What makes a good couples counsellor?

Are you wondering whether to try couples counselling? If so, you might be curious about what sessions are like. This post gives you a genuine insight into what to expect and how it works. Here are the three most important features of high quality couples therapy.

1. You talk in depth about difficult and sensitive topics

relationship therapy sessionTalking openly about yourself and your relationship takes courage. You are revealing yourself to two people, one of whom is feeling pretty emotional and probably not a trained listener. To support you, your counsellor will:

  • Ask you delicately yet directly about the usual topics that people avoid, rather than relying on you to raise them
  • Be knowledgeable about the experiences of people from different groups and/or prepared to do some research and learning
  • Stay open minded, warm and non-judgemental
  • Offer you a strong structure to express yourself and be heard
  • Assertively direct you away from destructive patterns of dialogue
  • Check carefully about, and keep the focus on, your goal or priorities
  • Offer grounding and soothing strategies if you become overwhelmed

Ultimately, your couples counsellor will hold the space for you to communicate on a deeper level, while keeping you focused on the issue(s) that are at the heart of your distress as a couple.

2. You become more empowered

Often, a couple will begin by seeing their relationship problem as caused by the other person, for example:

  • She’s too needy/He’s too cold
  • A is waiting too long to have children/B is rushing us
  • She was unfaithful/she needs to stop punishing me
  • X spends too much money/Y should learn to enjoy life

When you focus on how your partner should change, you give away your power. You can only wait, bash your head against a brick wall or pressurise them to win a hollow victory. When you gain awareness of your own part in the dynamic and commit to changing what is within your control, you take back your power.

In ‘It Takes One to Tango: How I rescued my marriage with (almost) no help from my spouse- and how you can too’, Winifred Reilly describes how she embraced self-change after nearly 40 years of marriage. Instead of becoming a doormat, she found that she:

  • Became less reactive to provocations
  • Felt better about herself
  • Took a stand on what truly matters to her
  • Set an example for her husband who eventually followed her lead

Relationships are a system and you are half of it. Being willing to confront your own feelings, needs and behaviours is tough but worth the effort. An added bonus is that whether you stay in the relationship or not, you have used the challenge to become a better, stronger person. You take that with you to every area of your life.

3. You learn to differentiate

couples counselling in sheffieldDifferentiation is your relationship super-power! Leading couples therapist Ellyn Bader says it’s ‘what makes the difference between relationships that are stuck or boring and those that are alive and growing’ It has two aspects: self-differentiation and other differentiation.

When you have a high level of self-differentiation you can connect with and express your feelings in real time in the presence of your partner. You value learning more about yourself and are comfortable sharing what you learn with your partner. You trust that it’s worth staying true to yourself, even if it tests your relationship. You don’t need to attack or defend against your partner, because you have a sense of who you are and accept yourself.

When you reach a high level of other-differentiation, you can stay ‘curious not  furious’ towards your partner, no matter what they reveal about their own feelings and needs. You care about their inner world and can avoid taking it personally when they say things that are different from what you’d like to hear.

Nature helps us bond in the early stage of our relationship through a mix of powerful hormones and brain chemicals. But when these wear off, as they need to for us to function as balanced humans, we begin to see through our fantasy of perfect compatibility.

At this stage, people often fight the need to differentiate, because they long to believe the myth that the honeymoon stage can last forever. In an attempt to cling onto it, they might lose themselves to keep the peace, becoming subtly dishonest with their partner. Or they might put pressure on their partner to adapt to them.

Do you think there is something lesser about your relationship if you need to work at it?

The truth is the all good relationships take hard work, but many people don’t really know what type of work is really needed. Bader and Pearson say that ‘submissive people think they should submit more; narcissistic people believe they should think more about themselves’.

However, they suggest that ‘for one person, putting effort in the relationship means speaking up when feeling fragile. For another, it means listening to a partner rather than bulldozing’.

This is how the pressure points in your relationship are paradoxically the opportunities for important personal growth, if you choose to let them. Schnarch calls long-term relationships ‘people-growing processes’ . By this, he means that relationships give us the opportunity to develop to the highest level of adult emotional maturity.

If you and/or your partner would like support to talk through your relationship problems, feel more empowered and learn the precious gift of differentiation, why not enquire about seeing a couples counsellor?

About the author

Bonnie Davies couples Counselling

Bonnie Davies is a counsellor based at the Sheffield Wellness Centre. Bonnie specialises in helping people with relationship issues and works with couples and individuals in order to help them communicate more effectively with themselves and others. Bonnie positively embraces working with people of diverse ages, genders, sexualities, physical ability, ethnicities, religious/spiritual beliefs and cultural backgrounds.