New clients often ask what to expect in couples counseling. The simple explanation is to expect a lot of talking, decision making, and resolution. The long explanation is that while the specific topics of conversation differ based on the needs of each couple, the overall process follows the same structure for most couples counseling experiences. That structure can be broken up into four sections:

  1. Interview and Goal Setting
  2. First Steps
  3. The Middle Sludge
  4. Conclusion and Future Maintenance

Interview and Goal Setting

The first session of couples counseling is always conducted like an interview. The therapist will gather information about the history of the relationship, how life transitions are handled, and how the couple manages conflict and decision-making. Either for homework or during session the therapist will ask the couple to establish a goal. The goal can look different to each partner, but it will be important to be as specific as you can as well as decide how you will measure if you are achieving the goal.

From there the therapist will help the couple establish a small homework task to perform outside of therapy. The task can be as simple as catching one another doing something good throughout the week. Alternatively, the homework can be more involved like establishing a mini date after each therapy session. Mini dates — such as sharing a coffee or walking around a store for 20 minutes WITHOUT discussing therapy — are great for cooling down after a counseling session by sharing a neutral experience with each other.

First Steps

The second session of couples counseling begins with reviewing the homework. If successful, the therapist will help each person highlight how they accomplished their part of the homework, as well as identify what went well overall and how to repeat successful interactions. The therapist can take advantage of the momentum to begin addressing relationship problems the couple identified in their first session.

Alternatively, if the homework did not go well, the therapist can provide education about healthy marriage principles to help the couple cool down and take an objective view of their relationship. Or, the therapist will lead a conversation to help the couple identify what went wrong in the past week and cope with the emotions connected to the experience. Oftentimes, partners get stuck viewing unsuccessful attempts at change as failure. The therapist’s goal is to have the couple honor the effort it took to make those attempts in the first place, and then use what was learned from the first experience to try again.

The Middle Sludge

During subsequent sessions of couples counseling, the focus will remain on addressing the couple’s problem areas and goals. This involves resolving stuck points, managing emotional intensity, and ensuring the couple knows how to repair when conversations go awry. Throughout this process, couples generally begin effectively conversing independently of the therapist both in session and at home, thereby building success and confidence levels.

As the couple continues to get better at interacting, the therapist will prepare the couple for possible setbacks, anything from upcoming family experiences to common discussions that cause arguments. This turns challenges into opportunities for a couple, strengthening their connection and confidence in one another.

Conclusion and Future Maintenance

The couple will know they are coming to the end of weekly couples counseling sessions when they begin to predict their own setbacks, how to prepare for them, or to repair after they occur. The couple is then ready for a maintenance schedule of monthly appointments followed by quarterly appointments. The couple will be conducting their own weekly check-ins as a routine maintenance of their relationship during this time period. They will prepare for setbacks on their own as well as conduct positive recovery when they have an argument.

The final session of couples counseling is a review of all the progress the couple has achieved, allowing them to celebrate together. They provide one another with feedback as to what they have learned about themselves and their partner throughout the process. The therapist reviews their strengths and achievements, as well as how to spot “red flags” or warnings they need to address.

The couple will, also, discuss how to determine if they need to return to therapy for a check-up visit. It is important for a couple to recognize when they can tackle a matter on their own and when they need professional help. As such, the couple is encouraged to view the therapist as a resource with an open door policy.