What It’s Really Like to Go to Couples Therapy

In October 2020, my partner Chris and I began discussing moving our relationship in a more serious direction. I was excited. Chris and I started dating right as the pandemic began after having worked together on a class project and realizing we had similar goals and values. He was my silver lining to what had been an unpredictable and challenging year. However, I had some anxieties knowing that when we had arguments, they often went in circles. Additionally, I had some deep-seeded insecurities about my abilities to be a productive partner as my upbringing made me anxiously attached. Chris and I both acknowledged challenges we experienced in previous relationships that we wanted to be proactive about so we would not fall into old behavior patterns. 

While discussing these topics, Chris posed the idea of seeing a couples therapist. He had seen a couples therapist in the past and found the experience useful. I’m a practicing therapist and have been seeing an individual therapist for several years. And still, I felt significant anxiety about seeing a couples therapist. I thought, “What if they think I am the bad partner in this relationship?” and “What if they tell us we are not right for each other and we have to break up?” My rational brain knew that these thoughts were fears and not reality, but the anxiety was still there. Because I valued my relationship, I pushed away the fear. Chris and I got connected to an excellent therapist recommended by a friend. 

Though I entered our first session drenched in sweat due to nervousness, Chris and I found that our therapist was able to support us in working through our challenges quickly. We worked with our therapist biweekly for eight months and recently ended therapy due to feeling stable as a couple. We know that we will likely use couples therapy in the future when transitions and challenges occur, and we’re grateful for our first experience. Below, I will discuss some benefits of couples therapy and debunk some common misconceptions. 

Benefits of couples therapy

1. Learn how to fight fair

One of the largest benefits we experienced in couples therapy was learning how to engage in healthy conflict. Disagreements are inevitable in relationships, but they can be utilized for growth and not harm. The Gottman Institute recommends being mindful of the “four horsemen” while in conflict: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. If you find that you and/or your partner are engaging in these behaviors, take a break and come back to the disagreement when you feel ready.

2. Have a secure third party to support processing 

One of the most useful aspects of couples therapy for me was knowing that we had a third party that didn’t take sides helping us work through our conflicts. Since our therapist was not a friend or family member, they could take an objective approach. For me, that allowed for more bravery to speak to concerns for which I was unsure of Chris’s response. By having an objective third party, Chris and I were able to discuss concerns that may have previously felt “taboo.” 

3. Increase emotional and physical intimacy

A couples therapist can support partners in learning how to deepen emotional and physical intimacy by trying new activities or learning more about how each person presents intimately. One example of differing intimacy profiles is the difference between spontaneous and responsive desire. Some people need more cues to experience desire whereas others need fewer. A couples therapist can help you understand you and your partner’s experience of desire and work with you to meet those needs in your relationship. 

4. Consciously uncouple in a healthy manner

Couples therapy does not always terminate with a partnered relationship. At times, it becomes clear that those in the relationship no longer feel fulfilled and are hoping to move forward. A couples therapist can support those in the relationship in ending in a healthy way. Ending a relationship with support can be highly valuable particularly for those who are co-parenting, own a business together, have a shared friend group, or want to remain in each other’s lives. 

Common misconceptions about couples therapy—debunked

“We should only go to couples therapy if we are in crisis”

This is actually far from the truth. According to Gottman Method Couples therapist Michela Stevenson, “In couples therapy, you can go to work on communication skills, navigating life transitions, or sex and intimacy – and it can be a very proactive step as opposed to a reactive step. Couples who enter couples therapy to build skills and work through stressors before a crisis occurs tend to get much more out of their relationship and couples therapy overall!”

“We should only be in couples therapy if we’ve been dating for a long time”

I often hear that partners cannot seek a couples therapist because they have not been together for “long enough.” Chris and I knew that seeing a couples therapist early on would be valuable prior to developing negative patterns. Stevenson agrees and says, “I love working with younger couples. Therapy helps them learn skills that can set their relationship up for success. It is much easier to build proactive skills early on in a relationship when people are more flexible and open to change. Once patterns and resentment have set it, it becomes much harder.” 

“Couples therapists are only for two person relationships”

The title couples therapist is a bit outdated and misleading. It leads clients to believe that if they are in a polyamorous relationship or an ethically non-monogamous relationship, they cannot get support. In reality, many couples therapists are available to provide support to couples that do not fit a heteronormative profile. Read here for more information. 

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About Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.