Despite the fact that many people assume that therapy is only for couples who are having serious issues or are on the brink of divorce, the reality couldn't be farther from the truth. "Therapy is available to help people gain insight into their behavior and learn new strategies for communication or coping," explains Colleen Mullen, Psy.D., L.M.F.T., founder of Coaching Through Chaos. "If more couples embraced the idea that therapy is there to help them grow through their relationship, we may actually see a decrease in divorce rates!" So, whether you and your significant other are thinking about going to couples therapy or already have a confirmed appointment, know that you have our full support. To help you start your session off on the right foot, we're sharing some expert-approved strategies to help you prepare mentally and emotionally for your first couples therapy session.
Seek help early.
Believe it or not, the average couple is unhappy for six years before going to couples therapy. At this point in a relationship, treatment is more difficult because there's built up resentment and bad habits, explains Paulette Sherman, Psy.D, psychologist, owner of My Dating and Relationship School, and the author of Dating from the Inside Out. For this reason, she recommends seeking help as early on as possible. "Sometimes couples come in short-term just to work on a particular issue or milestone and other times they want to work on skills like communication," she says. "Don't let a preconceived notion that things have to be really bad stop you from getting help to succeed in your relationship."
Discuss your expectations and goals for going.
While your overall goal for seeking couples therapy is likely to improve your relationship, Dr. Sherman says that it can be helpful to dig deeper by identifying shared intentions and goals. "You may be going to learn skills that will serve you going forward, to find out what makes a strong marriage, or to work on specific areas in your relationship that are giving you trouble," she says. "Whatever it is, it would be good to be on the same page about some of the things that you'd like to work on together and to discuss it ahead so it isn't a surprise and your partner doesn't feel ambushed."
Do your research.
Instead of simply selecting the closest therapist to your home who's covered by your insurance plan, make it a priority to find someone with the skills and experience you need for your particular issue. Depending on the problems you're having as a couple, you may want to consider someone licensed in that particular area. "If your problem is low desire or sexual inadequacy, see a certified sex therapist; if you are having problems with being stepparents, find a licensed marriage and family therapist," suggests Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., certified sex therapist and author of Getting the Sex You Want. She also recommends looking at the length of time this therapist has been in practice and whether or not they supervise other therapists. "You want to work with the best therapist out there, not the least expensive," she adds. "Be prepared to see a few different therapists and don't be afraid to choose someone based on the relationship you develop in the session."
Decide to invest in at least 12 sessions.
You might feel as though your relationship is improving after three or four sessions, but don't stop there. Dr. Mullen reminds couples to consider how long their problems have been lurking. "There is no quick fix—it will take some time to truly address them and see long-term results," she says. "It will also take time for the client-therapist relationship to develop and for the therapist to get enough information necessary to prescribe effective interventions."
Agree to be honest and vulnerable.
"Therapy can help most when both people are willing to share and to be transparent and vulnerable," explains Dr. Sherman. "If both people pretend all is okay, then it's difficult to solve problems and address fears." The best way to go about being honest with your issues is to agree that couples therapy is your safe space and that you can become real and raw in these sessions.
Take responsibility and listen.
Accepting blame is never easy, but it's often necessary in order for two people in a relationship to move forward. "Your couples therapist is going to try to figure out what you both are doing that either helps or hinders the communication process," says Kathy McMahon, psychologist and president of Couples Therapy Inc. "If you want your partner to change, accept the fact that they may harbor a similar expectation as well."