What Is Relationship Therapy and How You can Benefit From It


What is relationship therapy and how you can benefit from it

Relationship therapy– regardless of whether it’s called marriage counseling, couples counseling, or couples therapy – focuses on improving the relationship between two individuals. Relationship therapy can help you move your marriage to an amazing level, and enhance your relationships with your friends and children.

The role of communication in therapy

Effective communication is a vital component of successful relationships, whether those relationship are professional or personal. Hence, it should come as little surprise that relationship counseling, in all its forms, focuses on helping individuals and couples learn a variety of skills that will promote understanding, help people modulate their emotions, replenish intimacy and help people resolve conflicts.

Partners who learn these skills can use them with friends, co-workers, employees and children/teens. Many couples end up breaking up as they do not have the skills to hear each other. Nothing beats being heard and understood by your partner as it can help improve intimacy, facilitate negotiation and promote growth. However many couples  escalate, get highly defensive, shutdown, refuse to talk or just walk out of the room. If these behaviors become ingrained, a wall of resentment often begins to build to the point they are thinking about a divorce at the time they seek help. This is also true in friendships. The new science of happiness teaches us the importance of cultivating an inner circle of at least 5 friends and the importance of maintaining long term relationships. People who are committed to stretch and develop sophisticated communication skills can increase happiness and health in their lives across many types of relationships.

Marital relationships or long-term partnerships

Because relationship counseling has a focus on improving a relationship, it is often seen as being different from individual psychotherapy. Individual therapy can help people resolve core beliefs, tolerate feelings, overcome defensive reactions and work through suppressed emotions to mention but a few.

However couple therapy can also foster growth within each individual and improve couple dynamics so people can have more fun, intimacy and productivity. It can be more challenging than individual  therapy as people try to tolerate feelings when their partner is in the room, to bring up difficult discussions and have the courage to speak their truth.  

While couples therapy focuses on current relationship problems, these difficulties usually involve each partner’s emotional issues, conflicts and beliefs.  For example, if you or your partner are having difficulty managing anger, you’ll likely experience a continuous stream of arguments. Likewise, if you and your partner are constantly arguing, this will likely lead to anxiety, stress, or depression in other areas of your lives. Arguing is a choice and for some people some assistance may be needed from a medication. Do not think of yourself as weak if you have some mental challenge in your history you have inherited.  You are not responsible for your genes but rather what you do with a chemical imbalance you have inherited. You can develop a flourishing marriage.

In couples counseling, a professional couples therapist may help both you and your partner understand your dynamics to include communications skills and challenges. I commonly see couples stuck in a parent child relationship where one treats the other like a child and communicates parental message.

An example might be “You never pick up your clothes and need to change your habits.”

It is important to teach partners to use the word “I” when communicating and make a statement such as the following:

“I feel frustrated when I see your clothes all over the bedroom. I love you but I am starting to pull away. Would you be willing to work on picking your things up and I will work on getting dinner ready on time?”

When a partner learns the habit of using “ I feel” followed by a feeling word (sad, mad, scared, joy, happiness and fear) they can learn to invite collaboration and cultivate intimacy. Most important they learn the important developmental task of differentiation which helps each partner grow and evolve as a person.

A relationship therapist can also help you identify the sources of conflict in your relationship. Once the underlying causes of relationship conflict have been determined, your therapist will help you determine the changes you and your partner can make as individuals, as well as what changes can be made in the ways you communicate and interact with one another, so that both of your emotional needs and desires are understood and met.

Jack and Hannah had an ongoing conflict as Jack was a hoarder and his stuff lined the staircase, making it hard to find a place to sit down. Hannah on the other hand grow up in a very tidy home and wanted jack go meet her fairly highly expectations. Due to reactive communications skills Hannah and Jack never got to the point of even understanding the other person’s side which made it very difficult to come up with some compromise. Fortunately Hannah came to individual therapy and I was able to get her husband come in. Together they were able to hear each others side, break patterns of blaming and come-up with a plan that involved change on each side. Today they have repaired their marriage and are doing well.

