This article was originally published on Healing Moments Counseling.
Couples therapy can be a transformative experience, providing an opportunity for partners to improve communication, resolve conflicts, and strengthen their bond. But participating in couples therapy is more than just physically showing up to the session. Success is significantly influenced by the effort and commitment of each partner.
To make the most out of your couples therapy journey, we’ve compiled 11 valuable tips to help you maximize the effectiveness and success of your couple therapy sessions. By implementing these strategies, you can enhance your connection, foster understanding, and build a healthier, happier relationship.
Protecting the Couples Therapy Progress
The following tips help foster a safe space to do deeper work in and outside of couples therapy sessions.
Tip #1: Align on the Goal of Couples Therapy
This may seem like the goal “should” be to “save the relationship.” While this may be true for some partners, it’s not for all.
Nevertheless, it is not unusual for one partner to question whether they should continue in the relationship. Similarly, another partner might contemplate the choice between staying with their current partner or pursuing a connection with someone else.
Having divergent goals and hidden agendas can undermine the effectiveness of therapy and waste the time and money of all parties involved. To ensure proper guidance and advice, it is crucial to maintain clarity, honesty, and direct communication with the couples therapist. There are alternative approaches for couples where one or both partners are questioning whether to stay in the relationship.
Tip #2: Commit to an All Out Effort for at Least Six-Months:
Approach couples therapy with a genuine commitment to the process. The progress may be slower than individual therapy because the dynamics of two or more people require time to change. Six months gives you time for exploration, reflection, and structured interventions to support changes.
Furthermore, the average couple waits 2.5 years before addressing relationship challenges in couples therapy.  The years when unaddressed challenges have been present make the work of therapy harder for you and the therapist.
This commitment also means not quietly planning an exit strategy when you feel like the relationship is not getting better. It’s better to raise your frustrations or concerns directly with your therapist and/or partner(s) in therapy.
Recognize that change takes time and effort, and be willing to invest both. Stay dedicated to attending sessions, completing assigned exercises, and actively participating in the therapy journey.
Tip #3: Don’t Threaten Divorce or Separation When You’re Committed To Working on The Relationship
“Never threaten the existence of the relationship. Partners understand the mayhem that’s unleashed under such conditions of doubt and worry. Tremendous internal resources are squandered by partners who play with this particular fire, resources that would be better put toward self-improvement, creativity, and productivity.” – Stan Tatkin, in his book We Do.
To ensure the effectiveness of couples therapy, it is crucial to avoid using threats of “divorce” or leaving the relationship during the committed period of therapy. Such threats can severely undermine the therapeutic process, as therapists work diligently to establish a sense of safety and rebuild trust between partners who often have fragile bonds.
Introducing the concept of divorce or threatening to leave during conflicts will significantly setback progress made in therapy, potentially requiring many additional sessions to address the resulting setbacks.
Similarly, if you are in a committed relationship but not married, refrain from making threats to leave or move out. By maintaining a commitment to open and respectful communication, you create a more conducive environment for therapeutic growth and positive outcomes.
Tip #4: Don’t Complain to Family or Friends Unless They Support Your Efforts & Goals
We all need the support of family and friends, but unfortunately, family and friends can be biased and take sides, especially if they haven’t heard your partner’s side of the relationship. As a result, the advice they may give could be counterproductive to making progress in couples therapy sessions. It is unlikely that those who genuinely love and care for you will be supportive of your efforts to reconcile if they are only hearing the negative things your partner does and don’t see how you may contribute to the dance of disconnection.
Exception: If you find yourself in an abusive situation, it’s important to note that seeking support for reconciliation. Couples therapy may not be appropriate to improve this dynamic. It is crucial to prioritize your safety and well-being above all else. If you are facing abuse, it is strongly recommended to discuss your situation with a professional before considering couples therapy or any other course of action. Their expertise will help guide you towards the most suitable and beneficial support options available to you.
Tip #5: Make Couples Therapy a Top Priority
Make the couple therapy sessions a top priority in your schedule. Ensure consistent and regular attendance, placing them before other commitments. Remain flexible with your time to accommodate the therapy sessions effectively. If necessary, consider budgeting your finances to afford the therapy for a period of time.
It’s important to remember that if you are married, investing in therapy is often more cost-effective than pursuing a divorce. By prioritizing therapy, you are investing in the potential growth and improvement of your relationship, which can yield long-term benefits.
Bringing Your “Best Self” to Couples Therapy
Acknowledging that this is a challenging and stressful period, it’s essential to recognize that relational and marital distress can impact various aspects of your life. While it may be difficult to ask, the therapist relies on your maturity, resourcefulness, and hopefulness throughout the treatment process. Embrace the idea that personal and relational growth is an ongoing process.
