Couples counselling - is it for us?

It is incredibly brave and vulnerable to acknowledge that a relationship needs help. It may take several attempts to actually have enough courage to contact someone. This is normal.


Coming to therapy means being prepared to talk about those things that are normally kept behind closed doors. It often leads to sharing feelings that you might not have shared with each other. It is very important to find a trained counsellor who can make you feel safe during this very vulnerable time.

Working with a trained counsellor can help bring your relationship back on track, providing you with new skills and understanding about your emotional triggers and how your partner may have a different set of triggers and reactions. A trained counsellor may also help you explore whether your relationship is something you both still want, and support you as you make a very difficult choice.

Couples counselling can work on the complete spectrum of relationship satisfaction, from the relationship that is on the precipice of collapse to the new one where you both want to build strong foundations from which the relationship can grow. Couples therapy can also support you as you work through a sticky patch such as redundancy, loss of a family member, children or illness, thus enabling you to come through with new skills and resilience.

What to expect from couples counselling

Counsellors will work in different ways, depending on their training and the model they follow. But it is likely that you have an experience which will include:

  • Identifying what attracted you to each other.
  • Understanding your differences, and how this plays out in your relationship. Differences can be useful or feel like a problem.
  • Help identify differences or problems that might not have a resolution, such as wanting or not wanting children. Supporting you as you recognise whether this might be a ‘deal breaker’.
  • Recognising the things that work well, as well as the things that are not so good.
  • Learning about your attachment patterns, (whether you have a tendency to need reassurance and recognition or whether you avoid intimacy and dependency).
  •  Identifying cycles of behaviour.
  • Understanding emotional regulation, and the consequences of reacting from a heightened emotion versus responding from a calmer mood.
  • Improving how to communicate.
  • Clarifying whether you want to stay in the relationship (discernment counselling).
  • Unlike individual therapy, you are more likely to be given tasks/homework to consider between sessions.

When might couples counselling not be suitable?

There are certain relationship issues where couples counselling may not be suitable and a good therapist will signpost you to other support, examples are:

  • one partner needing support for addiction (alcohol, gambling, other)
  • domestic abuse (disclosed or undisclosed)
  • one partner has already withdrawn from the relationship, for example, they have moved out and do not want to continue the relationship (discernment counselling might be useful)
  • one partner has issues that are best dealt with in individual therapy, such as PTSD or past abuse

Couples counsellors will not:

  • take sides in an argument
  • favour one party over another
  • work with issues that are not relevant to the relationship
  • tell you whether to stay together or separate

A mindful approach to communication

In many situations, it can be communication that lets us down. Our ability to communicate with each other can be greatly impacted by how emotional we are feeling. That incapacity to string a sentence together when we are so angry and want to scream, or the fast almost nonsensical explanation that pours out when we are anxious or fearful, or even the slow loud speech of someone trying to stay in control are all a result of emotions.

It is highly unlikely that when one or both of you are emotional, you solve your argument. It is also highly likely that when you are emotional you will not be thinking logically. This is a physiological adaptation for survival. It is not good/bad/weak/pathetic it is a survival system.

The one thing you can do in a relationship is to help each other recognise when emotion is kicking in. Your partner may be able to identify this earlier than you can. They might notice a change in tone of voice and body language. You might notice these changes, and you might notice body changes, tightness in some areas, or ‘seeing red’, ‘blood boiling’. Begin to talk about these changes with each other.

Mindfulness practices encourage us to be in the present moment. This means noticing when we are caught up in a reaction to something rather than responding to what is happening. When our communication gets ‘emotional’ it is usually because we are not responding to what is being said but to an interpretation of what is being said. A very simple example of this can be represented by the familiar ‘why haven’t you unloaded the dishwasher’ argument.

A - "Why haven’t you unloaded the dishwasher?"

B - "I’m sorry I forgot."

A - (feeling annoyed)  "How can you forget, it always needs to be emptied."

B - (feeling guilt, voice rising) "I told you I just forgot, I cannot help it if I forgot."

A - (feeling uncared for/disrespected) "You never help, I always have to do everything."

B - (feeling guilt, exasperation, misrepresented) "I just forgot, I do help you when you ask." or "I do help but you always criticize when I do, so why bother?"

A healthy approach to this scenario can just end after the apology. How lovely would that be!

Paying attention to the communication in couples counselling can help you each identify the ‘back story’ that happens in these simple exchanges. This ‘back story’ is very important, but it is not appropriate to unpick during an argument over the dishwasher. The back story or the repeating cycle here is partner A doesn’t feel acknowledged and partner B doesn’t feel they are good enough. This is where the work starts not with deciding who unloads the dishwasher.

The couples counsellor is in the position to recognise each of you has a valid and important back story, usually based on past experiences. The counsellor will help you each understand this and work to support each other to ‘let it go’ at best or to be less reactive at least.

I am able to incorporate mindfulness in my individual and couples counselling if this is something you are interested in.

In summary:

  • Couples counsellors are neutral. They are trained to help each of you understand your relationship and the cycles that happen.
  • Most, if not all relationships will have their ups and downs, counselling can help you to recognise the difficulties that are transient, and which are more entrenched and teach you the skills to manage both.
  • Couples counselling supports a relationship to heal, and to grow, it can also facilitate individuals to ‘let go’ of a relationship that was once loving but has become broken and hurtful.
  • Research into couples counselling is relatively new, so there is not one model that stands out from others. It might mean a little trial and error to find the couples counsellor that works for you. Looking at their website and experience can help to identify what might resonate with you both. 
  • Sessions with a couples counsellor are usually longer than for individual therapy. They will have additional training and they usually provide additional resources; therefore you should expect the cost per session to be higher than for individual therapy. 
  • Couples therapy is generally short to medium-term (four to 16 sessions) as it focuses on specific relational issues.

Finally, and food for thought - one prominent couples therapist, Ellen Wachtel poses the question: What makes me not the easiest person in the world to live with?

If you would like to know more about anything in this article, please get in touch.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Brighouse, Yorkshire, HD6
Written by Emma Dunn, MBACP (Accredited) Registered Counselling & Psychotherapy
Brighouse, Yorkshire, HD6

Emma Dunn is a Counsellor and Psychotherapist.
She is trained as a Couples Counsellor
She also teaches Mindfulness to individuals and groups and runs courses on 'Eating and Mindfulness' and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
More information can be found at

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