4 Things Couples Should Expect in Counseling If you and your spouse have decided to take the next step and seek therapy, here’s what to expect. BY DR. BRENT BRADLEY AND DR. JAMES FURROW
Modern relationship therapy seeks to address the health of the marriage, not put blame on one spouse or another.
“ If you go three sessions and you haven’t uncovered some vulnerable emotions and felt them… it may be time to find another emotionally focused therapist.”
If you and your spouse are experiencing problems, you may decide your marriage would benefit from seeing a couple counselor. But if you haven’t participated in couple therapy before, you may have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. Here, we answer four common questions couples have:
1. How long will it last? Couple therapy is usually 50 minutes per session, and people typically go once a week. The number of sessions you attend will vary depending on the level of distress you’re in and the model of therapy a therapist employs.
Ask any therapist you’re considering seeing which model(s) they most often use and how long they usually see couples. In general, though, if you and your spouse need help resolving a surface problem, you can expect one to five solution-focused sessions. Emotionally focused therapy (EFT), which targets relationship closeness, might last for eight to 20 sessions. If the therapist works from an approach that looks for unconscious processes and individual dynamics, sessions could go on anywhere from one to five years.
2. Will the counselor see us together or individually? Most therapists trained specifically in couple therapy will see both partners together in a session. Especially over the past 15 years. The emerging field of couple therapy has moved away from individually oriented models of therapy in favor of treating relationships themselves—which means they see you in session as a couple.
Relationships involve two people intimately working out their lives together with their own arguments, patterns of interactions, and much more. We are definitely biased toward the couple relationship itself being "the client" in couple therapy, and we firmly believe that couples should be seen together in session. Individual sessions along the way are expected, but the vast majority of sessions should be focused on the relationship with both partners present.
3. What does an emotionally focused therapist do? Broadly speaking, an emotionally focused therapist will help you and your husband or wife to identify the powerful emotions underneath the surface that are driving your behaviors with each other. They will work toward the success, health, and positive growth of your relationship while striving to help you both feel comfortable, safe, and understood.
Going into therapy, you may find it comforting to know that an emotionally focused therapist doesn’t assign blame to one partner; rather, they put the emphasis on how the relationship has gotten negative over time, which is something neither of you wants. While one person may have done something that stands out as most hurtful to the marriage, both you and your spouse are responsible for the current level of distress, and it’ll take both of you working together to make things better.
It’s been my experience that some men, in particular, don’t want to go to couple therapy because they’re afraid that they’ll be blamed. With an emotionally focused therapist, that shouldn’t be the case. Again, the relationship itself is the client. The way that you and your spouse interact, along with the emotions underlying those interactions, become pivotal. The focus is on what’s keeping you from connecting emotionally rather than on who’s most to blame.
4. How do we know if the counselor is any good? In a nutshell, you’ll feel it—and so will your therapist. Even in the first session of emotionally focused therapy, emotions usually come forth that you and your spouse don’t normally talk about at home. If you go three sessions and you haven’t uncovered some vulnerable emotions and felt them—not just talked about them, but felt them in session—it may be time to find another emotionally focused therapist.
Remember that you’re paying for a therapist to help heal your relationship, not just give you a warm and fuzzy hour every week. They should be an active participant in the discussion and should also push you when necessary. That’s to be expected, as long as you continue to feel safe and supported. Overall, an effective therapist will prompt you to share directly with your spouse, help you stay on track when doing so, highlight the critical elements shared by each of you, and then help each partner hear and respond to what’s been said.
Brent Bradley, PhD, and James Furrow, PhD, are co-authors of "Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies." Dr. Bradley is president of The Couple Zone (www.couplezone.org), a center for counseling, counselor training, and research in Houston. He is a former tenured associate professor of family therapy and a published scholar/researcher in emotionally focused couple therapy. Dr. Furrow is professor of marital and family therapy at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. He is executive director of the Los Angeles Center for EFT and a certified emotionally focused couple therapist, supervisor, and trainer.