People who call therapists seeking couples counseling often have two primary concerns: They worry about the state of their relationship, of course, but they also worry about the experience of therapy itself. What good will it do? And what’s it like to reveal your most private relationship concerns to a stranger?
“It isn’t uncommon for people to be fearful of couples therapy and often avoid getting the help they need because of these fears,” said Alicia H. Clark, a psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work For You in Life, Love, and All That You Do.
“Getting answers to some common questions about therapy can give you the courage to reach out, though,” she said.
With that in mind, we asked Clark and other therapists to respond to some of the most common questions people have about going to couples counseling.
1. “How long will we have to be in therapy?”
Let’s not beat around the bush here: Therapy may take up a good hour or so during the week, and it’s not always cheap. (Looking for a few ways to cut the cost? This guide breaks down how you can keep things affordable.)
Given both of those concerns, many couples are curious how long they’ll be putting in face time with their therapist. Usually, it’s something therapists assess and make a plan for during the first session, said Stephanie Macadaan, a therapist in Los Angeles, California.
“Therapy is going to take a bit longer if there’s been an injury to the relationship, such as an affair or betrayal,” she told HuffPost. “In that case, there’s likely a lot of anger and resentment built up and therapy will take quite a bit longer, most likely up to a year.”
If your relationship isn’t too off course, and the objective is to strengthen your communication, therapy typically takes about three to six months, Macadaan said. (But that only applies if you’re consistent about going to therapy sessions. Don’t forget to set those Google calendar alerts!)
2. “Will the therapist take sides?”
In marriage therapy, your counselor’s “client” is your relationship, so choosing sides would be counterproductive. Sure, their job is to analyze and judge the situation, but they’re trying to mend and improve your relationship, not drive you further apart, said Spencer Northey, a marriage and family therapist at DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center.
“Marriage therapists are trained to see both perspectives,” she said. “They focus on the needs of the partnership, not just one person’s. There may be moments or even whole sessions when one person gets more attention, but overall, both members of the couple should be heard, understood and supported.”
3. “Is it OK if I go alone?”
Couples therapy is more productive if both parties are present. But even going alone can benefit your marriage and help you identify where you and your partner are most at odds, said Kurt Smith, a therapist who specializes in counseling men.
“It’s still helpful,” he said. “I do couples therapy all of the time with only one partner participating, especially since a lot of men refuse to come. More than a few will give in when you call their bluff by going without them.”
4. “Is it OK if we talk about sex?”
Definitely. Whatever is ― or isn’t ― happening between the sheets is worth talking about during sessions. Keep in mind that if you’re having a specific medical problem, your therapist is likely to point you in the direction of a specialist, said Laurel Steinberg, psychotherapist in New York City.
“If there is a particular sexual issue or sexual dysfunction that you or your partner are experiencing, consider seeking out someone who has extensive training in this area, such as a clinical sexologist or urologist,” she said.
5. “Should we talk about what was discussed in therapy outside of therapy?”
Unlike “Fight Club,” you definitely can talk about what happens in therapy outside of therapy. The only exception is if you and your partner have poor communication skills, said Elisabeth LaMotte, therapist and founder of the DC Counseling & Psychotherapy Center.
“When I am working with a couple that identifies a need to improve their communication skills, I suggest that they table difficult conversations following the session until their communication skills improve,” she said. “When I work with couples who experience less volatility, they often find it helpful to continue the intense conversations that come up in therapy.”
6. “Is therapy going to save my relationship?”
Therapy isn’t a magic bullet that will change your marriage overnight. Therapy is a place for you to work through your relationship problems while hopefully gaining some understanding and insights, but a therapist alone can’t repair your marriage, said Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California.
Howes likened that expectation to going to exercise at the gym and then blaming 24 Hour Fitness for failing to help you shed some pounds.
“The gym is a place for you to do your work, but the effort is yours, as is the potential for failure,” he said. “If working out fails, the gym itself is rarely the culprit. The same with therapist; if it doesn’t save the marriage, it’s most likely because one of the partners isn’t willing to do the work, or because the problems are too large for the therapy to resolve.”
7. “It didn’t work before, so why would it work now?”
This might not be your first rodeo when it comes to couples counseling. Don’t let negative or so-so results in the past limit your openness to going again, Smith said.
“Some of the couples I work with say they didn’t find it helpful previously so they’re resistant to going a second or third time ― they feel it’s a waste of time,” he said. “I tell them that sometimes the timing is just not right and one or both of you aren’t yet ready to make the changes needed.”
8. “What if I don’t like the therapist? Is it OK to try someone else?”
Finding a therapist is a bit like dating: Ideally, you find someone you connect with quickly, delete all your dating apps and call it a day. But just like dating, not every pairing is going to be a match, Clark said. (The good news? Most therapists will offer a free 10- to 15-minute phone consultation so you can get a feel for their style before you step into their office.)
“Like with any relationship, the right fit is critical,” she said. “A couples therapist should feel like someone you can trust to have your relationship’s best interests at heart. If you don’t feel this way after a few sessions, trust your feelings, and start looking for someone else who could be a better fit.”