How to Prepare for Couples Therapy

Your first session

You may both feel uncertain in the first session, and it’s important to know that this is really normal and understandable. Firstly, your therapist will briefly run through important paperwork, including completing a form with basic personal information and a consent form that covers issues such as confidentiality, fees and other important information.


Your therapist will then listen to the issues that have brought you into therapy. Usually, people come believing their partners have the most to learn out of the therapy. Most of us find it tough to be self-reflective, and admit our faults. We all find it even harder to change ourselves, rather than imagine all the wonderful ways our partners could change.


However, to make couples counselling work for you, the most important thing you can do is begin to consider how you can change to make your partner feel safe.


How can we stop fighting?

When our intimate partner cannot meet our needs we get stuck in a negative pattern of fights or worse still silent withdrawal. Underneath the complaints and disgruntlement, most couples are asking each other:


Do you love me?

Are you there for me?

Can I trust you?


Therapy aims to help you get answers to these questions and develop an understanding about how you get caught in fights. Therapy becomes effective as you develop an awareness about this negative pattern, learn to interrupt it and communicate in a new way with each other.  


To get to the bottom of a problem often means you first accept how complex it is.

Most of the ineffective things we do in relationships fall into just a few categories:

  •  Blame or attempt to dominate
  •  Disengage/withdraw
  •  Resentful compliance
  •  Whine
  •  Denial or confusion.

These are the normal emotional reactions to feeling a threat or high stress. Improving your relationship means better management of these reactions. Everything you do works for some part of you, even if other parts of you don’t like it.

Three motivations will govern any sustained effort you make. You will seek to:

1. Avoid pain or discomfort
2. Create more benefits
3. Be a better person.

This is also true for your partner.

Goals and Objectives of Couples Therapy

Couples therapy aims at increasing your knowledge about yourself, your partner and the patterns of interaction between you.

The key tasks of couples therapy are increasing your clarity about:


  •  The kind of life you want to build together
  •  The kind of partner you aspire to be in order to build the kind of life and relationship you want to create
  •  Your individual blocks to becoming the kind of partner you aspire to be
  •  The skills and knowledge necessary to do the above tasks 

The blunt reality is that, in an interdependent relationship, effort is required on the part of each person to make a sustained improvement. It is like pairs figure skating – one person cannot do most of the work and still create an exceptional team.

How to Maximize the Value from your Couples Therapy Sessions

A more powerful approach to your couple’s therapy sessions is for each person to do the following before each session:

1. Reflect on your objectives for being in therapy.
2. Think about your next step that supports or relates to your larger objectives for the kind of relationship you wish to create, or the partner you aspire to become.

This reflection takes some effort. Yet few people would call an important meeting and then say, “Well, I don’t have anything to bring up, does anyone else have anything on their agenda?” Your preparation will pay high dividends.

A Note on Communication

The three most important qualities for effective communication are respect, openness and persistence. Good communication is much more difficult than most people want to believe.

A couple’s vision emerges from a process of reflection and inquiry. It requires both people to speak from the heart about what really matters to each.

We are all responsible for how we express ourselves, no matter how others treat us.

Communication is the number one presenting problem in couples counselling.
Effective communication means you need to pay attention to:

  •  Managing unruly emotions, such as anger that is too intense
  •  How you are communicating – whining, blaming, vague, etc.
  •  What you want from your partner during the discussion
  •  What the problem symbolizes to you
  •  The outcome you want from the discussion
  •  Your partner’s major concerns
  •  How you can help your partner become more responsive to you
  •  The beliefs and attitudes you have about the problem.


No wonder good communication is so hard.


(This document is adapted from Peter Pearson, Couples Institute, 2009)