Couples therapy – can relationship counselling help us?

Conflict, betrayal, dissatisfaction or a lack of connection are common problems in intimate relationships but can couple’s therapy help? And if so, how?


‘I don’t know what has happened to us, the spark has just .. gone.’

‘I feel like I don’t know her anymore, I realise I work a lot and am not around to help out, but I can’t stand the moodiness when I am home.’

‘We bicker constantly, it’s exhausting, where has the joy gone?’

‘We haven’t been intimate for months now, I feel completely rejected.’

‘He had an affair, I have tried to move on, but I can’t forget. Is our marriage over?’

Any of these issues sound familiar? Feeling stuck in a relationship that has turned sour can be deeply painful. A large part of that pain is not knowing what has gone so wrong or if there is any way back.

One of the major problems in relationship conflict is the loss of self. Behaviours we don’t recognise can surface, in us and in our partner, and these behaviours are what fuel the conflict or the withdrawal that can leave a relationship in a very low place.

The good news is, finding your way back is perfectly possible and not only can the relationship survive, but it can deepen into something better than ever before. If relationship counselling is something you are considering, it might be helpful for you to understand a little of the process.

The initial stages

A process of discovery

There is a process of discovery where the therapist observes the interplay between the couple, reflecting those observations back and enquiring what is going on for each of the couple when they become stuck in these places. Patterns are identified and bought into conscious awareness, a crucial place to begin understanding what is going wrong. These patterns can be indicators of our past relationships, old wounds and our attachment style.

Our attachment style is born in our early years of life, depending on the way our caregivers responded to our needs. Parents are not always able to meet their child’s needs for a variety of reasons from poor physical health, poor mental health, living with the strain of poverty, a lack of good role models in their formative years or an unhealthy relationship with their own partner. If a parent or caregiver is unable to meet their child’s needs – and all parents, in their humanness, miss the mark sometimes, then we can form a way of attaching that continues to play out in our adult relationships.

An anxious attachment style, or fear of abandonment, can create a need for constant reassurance and connection, while an avoidant attachment style is demonstrated with a pulling away, a fear of the vulnerability and closeness that intimate relationships require.

Anxious for closeness and reassurance, one partner makes bids for intimacy and connection but is met with the withdrawal of their partner, further deepening feelings of rejection. This anxious way of connecting can further entrench the avoidant Partner’s need to run from intimacy. It’s not hard to see how these opposing needs clash, each triggering the other’s instinct to seek safety.

Raising awareness of how we attach, identifying our wounded parts and working together in understanding and compassion is the first step in both individual and relational growth.

Identifying each individual's beliefs about relationships

What messages were received in childhood about how relationships work? That anger and conflict is normal and unavoidable? Conflict is frightening and must be avoided at all costs? Partners cannot be trusted not to cheat? Relationships don’t last? I am not lovable?

Identifying beliefs and expectations can start the process of removing barriers to a successful relationship, by challenging our ideas of what a healthy relationship looks like. So many couples repeat the patterns of their family of origin, unwittingly falling into the very same processes they have watched play out over time.

The middle stages

Identifying needs

We all have differing needs and relationship needs are no different. For some of us, affection and time spent together is a priority. For others, it is acts of service that show attentiveness and consideration. Some people most value the sentiment of love language and affirmation. Whatever our needs are, learning how to communicate them to our partner is a crucial step.

Uncovering emotion

So many of our behaviours are fuelled by emotion, often outside of our awareness. Reactive emotions and behaviours such as flashes of rage, shutting down or not being able to let an argument drop, are fuelled by both need as well as deep and vulnerable emotions such as fear, hurt or shame. Looking under the surface can open up a whole new area of self-awareness, growth and a deeper connection to each other,

Conflict and communication

This is a core part of the work for any couple. So much is lost in miscommunication that tends to fall into certain patterns.

Do you recognise when you put up barriers or run from conflict? Or when you revert to childlike behaviours such as slamming doors or sulking?

Sometimes it can be like an out-of-body experience as we completely lose the ability to think rationally and behave mindfully in the middle of conflict. It’s like a gremlin that creeps in and takes over, leaving us feeling out of control and frustrated. By identifying emotions and looking at communication styles, both partners can grow in understanding and awareness that allows for ‘fair fighting’ or a way to put down the swords and come together in mutual respect and compassion.

Dealing with betrayal and broken trust

Many of the problems that occur in relationships do so through broken trust. Whether that is caused by infidelity, addiction, lying or distance, it can feel pretty hopeless once that trust is eroded. Trust is rebuilt when vulnerability is allowed to surface, when two people meet each other with compassion and honesty.

In the early stages of therapy, this can feel impossible, and even undesirable, but over the course of those initial sessions, when needs are uncovered, when a better understanding of the other’s inner world emerges, compassion is allowed to grow. Forgiveness becomes a possibility and the couple get closer to a resolution.

The final stages

These crucial final stages are where the couple make the commitment to move into a new, more fulfilling phase of their relationship. Or agree that the relationship has come to an end. Both decisions need carefully attending to.

For couples who decide that the relationship has come to an end, this will be a period of assessing the needs of each individual, the family dynamics and planning a healthy ending.

For couples who are ready to continue to grow together, recovery rituals aim to build on the new knowledge each has about the other and the relationship. It is a time of attunement and conscious growth. A time to begin to enjoy each other once again.

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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Margate, Kent, CT9
Written by Olivia Oven, Dip. MBACP Online Counselling and Psychotherapy
Margate, Kent, CT9

Written by Olivia Oven
Couples and Relationships Therapist

Olivia is a professional Counsellor working online throughout the UK, to support people in developing meaningful, healthy and fulfilling relationships.

Book a no fee consultation to learn more.

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