Since an estimated 40% of marriages will end in divorce, it’s no wonder so many couples seek couples counseling at some point in their marriage to save a relationship. Despite this, wondering what happens in marriage counseling is normal if you and your spouse are considering couples therapy. It can feel intimidating in the beginning, especially for anyone who’s never gone to relationship counseling before. Try to remind yourself that the idea you may have in your head — sitting with your partner at opposite ends of a cold, hard couch in some office — probably isn’t what it’s really going to be like. In fact, online marriage counseling lets you meet with a therapist from the comfort of your home. Marriage or relationship counseling can be a goal-oriented process that helps you and your partner move to a better place in your relationship.
What Are the Main Goals of the First Marriage Therapy Session?
The goals of your first marriage therapy session (or really any type of therapy session, for that matter) are simple. You’ll first try to give the couples therapist a decent understanding of the problems you’re facing in your relationship. The major goals of that initial session can include:
- Meeting and getting to know the couples therapist
- Introducing each partner
- Giving background on your relationship and your current (or most pressing) issue(s)
- Sharing your priorities
- Establishing the relationship goals you hope to meet after going to therapy
- Establishing trust between you and the therapist.
- Learning that couples therapy will be a safe space.
“The relationship we have with our therapist is one of the highest predictors of positive change. Looking for a therapist with any specific background or specialties, and a therapist who demonstrates support and guidance in your work together can set the stage for strong levels of rapport from the start.”Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC
What to Expect From Your First Marriage Counseling Session
Your first therapy session will likely involve a few main components. Knowing what to expect from marriage counseling ahead of time can sometimes help alleviate any anxiety, hesitation, or fear you may have about going.
Paperwork and policies
You might be wondering, how much does marriage counseling cost, or does insurance cover marriage counseling? There will likely be at least some paperwork you’ll need to fill out before you do any real work on your relationship. Most therapists will spend some time going over their policies regarding insurance, payments, cancellations, best ways to contact, and more. They’ll also likely review the ethics (and perhaps the legalities) of a patient-therapist relationship. Feel free to ask questions about any of the policies that are discussed, or about anything that isn’t covered.
First and foremost, your therapist will want to understand your goals for therapy. They might ask any of the following questions:
- What are the main issues you want to overcome in your relationship?
- What do you hope to accomplish by attending therapy?
- Do you have the same goals as your partner?
- If not, what’s important to each of you?
A therapist will also want to understand, even if it’s just at a very high level, what types of difficulties you and your partner have faced throughout your time together. They’ll also want to know the basics about your relationship, like:
- How did you meet?
- How long have you been together?
- Is it one traumatic experience that brought you in? (i.e. infidelity, abuse, or infertility issues)
- What patterns does your relationship have?
- Do you communicate well?
- Do you have mutual respect in your relationship?
- Do you both have the same goal or goals for your relationship?
Beyond that, your therapist will also attempt to gain a deeper, comprehensive understanding of each of your personalities. This will allow them to begin diving into how they can best help you. Knowing both personalities can help determine which type of relationship therapy might work best.
Establish a timeline: Setting a timeline for your progress helps set expectations. In-person or online therapy isn’t a quick fix, so being realistic about when you might begin to see changes can be useful.
What You Can Get Out of Marriage Counseling
What happens in marriage counseling and does it work? The reality is, you can get a lot out of marriage counseling. Yes, it can be hard work, but it can also pay off in the end. You’ll learn more about yourself, your partner, and most importantly, your relationship. It may sound strange, but therapy can even be useful (and effective) before you have a lot of issues to overcome. Perhaps even more surprising, many couples seek therapy at the beginning of a marriage — it doesn’t have to be just for couples who are decades into their marriage.
The truth is, counseling can help you build (or repair) a strong foundation to help you weather many of the storms your marriage will likely face over the years. Some couples begin relationship therapy as soon as one year after saying “I do.” It’s a great way to develop healthy communication and coping skills, set boundaries, or learn to navigate tough times in life.
“We can all benefit from new skills, independent from the length of our relationship. Relationships can be thought of as a journey rather than a destination, so professional assistance in the beginning of a relationship feels just as effective as getting professional assistance in the later phases of a relationship.”Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC
In marriage counseling, you can also learn how to:
- Manage or overcome fears — The first step to overcoming fears is identifying them. If fear is a driving factor in your relationship, marriage counseling can help you figure out the root of your fear, and then find ways to cope with it so it doesn’t continue to rule your relationship.
- Communicate in a way that’s effective for each party — Communication is important in any relationship. This goes for marriage, too. Learning how to communicate is more than just talking to one another, though. It’s figuring out how to express your needs and desires in a way that your partner understands. Equally important is learning how to really hear and comprehend what your partner needs. Marriage counseling can help you do just that.
