Couple counseling: how does it work?

couple therapy SMALLIt is “a ménage à quatre’ this relationship: he, she, the perception that she has got about him and the perception that he has got about her! (Claude Roy)

The meaning of the quotation above reminds us about two people in love, in the beginning of their relationship. Each of them has a certain ideal about how their relationship should be, about the significant other and so on.

In reality, each of us brings into our new relationship our own ‘luggage’ and past experiences or wounds, our expectations from his/her partner. During the first years we start noticing some shortcomings and differences of our loved one. While dealing with changes (new jobs, losses, moving abroad, children etc), we have to learn to face together new situations, to adjust our thinking, reactions and behavior according to the significant other. Sometimes this just goes well, naturally, sometimes each of us grow apart, but in the same house.

We often forget to show appreciation to our significant other and we take him/her for granted. We forget that as human beings, the needs of approval, of appreciation, of affection and attention are very important and consolidate our relationship as a couple.

We forget to see the world ‘through his/her eyes’ as we used to do when we first fell in love with each other. We often avoid to express our feelings and the words ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m so happy to wake up with you every morning’, ‘Thank you for making my coffee, I appreciate you taking your time to prepare breakfast for all of us” and so on. We often assume that the other one knows how we feel. In plus, we tend to criticize and to express more our negative feelings rather than the positive ones. Sometimes simple gestures, expressing our feelings in a healthy way, setting some quiet moments for our couple, a ‘routine’, finding out what works for ourselves in that relationship might take effort and time but it could worth it and spare us for a lot of painful experiences later on.

Over the years, patterns of thinking, of dealing with each other in our couple develop. These patterns are more or less healthy, these are habits or automatic responses to help a person cope with the environment such as: fighting, silence or ignorance, addictions, verbal or emotional abuse, taboos (the elephant in the room) and other unhealthy behavior.

I often meet during couple counseling sessions these types of unhealthy behavior based on judgmental thinking, blame, on fake beliefs system and on distorsion of reality. The barriers of communication, the lack of empathy and of trying to walk in each other shoes are commonly present in a relationship or in marriage.

Virginia Satir, the « Mother of Family Therapy, always said that healing a family means healing the world!

Her practical tools and role plays to help people and families in the complex process of reconstruction are always useful and precious in therapy when working with people that need to learn new coping skills if they want to heal and to live in a healthier environment. The unhealthy responses, emotional abuse, addictions etc are just unhealthy ways of a person who does not know how to act differently. These could be negative patterns or compulsions developed during years of marriage or living together or just a sort of ‘history repeating’ of a ‘learned’ behavior from the family of origin.

However, the role of the therapist  is to guide both partners and help them develop new skills, to communicate in a healthier way, NonViolent Communication – (M Rosenberg), to break that vicious circle and replace it with a healthy routine that works for them, as a couple.

Exemples of how it works and some success stories will be available soon on my site Bestherapie thanks to the people that agreed to share their stories here after our counseling sessions. We hope that this will give some powerful examples of the ways that therapy and couple counseling work if both partners have the same objective: to rebuild, to heal together or to find a way to split without harming each other and their family.

Below are some examples of negative patterns and common issues encountered in my counseling sessions:

–          Lack of communication, of active listening or empathy. During counseling sessions the couple learns step by step to hear what other needs to express and to share his/her own feelings, frustrations and perspective on things using techniques and tools from NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) and NonViolent Communication. Simple techniques creating a routine focus on mutual respect and the jackal language (M Rosenberg) – aggressive, selfish, poor, based on blaming the other – is replaces by the Giraffe language – based on active listening, care, empathy and observation (without judgmental thinking). This is the ‘language of the heart’ that replaces nasty, mean, cynical language.

Both partners get then to work towards their common objective: healing together, reconstruct, forgive themselves and each other or healing apart and make the appropriate choice for themselves.

–          Trying to solve in a hectic manner couple’s time management (workoholism, burn-out)), stress, house chores, financial issues etc

–          Differences concerning education of children, spiritual values, family of origin etc

–          Differences regarding their needs: the woman has different priorities than her man: attention, affection, being listened to; the man needs to be admired, to be encouraged, intimacy and sexual attention ; Expressing in a simple, healthy way his/her needs and setting together priorities; it is time to choose to learn how to fulfil each other’s needs, to discover what ‘active listening’ means or just to let go!

