The idea of how to prepare for your first marriage counseling session or first couples counseling session may seem daunting, especially if you have no idea what to expect. Counseling will help you learn new ways to connect, trust, and support one another.
Before you begin, it’s important to start this process with an open mind. You don’t need to be at rock-bottom for counseling to be effective; however, you should discuss your goals and privacy expectations together beforehand.
Here are 12 ways to prepare for couples counseling:
1. Go In With an Open Mind
Although people are becoming more open about their mental health, you may notice yourself shaming or stigmatizing therapy or the marriage counseling process. Often, this happens when you hold onto rigid misconceptions.
Stigmas people can have about going to therapy include:
- You and your partner should be able to work everything out on your own
- Couples counseling is only for couples on the brink of divorce (that’s what divorce counseling is for)
- Couples counseling is about deciding who is right or wrong
- Only “crazy” people go to therapy
Try to be conscious of these misconceptions—they can be insidious and detrimental to your process. Instead, remind yourself that therapy is about growth, learning, and self-awareness. In many ways, it’s a gift for both you and your partner.
Keep in mind that you may not agree with all of your therapist’s suggestions. That’s very normal, and that doesn’t mean the work isn’t worth it.
2. Don’t Assume You Need to Be at Rock-Bottom
Unfortunately, many couples wait until it’s too late to reach out for help. At that point, they may already be filing for divorce or reeling with a permanent sense of resentment in your marriage. While therapy might be able to reverse some of this damage, most professionals agree that you shouldn’t wait until things feel completely hopeless before starting treatment.
It’s perfectly reasonable to reach out at any point during your relationship. For example, maybe you’re both struggling to support one another during a transitional period. Or, perhaps, you don’t like the way you two argue when faced with conflict.
Furthermore, you don’t need to be married for a certain amount of years (or married at all!) to ask for help. In fact, many new couples seek therapy to learn how to build a healthy relationship foundation.
3. Discuss Your Goals Together
This is one of the most important steps you can take for your marriage counseling to work well. Considering your couples therapy goals and objectives ahead of time allows you to make the most of the time you spend with your therapist.
If you’re not sure about your goals, ask yourself if you’re facing these common struggles:1
- Difficulties with healthy communication
- Sex or intimacy problems
- Parenting disagreements
- Financial stress
- Significant life transitions (new job, marriage, baby, relocation, etc.)
- Grief and loss
Any of these struggles can profoundly affect the safety and comfort needed in a supportive relationship. Think about your goals and write one or two of them down. It’s okay if you disagree on what you need to prioritize – your therapist will collaborate with both of you to determine an appropriate treatment plan.
4. Understand That Couples Therapy Isn’t About Changing Your Partner
If you feel frustrated in your marriage, it’s easy to point fingers and blame your partner for all the things they do wrong. In fact, you may believe that they’re the only ones who need to change! But unilateral change isn’t the goal. Couples therapy isn’t about fixing one person. It’s about examining the entire relationship and exploring how each partner contributes to the dynamic.
Your therapist will not choose who is “right” or “wrong” on a particular matter. Instead, they will unpack the problem as a whole. If you’re deciding whether you want to stay together, therapy can also help clarify this decision.2
This is important to remember if you’re keen on changing your partner. You need to be willing to work on yourself, too. It takes two people to make a relationship, and it takes two people to change that relationship!
5. Discuss Your Privacy Expectations
Some couples are open about therapy and share about their work with everyone in their lives. Others want to be more discreet. No matter what you decide, aim to be united about who you choose to tell (or not tell). You don’t want to discover an unexpected surprise after finding out your partner divulged the contents of your therapy with their best friend.
Remember that your therapist is obligated to maintain your confidentiality. That means, barring an extreme emergency like suicidal intent or the presence of child abuse, they will keep your information private.
6. Commit to at Least 3-6 Months
Change takes time, and it can take several sessions for you both to feel comfortable in therapy. Subsequently, if you two have several issues you want to address, you need to account for the exploration, processing, and healing.
