So you want to know how to prepare for couples counseling

We’re often asked how to prepare for couples counseling, and my answer is sometimes surprising.

It’s typical that the question is often phrased as how do we prepare?

Good couples therapy offers you the skills you need to be your best version of yourself…and some of the preparation is best done in private reflection… by yourself.

So be clear about where you are now…and where you want to be. Do you want to know how to prepare for couples counseling? Start with your personal values.

In good couples therapy, you won’t be asked to abandon your core values. Quite the opposite. Good couples therapy is aspirational. What kind of partner do you want to have is sometimes an easier question than what kind of partner do you aspire to become. Do you express your values in a consistent manner, or do you sometimes fall short of who you want to be?

Here are 10 solid tips on how to prepare for couples counseling

Only start when you’re both motivated and ready

I’ve actually heard couples therapists argue that any couples therapy is better than no couples therapy. They are wrong.

I can’t tell you how many times my clients described failed previous efforts at couples therapy when one or both were not ready. Don’t let your partner coerce you into this process. On the other hand, most couples simply wait too long.

I will help you if you're anxious, unsettled, frustrated, or hopeless. But if you’re hostile, resentful and just checking the box, I’m a very expensive conversational companion.

No good couples therapist will be able to do good work with a hostile, resentful client whose only virtue is that they show up regularly. And if only you’re only doing couples therapy to shut your partner up, your couples therapist may (in a direct but respectful manner), challenge you about your personal motivation for being there.

There’s no shame in not being ready. Motivation and timing are critical. That’s why we also offer Discernment Counseling. Many couples are what we call “mixed agenda.” Make no mistake. Couples therapy does require you to have some goals in common. What are yours?

Discuss shared goals for how to prepare for couples counseling with your partner

Assuming you’re both on board for starting couples counseling, it would be helpful to discuss whatever shared goals you have agreed upon beforehand. Here are a few questions you might want to kick around:

A good science-based couples therapist will have a detailed assessment instrument (like our BIG BIG Book).

Expect to grapple with important questions in advance of seeing your couples therapist.

Take time to gather your thoughts and discuss some relationship changes that are important to you.

Reflect on what you want instead

Couples therapy can feel much more valuable if you take the time to reflect on what you’d like to get out of each session. Do you have a felt sense of what you want instead?

Unfortunately, many All-Purpose Couples Therapists have a “problem of the week approach.”  They fail to plan, so they plan to fail. A good couples therapist knows what they’re working on and why.

…But don’t insist on lofty selfless motives to get started in couples therapy

Too many spouses (especially men), who are ambivalent about couples therapy, think about couples therapy as a process about how they have to change…and this can fuel resistance and resentment.

Guess what? You have a say as well. Maybe the only thing motivating you is that divorcing would be expensive and embarrassing. Perhaps you’re more concerned right now about your kids than your partner. Or maybe you’re more worried about looking and feeling like a failure.

It’s okay. Really. Your motives for wanting to improve the marriage don’t need to be lofty, selfless, or particularly ambitious right now. If it’s real, honest to goodness motivation, it’s sufficient for us to get started. Once you realize that the process of good science-based couples therapy explores changes that are important to you as well…your motivation will expand.

Accept that you are trading convenience, comfortable bad habits, money, and time, for a better relationship which will echo into your family’s future

Do you want to know how to prepare for couples counseling? Accept the challenge and embrace the unknown.

Don’t forget that good couples therapy is about what you want instead. Assuming you are in good clinical hands, the first step in preparing for couples therapy is accepting that your investment and commitment to the process are directly correlated with how successful you will ultimately be. You will be working hard to break old toxic patterns and replace them with healthier relationship habits.

Good couples therapy is predicated on commitment

It’s not required that both of you be enthusiastic. Some fear and loathing are to be expected. Discuss your concerns with an open and clean heart. Listen carefully to your more reluctant partner without criticism or judgment. Talk about what you want instead. The first step in how to prepare for couples counseling is a committed focus on having a better marriage.

Find a good well-trained, science-based couples therapist

Some advice says to focus on finding a “comfortable” therapist. If you had a broken leg, would your sole focus be on a comfortable cast…no matter how long you had to wear it?