Couple blaming each other

One of the biggest challenges couples face is the inability to stop blaming each other for the relationship’s difficulties.
However, doing just this is critical if partners are going to learn to work together. I focus on helping clients on what their part is in communication and what they are motivated to work on.  Last week I had a guy indicate “hey I do blame too much” and decided to work on this. He is off to a good start! Another woman admitted to making sarcastic comments and decided to talk out her annoyance rather than acting it out. I am not saying these shifts are easy but they can make all the difference in the world.

Couples counseling can help couples avoid the need to compete with one another, share responsibilities, and identify common objectives and goals that both partners can work towards together.

Especially important good couples work helps each adult own his or her part in a relationship and work to change his contributing part. When each partner can break out of blaming and look at their own part they can really transform their marriage. Often a couple waltz in and each one will want me to change the other. Of course his is magical thinking and the best results come when each person can own their part and get some motivation to change.

Ultimately, relationship counseling will allow you and your partner the opportunity to effectively communicate with each other, and more importantly, listen. This will help you explore your relationship, better understand the difficulties you face, take personal responsibility for your thoughts, feelings, and actions, understand each other’s needs and desires, and work together to create positive, lasting change.

Imagine coming home to a happy home where you each see your relationships as a challenge that can take you to new heights. Two people can help each other grow as individuals. I often encourage a couple to view their relationship where each is like a strong tree firmly anchored to the ground. The trees grow toward the light but the branches are not intertwined like a codependent couple who are overly dependent on themselves.

Is couples counseling effective?  

Couples therapy can help people in an intimate relationship, regardless of whether they’re heterosexual or homosexual, married or not.

According to the AAMFT, research has repeatedly supported the effectiveness of couples therapy. For example, in an article published by the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, couples from 15 states reported their experiences with couples counseling. The findings report that marriage and family therapists can successfully treat a variety of couples issues in a relatively short period of time and that client results and satisfaction levels are quite high. That said it is important to find a skilled therapist who is a good fit for each of you and this can be challenging. I have had the joy of seeing a couple turn their relationship around and find a happiness I like to call amazing.

Whether you’re looking to resolve a current conflict, better understand one another, develop effective communication skills, improve your intimacy, strengthen your relationship, or address potential problems before they get out of control, relationship therapy can help. Many couple therapists may contract for 6 to 8 sessions with a couple and at the end of the sessions, the therapist can help a couple decide where they want to go from there.

When should you seek couples counseling?

Unfortunately, couples counseling is often the last resort for partners that have been experiencing relationship problems. While it’s almost never too late for a couple to experience some benefits from couples therapy, the sooner a couple seeks professional help the more effective that help usually is and the better chance the relationship has of success. Far too many couples come in when one has buried their love or a wall of resentment has been built. On the other hand young couples are calling to get help before they get married to cultivate the skills for a healthy, flourishing relationship!!  This is a trend that is important to promote. If you are noticing a pattern of disagreements going nowhere, one partner shutting down, or one getting angry or walking out on difficult discussion seek help immediately.  Realize it is never too late to turn your marriage around and help may be a phone call away.  It is the healthy ones that seek help early on and don’t get stuck in the silly belief “Oh calling is a sign I am crazy or weak.”

Ultimately, if you and your partner are serious about creating the best relationship possible – whether you’re just starting out, considering getting married, have been married for 20 years or looking to reunite after being apart for some time – it’s never too early or too late for relationship therapy to help you explore your relationship, uncover and overcome destructive behavior patterns, learn more effective communication skills, build trust and intimacy, and rediscover the joy in your relationship.

Patrice Wolters
Psychologist, PhD
Dr. Patrice Wolters has been a licensed psychologist for over 25 years, specializing in relationship therapy and early identification of mental health conditions in young people. As a relationship expert, she enjoys helping couples communicate effectively, resolve conflicts, overcome the trauma of an affair, develop intimacy skills and develop team parenting skills. She has developed a model of change Go from a Maze to Amazing that helps people identify where they are stuck, learn skills to get moving and develop the capacities to get to amazing. She is also a teacher, poet and performing artist with a special interest in writing mental health lyrics.

More by Patrice Wolters