Your therapist can give you a loose timeline for the expected length of therapy. That said, don’t expect to feel “fixed” after just a few sessions. In fact, you should steer clear of anyone who makes a bold claim promising to fix your marriage in just a week! Commit to the process. Reevaluate as needed, but try to stick with it for a few months.
7. Allow for Reflection Time After the First Session
It is important to have some time individually and together to gather your thoughts and reflect after therapy sessions, and especially after the first one. It can be easy to go your separate ways or to make other plans right after a session, but approaching your couples therapy journey with a teamwork mindset is key. Reflecting together and individually can give you both a sense of autonomy and collaboration that healthy relationships need to thrive.
8. Complete Forms Ahead of Time
Like any healthcare professional, therapists require that you complete various paperwork before beginning your treatment. This paperwork includes topics related to informed consent, HIPAA guidelines.3 releases of information, and other guidelines about what to expect in therapy.
Do your best to fill out these forms before your first session. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. You should have a clear understanding of what your therapy will entail.
9. Aim to Be as Honest as Possible
Therapy can feel incredibly vulnerable. Nobody wants to feel judged or shamed for their struggles. That’s why many clients feel somewhat apprehensive about opening up. They don’t want a therapist to look down on them.
Remember that therapists have comprehensive training in helping a variety of people. They listen to difficult issues all day- it’s their job! Chances are, they have worked with many people struggling with the same problems, and they know how to listen, guide, and support their clients.
With that in mind, focus on being as honest as you can. You’re spending time and money on this work. You owe it to yourself to get the most out of it, and that requires being truthful with yourself, your partner, and your therapist.
10. Consider Individual Therapy
Although you might be focused on the problems within your relationship, don’t overlook the benefits of individual therapy. You may value having additional support for specific problems affecting both you and your partner.
Some therapists meet with couples together as a couple and with each partner individually. In this case, it’s important to understand how confidentiality works. For example, if you disclose a secret to your therapist, will they share it in a couples session?
In many cases, clients meet with separate individual therapists. This separation can ensure more of a sense of neutrality- because the therapist doesn’t know your spouse, they don’t have any preconceptions about their behavior.
11. Prioritize the Appointments
Therapy needs to be a non-negotiable priority if you want it to work. Make sure that you can both make the time, date, and location. If needed, arrange for childcare in advance. Some couples choose to go to sessions together. Others meet there between work hours. There isn’t a right or wrong method. Do what fits best within your schedule.
Most therapists have cancellation policies, meaning you are responsible for paying for late or missed sessions. This fee can help you stay accountable for your work. Additionally, therapists agree that motivated clients tend to have far better outcomes than clients with less fortitude. Remember that this is an investment in your present and future.
12. Give Yourself Grace (It’s OK to Be Nervous!)
Couples counseling can be really nerve wrecking. It’s OK to be nervous, and it’s likely that your partner is feeling this way, too. Give yourself some time to feel your feelings and journal them if you need to to work through the emotions. If you are feeling angry or fearful, give yourself some grace and allow yourself to feel it all. Even talking about this in session can help to normalize these feelings and let your partner know how you’re feeling instead of having the emotions show in a negative way.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Marriage Counseling Sessions
Good therapy requires active participation. You can only get as much as you’re willing to give. In other words, don’t expect therapy to improve your relationship if you can’t commit to the work!
Do Your Homework
Many therapists assign homework for couples to complete in-between sessions. This homework allows you to practice and reinforce new skills. Make sure that you do your best to complete this homework. Research shows that homework compliance is associated with improved treatment outcomes.4
If you find it difficult to complete certain assignments, make a note of it. Discuss these issues during your next session. Even if your partner doesn’t complete their homework, focus on your part.
You can also talk to your therapist about apps that may help you and your partner complete assignments. The Lasting App, for instance, offers self-guided couples counseling tools for you to use alongside counseling sessions.
