Ever wondered what it’s like to go for couples counseling? I’ve worked as a receptionist for a relationship counseling organization in the UK for over five years. I’m not a counselor myself, but I’ve been the person taking those difficult initial phone calls from people when their relationship is in crisis. Here are some answers to questions people typically have.
Do some people get angry with counselors or staff? Therapy can be quite challenging and can bring up all sorts of emotions, so yes, people get angry. I’ve seen a few door-slammers in my time, but in most instances, there’s just tension and awkwardness. We have a tiny waiting room and some couples turn up after clearly having just had an argument. They try to sit at opposite ends of the waiting room, but it doesn’t really work because it’s so small. There can be a lot of nervous tension as they wait to see the counselor, especially if it’s the first visit. I can feel how terrified they are.
Do people ever have relationship counseling by themselves? This is a question I get asked a lot on the phone, as it’s a misconception that couples therapy has to be done as a couple. It doesn’t—that’s why the correct term technically is “relationship counseling.” Depending on the issues in the relationship, individual sessions can be helpful for some people. Usually, the first appointment will be an assessment. Then they’ll usually have regular sessions every week, individually, together, or a mix depending on what will work best for their circumstances. Single people can also have relationship counseling as it can help people who’ve had difficult past relationships or people who struggle with intimacy and vulnerability.
Do relationship counselors ever take sides? Placing blame on a partner is a regular thing I hear from potential clients on the phone. “It’s his problem he needs to sort out, not mine” and “She starts the arguments and needs to deal with her anger issues, there’s no problem with me.” There could be some truth in this, but accusations and placing blame don’t work well as a communication method. Effective communication is the main thing taught during relationship counseling. Therapists have trained for years to learn how to do this stuff. An experienced, fully-qualified relationship counselor will have seen lots of different problems in relationships and will be impartial and non-judgmental. This is a big part of the general counseling ethos.
Isn’t couples therapy just for old people? Relationship counseling can be expensive, which makes it unaffordable for many. Mental health services are often underfunded and relationship counseling especially is seen as a luxury. With the emphasis we place on love and relationships in our society, it really should be a priority. The pressure to find “The One” and live happily ever after is huge, and people see it as shameful if they can’t make their marriage work. In truth, couples therapy can help partners of all ages and it really should be more common than it is.
I’m gay—can I still have relationship counseling? Can I have a gay counselor? A good, fully-trained therapist will have done professional development training around working with LGBT+ clients and also ideally how to deal with different kinds of relationship structures such as polyamory (ethical non-monogamy, or dating or having relationships with more than one person). Always ask to see their qualifications or check their website (if they have one) if you’re unsure. Many problems in relationships are caused by communication issues, which affect couples regardless of their gender and sexuality. Often a counselor won’t disclose their own sexuality, in the same way that other personal information about them may be withheld to maintain a professional relationship. However, if you’d feel more comfortable, there are LGBT+ therapy specialists that you should be able to find with a quick Google search.
Does it actually work? Tough question. I mean, how do you even quantify that? A couple going for therapy who might want help having an amicable breakup may feel like it worked when they separate. A single person who has difficulties dating may start to feel a little more confident about themselves, which could be a huge achievement in itself. My point is, success is very hard to quantify when everybody is looking for something different. Relationship counseling isn’t necessarily about keeping people together.
I’m not talking to my partner. Can I get the receptionist to call them and tell them to come to therapy? Nope. Relationship counseling only works if all participants are willing. If you’re not able to ask your partner to attend, or if they’re not willing to come, that doesn’t mean you can’t access some help. Individual sessions can help. I’ve known situations where one person has booked with the intention of coming alone but then their partner has come round to the idea and decided to join them. In my view, if your partner is unwilling to attend (or is unwilling to support you if you choose to attend alone), I would question their investment in the relationship.
Do couples really manage to stay together after an affair? Monogamy is hard. Lots of people have affairs and I only hear about the ones that admit them. People have affairs for many different reasons. Relationship counseling can help the couple realize the real problem which caused the affair in the first place. It’s different for everyone, and rebuilding trust takes a long time, so it depends on the circumstances and their communication methods as to if they can make it “work”—but many people do.
Can people be “cured” after just a few sessions? Some people go to an assessment and just want to get something off their chest; some people attend sessions for years. It’s whatever works for you. That said, therapy is hard and sessions can be challenging. It’s not a quick process but it tends to pay off in the long run.
I need to be seen now. If I pay more, can I jump to the top of the waiting list? No. Lots of people feel like their relationship is at crisis point—it doesn’t make your situation any worse than anybody else’s and it wouldn’t be fair to pay your way into being seen quicker. If you feel in crisis, you should call a helpline (UK helpline list, US helpline list) to help manage the situation in the moment. Relationship counseling is not a quick fix or a magic wand. There often can be long waiting lists, so don’t wait until crisis point. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help and seeking out a therapist.