Or would you wear a cast that might not be entirely comfortable, but you would wear only a fraction of the time…and you would heal more completely without it?

Consider a therapist trained in Gottman Couples Therapy and/or Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy (EFT).

Gottman training is level I, II, III, or Certified. EFT trained therapists may have completed an introductory Externship, then Advanced Core-Skilled training, also leading to becoming Certified.

Make sure to ask about their training and experience in working with couples.

There are many poorly trained therapists out there who claim to work with couples. They will offer you a very comfortable experience…and could be there for years.

Formal science-based training through a training institute is your best assurance that you will get the skilled help that you need. Anyone can make you “comfortable.” I’m not saying that good couples therapy isn’t “comfortable.” I’m saying that being “comfortable” is no indication that you will get good couples therapy.

We want you to get the skills you need so you can do better without our help.

Expect to share some of your family history

An excellent science-based couples therapy will focus on assessment and ask about your family-of-origins. Our Big Big Book questionnaire helps us to understand your attachment styles more fully. This will tell us a great deal about how you relate to others. Expect to be asked questions about what it was like growing up with your parents. What examples did they set for married life?

Don’t focus exclusively on fixing your partner… Focus on changing yourself first

Both of you contribute to your unhappiness. Be prepared to focus on your side of the street. If your attitude is “here’s my spouse...fix them. You might as well not even start.

Good couples therapy requires a frank and honest assessment of both sides before positive change can happen. If you’re both blaming and shaming each, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to make therapeutic progress. Focus on changing yourself first.

Ask yourself in advance if you’re prepared to take risks

One of the most essential tips on how to prepare for couples counseling (particularly for men) is to assess how open you are to taking emotional risks. You may have been stuffing your feelings down for quite a while. You may not even know what you feel, and the whole process might seem overwhelming.

It takes courage to start couples counseling. Speak up if depression or anxiety has been a challenge for you. We’re used to seeing it, and we can help. Your couples therapist will help you figure it out.

Final thoughts on how to prepare for couples counseling

Whatever problems you both want to address in couples therapy, improving communication is essential.

Science-based couples therapy will help both of you to clarify your thoughts, feelings, and desires to each other with clarity and compassion.

A good couples therapist will also help you to have empathy for each other’s point of view. And when you’re able to improve your communication and restore compassion for one another, your attachment with each other will deepen and intensify.

You will become more skillful with each other. You’ll be much better at handling disagreements and managing problems. Overall, you will both cooperate more successfully. And that success might lead to a sense of greater satisfaction in your marriage.

Back in 1998, Dr.K and I saw Dr. John Gottman speak to a packed audience in Dedham, Massachusetts. He had only just recently launched the Gottman Institute and was on a speaking tour to discuss his findings after conducting over 30 years of research into how to have a happy marriage.

Dr. Gottman was asked about some of the other notions about intimate relationships that were popular at that time. Ideas like “fierce intimacy…wall-socket sex…a chosen few of couples… experiencing a deep abiding spiritual and erotic connection…before Dr. Gottman it was, frankly, a silly time in couples therapy.

And Dr. Gottman’s science-based research arrived at the perfect time for a new era. I am, of course, paraphrasing. But I remember him saying something like this:

“I have no patience for any of that silly stuff.” Dr. Gottman sighed. “Mental health is the only discipline where bizarre ideas persist even though they’ve been proven to be false. There is no elite “chosen few” of couples with superior intimacy. And no couples therapists are bringing couples into a promised land of intimate orgasmic delight.”

At this point, I remember seeing him straighten himself upright with conviction.

“You know what we really are? We’re plumbers! We’re asked to go down into an emotional sewer of past hurts and resentments and help flush out all the old crap.

And when you do that, you help couples to be with each other in a new and different way. And maybe after working with you they will begin to enjoy  a “good-enough” relationship… and model that resilience and connection for their kids through time as well.”

It’s as true today as it was over twenty years ago. Do you really want to know how to prepare for couples counseling? Start by asking yourself what a “good-enough” relationship with your partner could mean for you and your family…then accept the challenge and embrace the unknown.

Have you figured out how to prepare for couples counseling… and you’re ready to start?

Originally published December 10, 2019

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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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