- Discover each other’s triggers — Making an effort to learn what triggers each other can help you navigate your relationship in a healthier, more productive manner. Once you know what your partner’s triggers are, you can learn how to avoid them in a respectful way.
- Be assertive, but not offensive — Expressing your needs is not only healthy, but it’s also necessary. It doesn’t have to cause conflict every time you do it. Being assertive and stating what you need without offending your partner is key to having a mutually loving, healthy relationship.
- Resolve conflict — Conflict is hard. In our society, we really don’t put much emphasis on learning conflict resolution. Once we’re married, though, it becomes such an important part of life. The simple fact is, you are occasionally going to have to deal with conflict in your marriage. Knowing how to resolve issues is essential so you don’t end up in huge disagreements or arguments every time you’re faced with a problem.
- Try to become less reactive and more proactive — Avoiding knee-jerk reactions can be tough, but useful. It’s a skill that applies to more than just marriage. Being proactive in how you approach situations and conversations means you can go in thinking about the outcome you hope to achieve, largely avoiding hurt and pain along the way.
- Learn about the other’s past and why they may react to certain situations — Understanding where your partner comes from means you can begin to understand why they react the way they do. If somebody was hurt a lot in their childhood, and they learned to shut down when conflict arises, they may carry this survival tactic into adulthood and marriage. Once you understand this, you can approach situations differently to try and establish trust. You may even help your partner overcome some of their past pain, too.
- Figure out how not to blame — Blame is easy to do, but rarely effective. Therapy can help you handle tricky situations productively and without blame.
- Express your needs clearly and without anger or resentment — Being able to say what you need without being angry will get you a lot further in any relationship in life. The same can be said about resentment. Often when we feel like our needs aren’t being met, especially if it’s been going on for a long period of time, resentment can build. Therapy can help you let go of your resentment and anger, so you can ask for what you need in a way that can more easily be heard.
- Practice compassion and kindness — This may sound like an easy task, but sometimes in marriage, it’s easy to forget to be kind. Practicing compassion and kindness means you can make both a priority in your relationship.
- Rebuild after trust has been broken — Rebuilding trust can be hard — especially if somebody has violated it in a marriage. For example, infidelity can be an example of how trust can be broken. If you’ve experienced infidelity in your marriage, you might wonder, should you forgive someone for cheating? Ultimately, if both people want to work towards repairing the relationship, it can be done.
- Set boundaries that both sides can respect and honor — Learning how to set boundaries can apply to many areas of our lives. It’s about more than just setting those healthy relationship boundaries, though. Therapy can help the other party learn how to honor their partner’s boundaries.
- Compromise on any hot-button issues in your relationship — Most marriages occasionally have those one or two issues that seem to resurface time and again. Learning how to compromise might help you move past them, or at least it can help you both learn how to deal with them the next time they pop up.
- Process pain — If not processed and dealt with, pain from trauma, loss, or abuse can follow us into adulthood and into our marriage. Through therapy, you can learn how to effectively process your pain, so you can let go of it rather than allow it to affect your current or future relationships.
- Let go of unresolved issues — We all have issues in life that we need to work to overcome. Simply not dealing with them just doesn’t work. A therapist can help you identify and let go of unresolved issues that may be affecting your marriage.
- Plan for a future that both of you are working toward — Finding common ground about the future relationship you want means you can work with your partner towards it.
While there are so many benefits of couples therapy for married couples, sometimes, marriage counseling doesn’t work. Therapy can help you figure out if the marriage should end. Through the advice and guidance of a neutral person (the therapist), the decision can become clearer to both of you.
That said, most therapists won’t actually recommend divorce, as they shouldn’t offer their personal opinions about relationships. In situations of abuse, though, if one partner is in danger, or if they fear for their safety, a therapist can help the abused person find a safe place for them to get help.
If you’ve been wondering what to expect from marriage counseling, you’re not alone. It’s natural to have questions, and it’s even common to be a little bit nervous about reaching out for help. Therapy can be an eye-opening and cathartic experience that two people can use to strengthen their relationship and learn more about one another. It can help create a mutually respectful, loving, supportive, and healthy bond that lasts.
1. Happy couples: How to keep your relationship healthy. https://www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/topics/marriage/healthy-relationships. Published 2020. Accessed October 1, 2021
2. What is the Success Rate of Marriage Counseling?. Just Mind. https://justmind.org/ufaqs/what-is-the-https://justmind.org/ufaqs/what-is-the-success-rate-of-marriage-counseling/success-rate-of-marriage-counseling/. Accessed October 1, 2021.