Be open to adapting, learning, and evolving as individuals and as a couple. Embracing growth and flexibility creates a resilient foundation for your relationship.
Moreover, it is crucial to treat each other with utmost respect and dignity. By embodying these qualities and fostering a positive and respectful environment, you contribute to the therapeutic journey, enhancing the potential for healing and growth within your relationship.
Tip #6: Work on Yourself In Addition to the Relationship
When engaging in couples therapy, it is essential to be ready to work on both yourself and your relationship. It is important to reflect on areas where personal growth is needed to support you and the relationship.
Consider behaviors or traits that could pose challenges in any relationship. If your therapist highlights maladaptive behavior that contributes to a negative cycle, be curious about your part in the unhealthy relational pattern and be open to doing things differently that lead to connection and closeness.
Being proactive in identifying areas for self-improvement sets a solid foundation for meaningful progress. By acknowledging and addressing these aspects, you contribute to the overall success of therapy and foster a healthier dynamic within your relationship. Remember, personal growth is an integral part of the journey towards a stronger and more fulfilling partnership.
“There are too many people today who instead of feeling hurt are acting out their hurt; instead of acknowledging pain, they’re inflicting pain on others. ” – Brené Brown
Tip #7: Mindset Shift: Understand that your problems are “cyclical” in nature.
The reality is the more one partner blames, the more the other partner defends. The more one partner defends, the more the other partner blames. The pattern, not the partners, is the problem in the relationship.
“When safe connection seems lost, partners go into fight-or-flight mode. They blame and get aggressive to get a response, any response, or they close down and try not to care. Both are terrified; they are just dealing with it differently. Trouble is, once they start this blame-distance loop, it confirms all their fears and adds to their sense of isolation.” Dr. Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight.
The therapist will be helping you change the negative patterns and trying to see the best in both of you. This is the heart of what is known as “systems theory” when therapy involves a relationship of one or more people (a couple, family, or other partnership).
For your part in seeing the problem as cyclical, it can be helpful to develop empathy and understanding for your partner’s experience. Seek to see things from their point of view and validate their emotions. Cultivating empathy fosters compassion and connection within the relationship. As partners do this, it helps deepen connection and moves the progress of couples therapy forward.
Tip #8: Open Your Heart and Take Risk to Be Vulnerable
Create a safe space for open and honest communication with your partner. Share your thoughts, feelings, and concerns openly, while also actively listening to your partner’s perspective. Effective communication is the foundation for resolving conflicts and building trust.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” – Brené Brown
Tip #9: Prioritize Self-Care:
Couples therapy sessions can lead to “vulnerability hangovers” where our bodies feel exhausted from sharing our deepest longings and fears. It’s important to take care of your individual well-being alongside the couple’s therapy process.
Engage in activities that promote self-care, reduce stress, and enhance your overall happiness. Nurturing yourself strengthens your capacity to contribute positively to the relationship.
With the container of couples therapy being protected and all partners bringing their best selves to the relationship, it’s time to lean into connection and teamwork. Below are a few tips to do this:
Tip #10: Implement Skills Outside of Therapy:
Apply the skills and techniques learned in therapy to your daily lives including sharing vulnerable feelings and seeing the negative cycle as the problem. Practice active listening, empathy, and effective problem-solving outside of therapy sessions. Consistency in implementing new strategies will facilitate lasting change.
Tip #11: Maintain Regular Check-Ins:
Establish regular check-ins with your partner outside of therapy sessions. Set aside dedicated time to discuss the progress made, address any challenges, and reinforce positive changes. Consistency and ongoing communication are key to maintaining a healthy relationship. For a template, use the State of the Union Meeting created by Drs. John and Julie Gottman.
By following these 11 tips, you can significantly enhance the effectiveness and success of your couples therapy experience. Remember, couples therapy is an investment in your relationship’s future. Your couples therapist is here to help you manage and solve relational challenges in ways you can’t do on your own. Many separations can be prevented if people choose to work on their relationship earlier rather than later as problems compound.
With commitment, open communication, and a willingness to grow, you and your partner with the support of your couples therapist can build a stronger, more fulfilling partnership that withstands the tests of time.
References Doherty, W. J., Harris, S. M., Hall, E. L., & Hubbard, A. K. (2021). How long do people wait before seeking couples therapy? A research note. Journal of marital and family therapy, 47(4), 882–890. https://doi.org/10.1111/jmft.12479