Couples Therapy and Marriage Counselling

Intimacy and relationship skills

We all desire closeness and intimacy, so long as that intimacy is safe and allows us to be fully who we are. There are few things as nourishing as a loving relationship and few things as painful as a relationship wrought with conflict and animosity. Satisfying relationships require effective communication, respect, mutuality, and consideration. Couples need to be responsive to the needs of the relationship and responsive to the needs of each individual within the relationship. Although great relationships may seem magical, the skills required to have them are certainly not. These relational skills are learned. Some people are fortunate enough to learn some of these skills in their families of origin, the rest of us learn "on the job" so to speak. A relationship therapist can be a real asset in helping to acquire these important skills. 

Habits and beliefs

In addition to relationship skills we may also need help understanding the habits and beliefs that interfere with having deeply satisfying intimacy. These habits and beliefs may arise from our current circumstances, from unhelpful social and cultural messages, or from previous significant relationships and are often attempts to protect ourselves from pain and discomfort. These beliefs often constrain us from accessing our deepest values and longings, and may bias our attention toward "what is wrong" with our relationships, isolating us increasingly from the good qualities that drew us to our partners in the first place.  

Relationship patterns

Although relationships are comprised of individuals with their own skills, beliefs and habits,  relationships are dynamic living systems that are more than the sum of their parts. Even the most insightful and caring persons enter into patterns of interaction that are perplexing and troubling at times. In the midst of confusion and pain, it is easy to fall into blaming your partner or yourself, when the problem may result from the pattern of interaction between you.  Understanding the patterns that affect your relationship can help you to work together as team and liberate you from power struggles and blame.  This is where the support of a therapist can come in handy; it is profoundly challenging to recognize these patterns on your own when you are in their grasp.

When to seek therapy

While many couples seek therapy during times of distress and conflict, therapy can be useful at all stages of a relationship. Whether beginning a partnership, considering new commitments like marriage or having children, struggling with sexual intimacy, wanting to deepen an already intimate and fulfilling relationship, or contemplating ending a relationship, we will work with you to establish common goals, identify your individual and relationship values and strengths, draw attention to problematic beliefs, habits, and interactional dynamics, and help you have the kind of relationship that you want. 

Learn more about our therapists. Read articles about therapy, relationships, parenting, sex and mental health.

For more information on therapy and counselling for individual adultsfamilies and kids & teens.

More Information About Couples Counselling and Therapy

+ Couples Counselling vs Couples Therapy

There are many terms that get used to describe couple therapy. You will notice that I spelled couple therapy without the "s" at the end. As this is the formal, and arguably gramatically correct term. However, most people say "couples counselling" or "couples therapy" as if it were plural. Because this is much more common I find myself using it more frequently and we use both the plural and singular throughout the website in order that people who are searching for these terms will find our services. Regardless of which terms are used - marital therapy, marriage therapy, marriage counselling, marriage counseling, couple counseling, couple counselling, relationship therapy. All of these terms refer to the same thing - getting help for your relationship.

In some mental health areas the terms counselling and therapy are used to refer to a different depth of work that is done, with counselling more focused on coping with distress and skill building and therapy refering to a deeper kind of therapeutic work that attempts to uncover the roots of the persons challenges. However, within the context of couples counselling - most of these terms are used interchangeably and the use of the terms themselves do not provide meaningful information about the differences in the approaches. The above link provides more information about the differences in counselling, therapy, psychotherapy, and coaching.

+ Are all therapists qualified to do couples counselling or couples therapy?

No. Most therapists are trained as individual therapists and take a few courses if they decide they want to do couples therapy and couples counselling. While they may become excellent couples therapists, the training of individual therapists and couples therapists are radically different and it takes a lot of work to become an effective relational therapist.