–          The list goes on, as each couple is different and it takes time, motivation, constant effort to grasp these skills. Couples should get ready for that as magic cannot be done without them doing their part in therapy!

Tips for couples :

– Focus on your significant other’s qualities; after all, you have chosen him/her for a reason!

– Take some time on a daily basis to offer any sign of affection and attention to your spouse; touching her/his hand, looking him/her into the eyes, making a sincere compliment change a lot and you’ll see these positive changes in your significant other’s behavior as well;

– Do not go to bed sad, resentful or angry on your spouse; this will have a very bad impact on your relationship and on your own health (insomnia, panic attacks, fear, doubts, negative thoughts etc)

– Find together a hobby or an activity that you both enjoy – walking in the nature, sports, dancing, reading club, pique-nique etc. Make a weekly plan to spend this time together just two of you, without your kids. This will help increase intimacy and remind each of you good memories and times;

– Make a list with the things that your spouse could make in order to make you feel fulfilled and happy; ask him /her to do the same, then exchange lists and set a time to talk about it, to decide together what is important, acceptable for each.

– Express you gratitude towards your significant other even for simple gestures such as: “Thank you for making coffee in the morning, for preparing breakfast for all of us; I appreciate your time, effort etc.” Showing your appreciation will encourage a positive behavior. Remember to do this kind of gestures as well at your turn!

– Avoid criticism when your spouse does something not how you expected to or he forgets to accomplish his/her tasks; try to use empathy and to focus on solutions: what can be done to solve the problem and to avoid the repetition of an unpleasant situation in the future?

– Express your feelings and needs in a clear and simple manner, without blaming him/her;


I’m fed up of cooking and waiting for you every evening to eat together as a family! You always do that and put your work first…you don’t care about my feelings, you do not keep your promise as discussed etc

Can become:

“When I plan to eat together and I cook and you do not show up I feel disappointed, frustrated (etc) because I need these moments with you at the end of the day to feel home, together and I’d like you to come home as we discussed before and keep your promise. Or ask the question clearly: Can you choose three (four etc) evenings per week to have dinner together ?

If the situation is still not satisfying you, ask your spouse to settle together a meeting on a specific date (like at work) and solve this problem in a convenient way for both of you in order to avoid a conflict.

–          Try to find simple gestures, surprises (invitation to the cinema etc) as a couple, as a family in order to make your significant other feel important and loved. Make sure that the activities that you choose could make you happy as well and this way the quality of the time spent together can be added to the best memories that you gathered so far during your life as a couple.

–          Accept that you cannot change the other person, but you can choose to change your perspective on the situation as long as your own reactions. Tips for individual counseling and solution focused therapy can be provided as well by a professional if this is what you feel like changing.

–          Get informed, get time for relieving your own stress (massage and relaxation techniques, passions, friends, group support etc). Taking care of yourself and being aware of what you need & feel can make a tremendous difference in the way you cope with a crisis situation as your perception could change from a ‘worst case scenario pattern’ towards the ‘best scenario one’. Of course, this takes time, efforts, motivation and getting over denial: the problem is not me, is the other!

–          If you feel that resentments, negative feelings and patterns are taking over your relationship, seek help; a counselor will know how to guide you to rediscover each other or to help find your own resources and to set yourself free from a toxic Relationship.

As a conclusion, in order to understand each relationship, it is important to acknowledge that each person, including the counselor, has a unique personality, perception, values and life experiences.

The methods, the tools to help each individual and couple are different according to each person background, experience and objective.

However, the role of the counselor is to:

–          Enable each person to be heard, to improve communication

–          Deliver relevant and appropriate information

–          Change the view of the relationship

–          Adjust his/her methods to help the couple get out of the vicious circle

In some my future articles, we’ll take a closer look to some aspects related to couple counseling and family therapy: addiction and codependency, toxic relationships, manipulation, infidelity and fear of change. Many thanks again to those that after counseling sessions together agreed to share their success stories and to those that emailed me your questions.

Useful Ressources:

Conjoint Family Therapy, 1964, Peoplemaking, 1972, and The New Peoplemaking, 1988 – Virginia Satir;

Englander-Golden; P; Satir, V. Say It Straight: From Compulsions to Choices, Science and Behavior Books, Palo Alto, CA

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life – by Marshall B. Rosenberg