Just as a doctor can help when you’re not feeling well, a relationship counselor can do wonders when you and your partner just aren’t on the same page. The idea of counseling can be daunting—it means looking at ourselves and our relationships in new (and often scary) ways—but it can also be very rewarding in the long run. We spoke to Kathryn Armstrong, LPC, a relationship counselor in Austin, Texas, to get a better sense of how, when, and why someone might want to hire a counselor and why, ultimately, it’s truly worth it.
Why do most people usually start seeing a relationship counselor?
Every relationship is different, which means there are going to be numerous reasons for a couple to start counseling. It may be that you’re arguing incessantly. Or that one of you feels like the relationship is boring and stagnant. Other times there are bigger issues, like money or sex. Armstrong says the number one thing she sees couples for has to do with communication and conflict resolution skills. “But there are other things like affair recovery and reestablishing trust People also come to me for premarital counseling when they’re thinking about whether or not they’re compatible, or if they should get engaged. Some couples want to look at the issues that come up the first year of marriage to make sure they have the tools to survive it.”
Armstrong also says she helps a lot of couples with family planning, which includes everything from discussing whether or not they’re ready to start a family, the emotional trauma that can result when a couple is having difficult conceiving, as well as couples who are blending their families and want to do that successfully.
What does a relationship counselor actually do?
“We do just about anything necessary to help a relationship work,” Armstrong says. “We’re there to help people talk through these very emotional issues. A lot of times having a third party who can just listen and help you work through the emotions can be a big comfort.” Basically, a relationship counselor is a neutral mediator whose responsibility is to the relationship. This means making sure that both parties get equal time and attention while they talk through issues or work to figure out what the issues are, acting as a mediator when necessary, and helping you deal with the emotions that arise during and in between sessions.
That sounds great, but therapy’s just not for me… (Or is it?)
“I think everyone can benefit from counseling,” Armstrong says. “Anytime we can learn about ourselves and our relationships, we grow and it’s always good for us.” That being said, she stresses that is especially true if you’re beginning to sense distance or a disconnect in your relationship. “If you go to counseling when the problems start, it’s so much easier to fix than if you wait until you’re screaming at each other,” she says. “Some of the saddest cases I’ve had to deal with are when the wife has been begging the husband to go to counseling, but he isn’t interested and doesn’t think they need it until she reaches the point where she wants a divorce. Then he’s finally ready for counseling, but at that point, she says it’s too little too late.”
Entering therapy can be scary, but if you can get over that fear, the rewards can be enormous… After all, it can truly help save your relationship.
I’m onboard with counseling, but my partner’s not. Should I still go?
It can be scary enough to expose your thoughts and fears to a stranger, but even scarier to do it in front of a partner you may not be getting along with. That being said, it really is best if couples can go together, if only because even making that commitment shows each other that they’re both invested in the relationship and want to make it work. Still, Armstrong says that sometimes people do come in by themselves and that can also be very helpful. “If you can’t get your spouse to come and you need assistance staying with a difficult relationship then by all means, come by yourself, she says. “Having someone to talk to the problems in the relationship can be encouraging to someone who is struggling and help him or her stay invested in the relationship.” Your therapist may also have ideas about how to convince your partner to join in.
If your partner does decide later on that he/she is willing to go to counseling, Armstrong says he probably won’t want to go to the therapist you’ve already been seeing because he’ll likely think that person is biased towards you. “But if the other party is willing to go to another therapist, any good therapist will be willing to release you,” she says. “My goal is not to hang onto the client, but to help them reconcile with their partner. I’m just here to help them as long as I can.”
What should we expect in our first couple of therapy sessions?
“The first session is about establishing rapport,” Armstrong says. “I want them to tell me their story, why they’re here, and what I can do for them.” She tries to keep the first session low key and find out what’s going on in their lives and what their struggles are so that she can get an idea of the direction she needs to go to help the couple.
This is also the time to get to know the therapist and see if it’s a good fit, she says. “Not every therapist is a good fit for every client, so if the client doesn’t feel comfortable, they need to find someone else.”
What happens in between sessions?
Different counselors are going to approach your sessions and the time in between sessions in different ways, but don’t expect to just put in an hour and then slack off until the following week. “I give a lot of homework,” Armstrong says. “I don’t want the clients to become dependent on me, so I give them a relevant book to read as well as assignments, so when they come back the next week they’ve had something to read and work on at home. I also give them stuff to talk and think about in regards to their relationship because I don’t want them to leave and not think about everything until they come back.”
How can I make sure I pick a counselor who’s a good fit?
“Generally you need to go to the first session to get a sense of the therapist’s style and figure out if he/she is a good fit,” Armstrong says. But you also should keep in mind going in that there are two different styles most therapists use: directive and non-directive. Armstrong explains, “A non-directive therapist is not going to tell the client what to do. Instead they’ll ask, ‘What do you think you should do?’” With that style, the clients set their own goals and the therapist is there to support them and their movement towards a better relationship.
A directive therapist, on the other hand, has more input in the process. “They’ll use heir experience, knowledge, and understanding to give the client more direction,” Armstrong explains. “They believe the presenting problem is not always the problem and that sometimes people coming to therapy don’t necessarily know what they need, which is why they’re coming to therapy. It’s still about the client’s goals and what they want to achieve, but they’ll do a little more teaching and provide more input.”
With that in mind, it may be a good idea to think about which style you’re most comfortable with and ask the therapist on the phone about it ahead of time. Either way, Armstrong says if you don’t think it’s a good fit after one session, no one’s feelings will be hurt.
Are there things I should definitely look for in a relationship counselor?
Absolutely. “Reviews are important because that tells you that the counselor has satisfied clients,” Armstrong says. “I also feel that licensing is important. That tells you the therapist has had the supervision where she learns how to be a good therapist and how to do everything ethically.” Of course, there are many different types of therapists, all of whom have different training and backgrounds, so it’s up to you to figure out which type you want to see. You should also find out upfront if the therapist accepts your insurance and what the prices are. Don’t be shy about asking if they offer their services on a sliding scale as if they agree, it could save you tons of money.
Kathryn Armstrong, MA, LPC, is licensed professional counselor who works with couples, families, adolescents, and adults at her private practice in Austin, Texas. You can find her on her website and Thumbtack.