Share Any Concerns That Arise
If you feel like things are stagnant (or getting worse), talk about these concerns with your therapist. Sometimes, it’s normal for therapy to feel worse before it feels better. This happens because you are drawing attention to all the issues affecting your relationship. While insight is essential, it can also be painful.
If you disagree with the way your therapist is approaching an issue, let them know. Therapists are receptive to feedback. They want to make sure their approach works in your best interest. At the same time, nobody is a mind-reader. It’s important to speak up if you feel you need something else!
Asking questions during your marriage counseling sessions is really important. Questions about the timeline of therapy, frequency, and shared and individual goals can be helpful. Asking about the therapist’s approach and why a session may follow a certain route can be helpful in understanding what is to come. You can ask questions to your partner about what they think or feel, as long as you are respecting their answers and are able to hear what they have to say. Asking questions gives you a chance to become closer, and asking questions in session gives you and your therapist a chance to connect and potentially explore more areas in your relationship.
Review What You’re Learning Together
Don’t just talk about your relationship in therapy or when doing homework. Try to make a consistent point to discuss the new insight or techniques you’re learning. Doing so helps you both stay accountable in the relationship. It can also strengthen your sense of emotional intimacy and connection.
Stay Open to Continued Growth
Relationship growth doesn’t end when therapy concludes. Working on your marriage is a lifelong process that requires effort, dedication, and compromise.
Most couples end therapy once they have met their original goals. Termination can be challenging,5 especially if you feel like you rely on your therapist to keep you two accountable. But it’s important to keep working together to integrate what you have learned.
Additionally, don’t hesitate to reach out for help again if you find yourself struggling. Regression can happen (even in healthy relationships!), and it’s a good idea to work on emerging issues before they become more problematic.
Continue Seeking Moments for Closeness
Therapy is one hour or so a week. It’s a tiny fragment of the time you spend with your partner. Therefore, you can’t expect therapy alone to create connection and closeness. Make it a priority to seek experiences that cultivate intimacy, closeness, and connection. For some couples, that’s setting aside time for date nights. For others, it’s embracing more opportunities for deep conversation.
What Not to Say in Couples Counseling
Couples counseling can be really hard. It’s important that both you and your partner have grace with yourselves and each other. What you shouldn’t say in session is the same as what you shouldn’t say in your relationship.
It won’t be helpful to use statements that are accusatory or blaming. Instead, using “I feel” statements makes it clear that you are speaking for your experience. You shouldn’t use phrases that guilt your partner or make them feel ashamed, as that can make them feel unsafe.
You shouldn’t name-call, minimize, or deflect their experiences either. You should allow your partner to be able to share what their experience is and be curious to hear what they have to say.
The same rule applies no matter the setting—be respectful, patient, and kind, as this is a challenging process both of you are going through.
What to Do If Your Couples Counselor Isn’t a Good Fit
Therapy is such an intimate experience, and choosing the right couples counselor may seem daunting. Sharing and processing your marital problems with anyone may seem strange or uncomfortable! It’s crucial that you both feel safe during this process.
Ideally, you should both respect your therapist. This therapist should equally support and challenge you both. If you leave your sessions thinking about how you want to change or grow, that’s a positive sign!
With that in mind, it’s normal to need to try a few therapists before landing on the right fit. If you don’t feel like you’re making progress, it’s worth talking about with your therapist before switching. You may need to reassess your goals together. If you agree it’s time for a switch, try using an online directory to find a therapist that suits your needs.
You can also consider exploring online couples counseling options, such as ReGain Couples Counseling or the Lasting App, which may be a more affordable option for some.
Final Thoughts on Preparing for Couples Counseling
Couples counseling can restore the closeness and intimacy in your relationship. No matter your circumstances, professional support allows you to process your emotions in a nonjudgmental environment. Your relationship is worth it! Reach out for support and give it the attention it deserves!
For Further Reading
- Couples Counseling Statistics
- Looking for a convenient way to work on yourself? Check out the best online therapy options available.
- Best Books for Improving Communication
- Books for a stronger, healthier marriage
- Check out our review of the Lasting App