Online couples counselling
Could online couples counselling work for you?
In this article, I shall explore the topic of carrying out couples counselling online via Zoom (or other secure platforms), and explaining how it works, as well as looking at the benefits of participating in online counselling. I will discuss some of the possible challenges of online couples counselling and give potential clients some information about whether online counselling is likely to work for them.
What is online couples counselling?
In online counselling, the therapist and couple share a space online to conduct therapy. Couples counselling is about the couple relationship and is not about the two individuals. In my view, this makes couples counselling better suited to online work. I’m not discarding the usefulness of face-to-face work though; for example, when working face to face with couples, the couple could be invited to move the chairs so that they are facing each other, to communicate with each other directly.
Online couples counselling differs from traditional couples counselling in that the therapist is not in the room with the couple, where this intervention becomes much more organic. The communication tool that provides this shared space in this instance is Zoom (though other secure platforms are available).
Does online couples counselling work?
To answer this question, we will identify some benefits of online counselling in relation to traditional face to face counselling in a therapist’s office. Let’s get straight to it...
Couples counselling online makes it easier for you to set up therapy sessions and feel comfortable and open about the things you want to talk about. When you and your partner are in an environment where you feel comfortable (like your home), you're more likely to talk about the things that are bothering you that you may not mention during a meeting in a counsellor’s office. This is called the 'online disinhibition effect', which we will talk about later in this article.
The online space allows some clients to feel less intimidated than they might be with a counsellor in a face to face environment.
Online counselling makes it easier to schedule appointments, as both the clients and therapist can be more flexible in finding slots for therapy sessions. The client may have a disability, which might be limiting when accessing the right therapist.
Many buildings used by Relate, for example, still do not have access for all client needs. I worked in one Relate centre that had offices upstairs but no lifts! Online couples counselling removes this barrier.
Online counselling can (in most cases) be offered slightly cheaper because of reduced overheads of the therapist (no room hire cost). Saying that this is not the case for all therapists, as some still charge the same fees. There is however the added benefit of no travel costs to the counsellor’s office.
Privacy can be a major issue for some when seeking couples counselling, as many people feel uncomfortable when others become aware of their relationship difficulties.
Much of the relationship counselling conducted in the UK is through Relate who tend to have consulting rooms in town centres, although many therapists also offer this service in their private practice. This could mean that clients may be seen entering Relate centre buildings. Online therapy eliminates the chance of that happening.
There are also private therapists working in town centres, and just the fact the clients might be seen going into their place of work might deter them from seeking support.
Couples in a relationship but temporarily apart
Online therapy is ideal for couples who are physically separated by distance. This separation may be due to work commitments, recent conflict in the relationship, or other reasons. The counsellor, in this case, will arrange video conference calls where partners can speak to each other and conduct couples therapy.
The online disinhibition effect
The disinhibition effect online has been well documented and researched; its characteristics are the tendency of people to loosen their inhibitions online quicker than face-to-face. The anonymity offered by the internet seems to encourage this disinhibition effect, which has both positive and negative implications.
Some of the negative aspects of disinhibition are keyboard warriors, attacks on blog posts, and online bullying. The impact on victims can be devasting and in some cases lead to severe depression and even suicide.
For those who would like to know more about the workings of the online disinhibition effect, I highly recommend reading the article referenced at the end of this piece.
The positive effect of disinhibition in online couples therapy
I have conducted many hours of both face to face and online counselling, and one observation I have made is how things move much faster online than face to face. I always talk to peers who do online counselling and they all report to experience this faster pace.
Inhibition is defined as 'the blocking or holding back of one psychological process by another'. Online counselling means couples tend to open up faster. The therapeutic relationship also usually develops much sooner in online therapy.
A strong case for online couples counselling being as beneficial as face-to-face counselling
The Tavistock Relationships is an internationally renowned organisation that has been delivering online couples counselling to couples since the latter part of 2016. Their findings in a study on relationship counselling are quoted here:
"Our online clients, like all clients making use of services offered by Tavistock Relationships, complete questionnaires that help us assess the effectiveness of what we offer. A major study recently published by the centre confirms the efficacy of our methods. Our experiences within the online service suggest that this new offer is effective, and we hope that soon this will be evidenced by research supporting the effectiveness of online relationship therapy".
Some pitfalls of online counselling
As the reader may agree, this article has built a very strong case for online counselling, but we must be aware of its limitations and understand that not everyone may be suitable to work on this platform. For example, some couples may be affected by emotional or serious mental health issues that are better-addressed face to face.
For example, one partner may be experiencing severe substance addiction, or a severe mental health condition such as schizophrenia, suicidal ideation, or other chronic concerns requiring medication and intense inpatient treatment.
A history of abuse in the relationship is also a red flag for online couples counselling. A trained therapist will always assess the client’s suitability for online counselling.
Is online couples counselling for you?
If you have read this article and think that your relationship could benefit from online counselling, then here are some tips on how to proceed in finding the right counsellor for you.
The most important thing is to check that the therapist you find is accredited by a body that belongs under the umbrella of the Professional Standards Authority (PSA), or another professional body listed on Counselling Directory.
If the therapist is offering online therapy, the chances are that they will have a website, or they may have written articles or blogs. Make sure that they have had online training. Research and get to know your therapists, and make sure that you are both happy with the choice of therapist.
Finally, many therapists will offer free initial phone calls, so perhaps bear this in mind when trying to select the right therapist for you to contact.
Suler, John. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. Cyberpsychology & behaviour: the impact of the Internet, multimedia and virtual reality on behaviour and society (7.321-6.10.1089/1094931041291295)
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