Whether you’re in an established partnership or have yet to “put a label on it,” there’s a place in couples therapy for everyone. Still, many people avoid counseling because they either don’t think they really need it or aren’t sure what they’ll get out of the sessions. In fact, it takes struggling couples an average of six years to start therapy after initially considering it.
“The culture of previous generations, which was all about ‘pulling up your bootstraps and doing it yourself,’ has created a stigma around couples therapy that it’s where you go if you can’t figure it out yourself,” Erin Dierickx, PLLC tells O.school. “Couples therapy doesn’t have to be in response to a problem, though. It can be proactive, versus reactive,” Dierickx assures. “There is a place in therapy for everyone.”
Therapy is a place where any couple — fresh, seasoned, or somewhere in between — can explore their connection in a way that is respectful, fair, and healthy. Here’s what to expect in couples counseling at any stage of a relationship.
What to expect in therapy in a new partnership
If you and your partner are just testing the waters of your relationship, or even navigating whether your connection will result in a relationship at all, going to couples therapy may seem “extreme.” You might feel like you’re making a big deal out of nothing, or that a therapist might not take you seriously if you aren’t in a committed partnership. Actually, starting therapy at the start of a new relationship can be a great way to establish healthy habits from the get-go. Just ask Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell, who started their therapy journey a month into dating (he talks about this on his podcast, Armchair Expert).
Dierickx, who works with the Gottman method, advocates for taking a page out of their book, and starting therapy early. “When I work with new couples, I focus on trying to catch bad patterns before they can even begin,” she tells O.school. This can include using a session to work on Love Maps, Gottman’s strategy for getting to know your partner on a granular level to create a strong foundation for intimacy.
“We’ll work on building trust and commitment to one an another, because that’s kind of the foundation of how couples can manage conflict down the road,” Dierickx says. “If we know each other well, and feel known by our partner, we’ll have more effective and healthy interactions later on.”
What to expect in therapy if you aren’t quite “official”
In this day and age, the boundaries of what makes a couple “a couple” feel difficult to identify as “situationships” without a specific label rise in popularity for young people. While the grey area between going on dates, becoming exclusive, and partnering up seems like an odd place to ask a significant other about couples therapy, Dierickx attests that this might actually be the perfect time to seek counseling.
“I think therapy is such a fun and weird place, and everyone is welcome. With that said, I don’t think it’s limited to couples who label themselves as ‘official,’ ‘monogamous,’ or ‘together,’” she says. “Couples therapy could be exactly the place to have conversations like: ‘How do we define ourselves?’ ‘What do we want moving forward in each other’s lives?’”
If you’re thinking about heading into a counselor’s office with your situationship, or someone you’re unofficially dating, expect to have a third party guide those tough conversations about what role you play in each other’s lives. While this can take a load off of what’s otherwise a sticky subject, be prepared for the reality that your expectations may be different from your partner’s. If that’s is the case, Dierickx believes therapy is “a beautiful setting to explore this,” and whether or not you’ll be able to get on the same page.
What to expect in therapy as an established couple
As your relationship evolves, so will your experience entering couples therapy. If your relationship is a few years old or more committed, you can expect a therapist to dig into gridlocked issues you may have been struggling with for a while (whether you outwardly acknowledge it to your partner or not).
“I talk to my established couples about issues that have been occurring for a little bit now, and are driving them a little nuts. We work on finding clarity on why this is a perpetual issue. A big part of this is changing the narrative from dealing with the problem without solving the problem.”
While this sounds convoluted, it’s an important part of couples therapy, as far as Dierickx sees. She likes to tell her couples that 69 percent of problems are not solvable.
“This is a good and bad thing. The bad news is that your relationship problems usually don’t have a solution at this point, which is hard,” she explains. “But it’s good and helpful to know this because they’ll stop working towards a ‘solution,’ and instead we’ll work on tools and exercises to help us navigate continued dialogue about the issue.”
This is one area where more serious couples can benefit from starting therapy: once you’ve had a year or two to put a finger on an ongoing issue, therapy can guide you away from sweeping them under the rug or building resentment. Instead, couples will strive for ongoing respectful communication about tricky topics.
What to expect in therapy with a long-term partner
Contacting a therapist with your long-time partner deserves a pat on the back. It can be difficult to admit you might need a helping hand to fish your relationship out of choppy waters, especially if you’ve been going it alone for this one. Dierickx asserts that established couples in therapy will be given a safe environment to create a new understanding of roles in the relationship, and gain insight into where a partner might be coming from.
“Something I see a lot in couples that have lasted a long time is that by the time they seek therapy, one partner might be leaning out. Assessing that, as a couples therapist is really important,” she says of first steps. “It’s important to name so that neither party is in the dark, and everything is on the table for practical therapy.”
Long-term couples may use therapy as a starting point for one of two paths. One is the decision to stay together, on which therapy will focus on reestablishing good communication, particularly in conflict. They’ll also mend any areas of broken trust by getting to know each other again from the ground up, rebuilding friendship and intimacy.
On the other path, couples may learn in therapy that the relationship is no longer serving them. “In this case, a couples therapist is there to facilitate a respectful and fair parting of ways. It’s so important to clearly establish new roles or hats to wear in each other’s lives if you’ve been together for a long time, and especially so if there are children involved,” Dierickx says. “Through therapy, we can explore that but in a way that doesn’t need to be abrupt or traumatic.”
The bottom line
At every phase of your relationship, whether you’re not yet official or a marriage license deep, the benchmarks of what you can expect to glean from therapy are the same. If you’re still toying with the idea of whether therapy is right for your relationship, or whether your relationship warrants this step at all, Dierickx advises you to ask yourself: Is your relationship worth it? No matter the answer, she says, it’s always worthy enough to find the space to find a healthy space to explore it deeper.