Checkup and our own Big Big Book are but two excellent examples. Relationship questions not only help the therapist to learn about your issues…they also assess your overall suitability for couples therapy as well.

Many General Practitioners Don’t Ask Relationship Questions…They Just Jump In

A marriage counseling assessment is a vital first step in helping you to have a better relationship.

It’s a systematic and organized way for your therapist to learn more about you and your marriage. It’s a necessary precursor for intensive couples therapy. Well-designed relationship questions can open a heuristic process and promote State-Dependent Learning. 

Do you really want people trying to help your relationship before they really get to know you?

Surprisingly, that’s just what General Practitioners do. They dive right in before they know anything about you, and try to figure you out…and believe they’re doing couples therapy at the same time!

The Relationship Question Found in the Gottman Relationship Checkup are Essential…

One of the hallmarks of effective couples therapy is a careful and thorough assessment.

There are many useful marital assessment questionnaires, and I’m not saying that our Big Big Book or the Gottman Relationship Checkup is superior to any other assessment tool for that matter.

My key point is that relationship questions are essential. There is way too much bad couples therapy being conducted without a formal assessment process. And many couples suffer needlessly as a result.

Only by asking relationship questions prior to treatment can a couples therapist ever hope to devise a meaningful treatment plan.

Be leary of any therapist who says they conduct couples therapy absent a formal assessment process. They’re flying blind and taking you with them. If your couples therapist isn’t assessing beforehand, the ensuing therapy will most likely be chaotic, aimless, and activating.

Relationship Questions Might be an Exercise in Curiosity for Your Couples Therapist…But It’s an Emotional Process for You

When couples enter therapy, they each have a tale to tell.

They want to be heard. Both spouses want to be understood, and our clients work especially hard on the relationship questions we ask in our Big Big Book.

A science-based couples therapist builds a therapeutic bond with both partners and leans into their stories.

But they also know that from their client’s point of view, the intervention has already begun. Answering relationship questions, whether in our Big Big Book, the Gottman Relationship Checkup, or any other assessment instrument, can be an emotional experience for a couple.

A good therapist never forgets that.

While we’re learning about your history as a couple, we’re also intervening. The process of asking questions can have a therapeutic dimension even before couples therapy begins.

Relationship Questions Like the Gottman Relationship Checkup are an Intellectual Scaffold

Why do science-based couples therapists ask so many relationship questions before starting treatment? Why does a doctor ask;  where does it hurt? What kind of pain is it? How long have you had it? etc. 

Our State of the Union Assessment takes about 6 hours. First, We spend two hours with you together online in a “Relationship and Problem History Interview.”

In the second online meeting, we ask you to show us how you manage conflict, and we interview you both separately for an hour.

In the third and final online meeting, after studying the Big Big Book, we’re able to discuss your strengths as a couple, and the areas we believe need improvement.

Your Answers Shape the Treatment Plan

In Gottman Couples Therapy, there are seven critical questions we are looking for your help in answering:

Relationship Questions Invite Thoughtful Answers

Relationship questions are powerful, and your answers guide the treatment plan for your marriage counseling.

Assessment tools such as the Big Big Book and the Gottman Relationship Checkup are only as useful as the care and attention that a couple brings to them.

When Couples Therapy Inc. first introduced the Big Big Book seven years ago, it was an accepted belief that relationship questions put couples on edge. A “formal” assessment was frowned upon by many couples therapists at that time.

One thought leader, in particular, actually taught therapists to avoid asking “too many” relationship questions beforehand.

It was her belief that couples would actively resist completing an extensive questionnaire because it was “intrusive”, and a “therapeutic bond had not yet been established.”

Nor everyone agreed. Thinkers like Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Kathy McMahon thought otherwise.

A formal assessment process encourages couples to tell their story during the most emotional phase of couples therapy.

Good couples therapists know that a therapeutic alliance, based on curiosity and respect, starts with asking good relationship questions.

Originally published June 2, 2020.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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