When we think of counseling, our mind automatically assumes there is a problem. It’s human nature. This was always an issue for individual counseling, but at least we can all admit that we all have some problems. So, it was never a big deal. When it comes to relationships, the stigma stings a little more…

The misconception that you must be in a crisis if you’re doing couples counseling is the cause of insurmountable problems down the line. It’s simply not true, and if it is, it’s only true because of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, it doesn’t need to be true.

By engaging with therapy early on, couples can set themselves up for success by building good habits, learning about communication and their partner's needs, and essentially preventing future issues before they even arise.

This is no different to learning meditation to make yourself a better student, or CBT to make yourself a better parent. And, nowadays, couples can even do it online.

angry couple sitting on a part bench, read to go to couples counseling
Seeking couples counseling isn't necessarily a sign of relationship problems -- in fact, it can be a sign of relationship strength.

What is couples counseling?

You may have heard couples counseling be referred to as relationship therapy, or marriage counseling. They’re all one of the same things, which is a form of talking therapy that focuses on resolving conflicts and strengthening a relationship. Many couples do not talk on a deeper level, and this provides a platform to be heard in a safe, controlled setting.

During a counseling session, you may expect a trained therapist to dive into areas of concern (asking each of you, not guessing or making judgements), but it’s not all negatively framed or shrouded in issues. They may ask about your shared goals, such as what your ideal goals are in the next 10 years, or teach active listening exercises where you can role-play and share your thoughts.

Coming out of the session often results in a sense of euphoria even, either because a weight has been lifted and that things are making sense, or simply because you’ve just felt that you’re being listened to and learned some new things. If it was a heavy session that is more emotional, this is acting as a necessary valve on pre-existing pressure that’s building up.

happy man and woman with arms wrapped around each other at engagement photos
Relationship counseling can give couples the tools to build a strong relationship and keep it healthy.

Building good habits

Going to couples therapy before issues arise is generally a more positive experience. This makes sense because there is no crisis that is being tackled head-on. Instead, you’re learning about communication and how to resolve conflicts — even those small disagreements you may have on a weekly or daily basis.

Money is a big divider in a relationship, and this can help understand each other's perspectives on money, for example, before the disagreements arise. Perhaps you never realized the impact your partner's childhood had on them, as they worried about their parents' financial difficulties which led to them being very cautious as an adult.

It’s the small habits you build that can improve the quality of your relationship. Learning how to understand each other's emotional cues and body language helps stay on the same page and keep the relationship honest. We can learn what triggers them, and what ‘triggers’ actually means.

But, it’s not only about your relationship. These skills you learn along the way will help you with all other relationships, such as knowing how to resolve conflicts in the workplace. It’s not a stretch to say that the skills learnt in couples therapy can help your career, family relationships, and general well-being.

The benefits of early intervention

A major benefit of early intervention is understanding empathy. Your counselor will help you gain a deeper appreciation of your partner’s perspective and needs, helping see things from their point of view. This is akin to the benefits of meditation or transcendental experiences, where boosting empathy can help increase your feelings of closeness to one another.

To nobody’s surprise, research backs up the efficacy of early intervention. An extensive 25-year study found the importance of relationship education to be very significant (this programme was slightly different to modern counseling, but in reality both share similar goals in regards to developing a toolkit for relationships), with people undergoing the support having only 5% divorce rates compared to the 26% control group. 60% claimed to use the learned skills regularly, and over 98% would recommend others to also get the education.

Ultimately, the study concludes that couple relationship interventions can significantly impact the stability of a relationship.

man sitting on large piece of driftwood comforting his daughter
Relationship counseling can help everyone from new couples to married couples with families.

Misconceptions surrounding couples counseling

The biggest issue with waiting until there is a problem — which is often the perceived reason for seeking help — is that some of the damage has already been done. While a therapist can help undo some of the damage, it’s a little bit like learning to drive by yourself, only for you to get an instructor 10 years later to point out all of your bad habits.

The cat’s out of the bag and your precedent for shouting insults during disagreements has been set. It’s much easier to have never been aggressive, for example, than to try and overcome past aggression.

Traditional individual therapy (i.e. CBT) is slowly becoming a sign of strength as opposed to weakness, which is great. Couples counseling will get there too, but it’s lagging a bit behind in its societal perception. Due to its effectiveness, both in the short and long term, I hope more people give it a try.

If nothing else, it shows you’re a modern couple, willing to invest time and effort into each other from the get-go. The bigger danger is if you care more about what others think about that than your own partner.

Another misconception is that counseling is either a quick fix or a one-time solution. For example, our partner or ourselves has cheated, and we attend counseling as we work through the trauma of this until we see the light out the other end. But, counseling should be viewed more as a gym membership than a hospital, where you develop skills and understanding, but also the idea that this needs to be maintained. It’s a process. Then, when your relationship does face a test, you’re strong enough to tackle it head-on.

Final Thoughts — Don’t wait until it’s too late

For new couples who have just entered a relationship, it’s very tempting to disregard relationship counseling as something that older couples are doing, who are perhaps facing the potential of divorce. After all, being in your honeymoon phase, this couldn’t be further from how you feel right now.

In reality, relationships take work to maintain. That goes for everybody. It’s a marathon, and by going to couples counseling early on, all we’re doing is making sure we get more out of the effort we put into that work. We may feel that the act of trying is enough, but what if it’s misplaced? What if you’re not as open as you think you are? Or if you’re unintentionally giving mixed signals? Bad habits can build blind spots through no fault of our own.

Sometimes it’s not about intentions, but actual skills and techniques. This may not sound romantic, but these are what, in reality, science has told us that keeps us happy and close to one another in the long run. And what’s actually more romantic than making a pre-emptive effort to make your relationship last?

May 6, 2024