Whether you call it marriage counseling, couples therapy or relationship counseling, what you’re signing up for is inviting a collaborator–a couples therapist–into the life of your relationship to help you and your partner grow.
Just as every individual who comes to therapy needs something different, so do the needs of each couple vary from relationship to relationship. We view the premise of couples therapy as three individuals (each partner, plus the couples therapist) coming together to create the help. Do you need a mediator? Or someone to be the tough with you both? Is the relationship suffering from a failure to communicate well? You may or may not have ideas about just what sort of help you need (and you and your partner may have very different ideas), but to start, rather than plugging you into a pre-set program, we’ll learn more about what’s going on and create the plan together.
Let’s be honest: In couples therapy, we’re not kidding around here
If you and your partner or seeking couples therapy, it’s likely there’s good reason, and you probably don’t have the time to work back through the history of your relationship and analyze the details of your personality. Sure, some of that will likely be a necessary part of getting great help, but you won’t need to hang around for weeks before we’re able to get to work.
We can handle the tough stuff
Violence, anger, drugs and alcohol, and infidelity can all challenge a relationship and if they’re a part of the picture, we need to get honest about that. These are all issues that can be confronted in work with a skilled therapist. When everyone’s committed to doing the work, being open about the ways the relationship has been hurtful (the hurt that’s been received and the hurt that’s been given), there’s room for tremendous growth.
All kinds of relationships in couples therapy
Our couples therapists come from all walks of life and we assume you do, too. While what’s critical is having a couples therapist who will do the work to get to know your relationship, we won’t need a dictionary to understand the basics of:
- Second marriages
- Same sex relationships
- Long-term relationships not defined by marriage
- Blended families
- Mixed-race marriages and relationships
- Open relationships
- Relationships with a large disparity in age
- Transgender or gender non-conforming members of a relationship
Getting started with couples therapy
While many couples come in ready to get to work, there’s understandably a good deal of apprehension around getting started with couples therapy. Often one partner is more comfortable with the idea than the other, and that’s par for the course. The biggest challenge is making the first session happen:
- The initial phone call or email: When reaching out before a first couples therapy session, share enough to gauge whether you want to make an initial appointment, but be aware that, unless both of you are on the phone, it may be best to share little beyond the essentials in this conversation so the your first encounter with the therapist gives both of you the chance to present the relationship.
- The first session: You only need to commit for one session of couples therapy to start–not sign up for a whole course of therapy. This will take some of the pressure off of finding the perfect fit before the first therapy session. Bring an open mind but also your questions an concerns to that first session. That said, be wary of using the first session just as an interview. Be open to doing some work together–that’s the best way to learn how the couples therapist works and get a sense of whether he or she is the right fit for you.
- Getting the session in the books: And of course for busy New Yorkers, starting couples therapy can be a logistical challenge. Be prepared to get creative with scheduling and as ready as you can be to make some adjustments in work and child-care scheduling to make it work. We’ll do our best to provide as many options as possible and have day and evening appointments when needed.
How long will couples therapy take?
Of course this is impossible to answer, but there are a few principles we follow that may help bring clarity to that question:
- Getting right to work: In any therapy we want to roll up our sleeves and get right to work. We’re not interested in a long, slow exploration of each partner’s emotional issues. Sure, we want to understand who both of you are, but we recognize that you’re not coming for help if something isn’t working and we want to get serious, right away, at helping the relationship grow.
- A short-term proposition: In that spirit, couples therapy is always best conceived of as short-term therapy. In good couples therapy the relationship gets the help it needs to grow–learning how to communicate well, how to disagree productively, how to get needs met and address difficult issues. Through that process, vulnerabilities that each member of the relationship brings to the table are identified or exposed in new ways. While there’s no formula, individual therapy is often the best place to work on those issues.
- The team decides: You can expect your couples therapist to regularly engage the question of how the couples therapy is going and be sure it’s continuing to add value to the relationship. While your therapist may have recommendations, the decision for how long to continue with the couples therapy is up to the team.
Is it weird to seek couples therapy if we aren’t married?
No. In fact, only about half of the couples we see for couples therapy are married. There are all kinds of relationships, and all sorts of reasons for seeking help.
We’re not certain we plan to stay together. Does that mean we’re not ready for couples therapy?
In good couples therapy, the question of whether or not both people in the relationship are committed to continue has to be discussed, however uncomfortable that may be. While a couples therapist won’t tell you what to do, if there’s uncertainty we can help explore the viability of the relationship as one that can meet everyone’s needs in the present and down the line as a growthful, sustaining relationship.
We don’t really have “problems” but still feel like we need some therapy.
Problems can be a tricky pitfall in therapy: We tend to understand a pre-condition of therapy as “having problems.” Sometimes that’s clear (we fight a lot, we deeply disagree about fundamental matters) and sometimes there’s not much “wrong”–no problems, per se–and yet one or both participants in the relationship want more. More intimacy. More fun. More variety. Better sex. More freedom. A better partnership as parents. What’s great in these cases is that the work can be driven not by problems but by wanting–a powerful force for growth if we let it.
I’m worried we’re just going to fight the whole time. Isn’t that a waste of your time?
You won’t fight the whole time. We promise. As part of the process of sorting through the challenging stuff of the relationship sometimes intense feelings will come out–they need to. The job of a great couples therapist is to provide a place where that can happen but also insure it won’t get out of control.
The relationship of your dreams? (Seeing past idealism and celebrating imperfection.)
Your relationship isn’t perfect, and you’re probably smart enough to know perfection isn’t what couples therapy is all about. But still, the ideal–the pressure of trying to match that ideal of a relationship that seems perfect can get intense. This is part of why couples therapy is so hard: It seems like relationships shouldn’t be such a struggle, and that they aren’t this hard for other couples.
In admitting that you need help you’re taking the first step to giving up on idealism, and moving towards building a better, real relationship. Why is this so important? Idealism is all about what things should be and its shaped by movies and books, imagining we know what other people’s relationships are like, and other forms of mythology.
- These idealistic ideas creep in:
- My partner and I should never fight.
- I should trust my partner no matter what (what’s wrong with me if I have doubts?).
- We should have an easier time making sex fun and meaningful.
- I shouldn’t ever think about leaving.
- We shouldn’t have to work this hard.
None of these sentiments are grounded in the hard, day-to-day reality of making relationships work. In great couples therapy we root out these ideals and the ways they can interfere with creating an actual, messy, imperfect but wonderful, loving relationship. When we move the shoulds out of the way, we can get real and get to work.