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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Starting Couples Counseling

Making the decision to start couples counseling is a big commitment. It requires time, effort and money to participate in couples counseling, and most couples want to get the most out of treatment for the commitment that they make.

Many couples, who could benefit from couples counseling, never start because one or both of them have concerns or misconceptions about the process or they don't know how to choose a couples counselor. As a couples counselor, I usually address these concerns early on either when I receive a call from someone who is considering couples counseling or during the first session.

If you and your partner are having ongoing problems that you've been unable to resolve on your own, you could benefit from couples counseling. Before you begin, there are some important factors that you should know and consider:

Choosing a couples counselor:
When you call a couples counselor, you should describe your problem briefly and ask if he or she has dealt with this type of problem before. If the couples counselor has not dealt with this type of problem, it doesn't necessarily mean that he or she can't help you. You might have a very successful treatment with that counselor, but chances are better with a licensed mental health professional who has helped clients with this issue before. Also, ask about general experience and credentials. You want to go to someone who has mental health license. Also, it's important that both of you feel comfortable with the couples counselor so that you to get the most out of treatment.

Starting Couples Counseling
One or Both of You Fears that the Couples Counselor Will Be on the Other Person's Side:
Most skilled couples counselors are even-handed in treatment and don't take any one person's side. Their job is to facilitate communication between you and your partner and to help each of you develop skills to improve your relationship. Of course, that doesn't mean that the couples counselor won't call you or your partner on any particular behavior that is destructive to the relationship. If that happens, that's not about taking sides--that's about stopping destructive behavior.

Couples Counseling is for Two People, Not Three:
If one of you is having an affair, most couples counselors will not work with you. Most couples counselors will require that whoever is having the affair must get out of it completely in order for you and your partner to begin couples counseling. Couples counseling doesn't work when one partner is seeing someone else on the side. If one of you can't make that commitment, then you should each consider individual psychotherapy instead.

Alcohol or Drug Abuse Must Stop Before Starting Couples Counseling:
If one or both of you is abusing substances, you need to take care of that problem first. If you or your partner is drinking excessively or abusing drugs, getting clean and sober first must be the priority. Starting couples counseling when there is a substance abuse problem involved will only make the person with a drug or alcohol problem want to use more when difficult issues come up in sessions. Also, you can't be fully present in couples counseling if you're abusing substances, so it's a waste of time, money and effort. Most couples counselors want clients to have at least a solid six months of clean and sober time, preferably with active participation in a drug and alcohol program and/or in one of the 12 Step programs (like A.A. or N.A.) before they begin couples counseling.

Domestic Violence Must Stop Before Starting Couples Counseling:
If there is physical abuse in your relationship, you must consider your safety first. If you're in a dangerous situation, seek the help of family, friends, or programs like Safe Horizons to ensure your safety. If you're the one who becomes violent, either get individual treatment or go to a batterers' program to learn how to control your temper. Starting couples counseling when there is domestic violence is a recipe for trouble. Even though the violent partner might appear calm in session, afterwards, a difficult session might bring on violence when you get home.

Both of You Must Be Committed to Couples Counseling:
Often, when a couple comes for couples counseling, one partner is more committed to the process than the other. While it's not unusual to enter into couples counseling with some mixed feelings, once you begin, it's important that both people make the commitment to attend regularly, participate in the sessions, and follow through with any homework that the couples counselor might give you.

It's not unusual for one person to know that, as far as he or she is concerned, the relationship is over, but he or she doesn't want to appear to be uncooperative. So the couple enters into a pseudo couples counseling where one person is committed and the other is just going along with it and is not being honest about his or her real feelings. In those instances, often what happens is that the partner who is hiding that he or she already knows that it's over finds excuses not to come to treatment or only engages in treatment in a half-hearted way. This undermines the treatment. If you know that you want to end the relationship, it's better to be honest about it from the beginning. You and your partner have a better chance of ending the relationship in an amicable way in couples counseling than if you tried to do it on your own.

Couples Counseling is Not About "Fixing" the Other Person:
Often, couples come into treatment where one or both of them is hoping that the couples counselor will "fix" the other partner. It's as if one partner is bringing in the other partner and saying, "See? He's a mess! What can you do to change him?" But couples counselors look at the dynamic between the two people rather than trying to change one person. Each person might have certain behavior patterns that need to change, but couples counseling is not a one-sided process. Each of you needs to be willing to look at your own personal dynamic in the relationship and how if affects the relationship rather than focusing solely on the other person's faults.

Don't Wait Until It's Too Late to Start Couples Counseling:
Many couples come to couples counseling as a last ditch effort when the relationship is really over. In some cases, they already have divorce lawyers picked out. Your chances for success in couples counseling are greater if you come early on when you're beginning to have problems rather than waiting until these problems have festered and resentment has built up.

I'm a psychotherapist and couples counselor in NYC. I work with both heterosexual and gay couples.

To find out more about me, visit my web site: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

If you have other questions about couples or marriage counseling or if you want to set up an appointment, you can call me at (212) 726-1006.