Unlike the majority of therapists who are trained as individual therapists, Marriage and Family Therapists, or Couple and Family Therapists, as we are often referred to in Canada, are specifically trained over the course of our graduate education to be specialists in couples therapy. As part of this training we must learn multiple models of couples counselling, receive extensive supervision and mentoring by experienced Couple and Family Therapists, and more than half of our case load throughout graduate school training must be relational clients (couples and families). The level of training and understanding that comes from this experience is very different than being trained as an individual therapist and taking a few courses in couples therapy.

+ If we come for couples therapy will you choose sides?

Yes. We will choose the side of your relationship and good will over the resentment and blame. In all seriousness, our job is to help your relationship get better which means that both partners need to feel safe, respected, heard and understood or neither of you will benefit. Does that mean that we won't be straight-up and say "this is your part to work on" - no of course not. We will certainly give you feedback about your personal struggles and responsibility in creating the relationship that you want but we will do this in a way that respects you and your perspective and allows you to actually do it - with support.

Part of ensuring that both partners feel respected, understood and supported when doing couples counselling or couples therapy, is that we ask for feedback every session. We monitor, through our own professional skills and tools, as well as the information you directly provide, how good a job we are doing in advocating for each of your needs. At times we may miss the mark and you may feel a bit let down - but since we check in on a session-by-session basis - we will catch these moments, the times when it may feel a bit unbalanced or unfair and will work together to get it back to a place that we can all stand behind.

+ Is it a good idea to do couples therapy if I'm considering leaving the relationship?

It depends. Many couple therapists will only work with couples who are clearly committed to the relationship. Without that commitment there may not be the trust, bond, and hope that can allow for meaningful change. The reality is, however, that many couples do not come to couples therapy or couples counselling until they are in crisis and it isn't uncommon for one or both partners to have questions about the longevity of the relationship.

We are both willing to work with couples who are considering ending their relationship. We think it is a really good idea to seek support at these difficult times. Couples therapy can help you get clarity on what choices you want to make, whether toward renewed commitment, or toward ending the relationship in a respectful and loving way. Too many relationships end prematurely because they lack the support and skills to move through conflict and deepen intimacy. With the support of a good therapist it is often possible to turn things around and reconnect with the beautiful aspects of your relationship that originally brought you together.

As couple therapists, we are invested in helping you have a respectful, loving, and honest relationship, whether that is together or apart. What is more important than simply being together, is how you are able to be together. There are times when painful relationship patterns have become so entrenched that one or both partners are no longer able to muster the effort that is required to keep trying. With support and concerted effort, relationships that need to end, can end peacefully.

A therapist can help you navigate this ending so that you don't make someone with whom you have shared so much love into an enemy. To me this is one of the most tragic things that can occur and it can tear apart communities and damage the lives of children. It can also be very helpful to have support for negotiating the many logistical issues that come with ending a relationship, and these practical issues can be so hard to address effectively in the midst of emotional pain.

Read about some of the most important factors in predicting separation and divorce.

+ Is Couples Therapy Appropriate if I'm having an affair?

If the affair is a secret this would make it really tough for couples counselling to be effective. The heart of a good relationship is trust. If there are secrets like this occurring it will be hard to build the foundation for a trusting, open, secure relationship.

If you are prepared to tell your partner about the affair, then couples counselling can be very helpful in terms of helping both of you explore what the affair means for your relationship and figuring out how to separate amicably or work together to repair any damage that has been done and rebuild the trust.

Since affairs undermine trust and their can be such strong feelings of anger and betrayal, it can be really helpful to have a facilitator to create a safe respectful atmosphere to talk about the tough things that need to be talked about. This is where a skilled couples counsellor comes in handy.

+ Is Couples Counselling recommended if there has been abuse in my relationship?

That is an important question. Couples counselling and couples therapy can bring up painful memories and dynamics in a relationship and this can make it unsafe if there is any violence or risk of violence in the relationship.

There are different kinds of abuse and different definitions of abuse and not all are considered equal risks when it comes to determing whether or not it is safe to proceed with couples therapy.

At the one end of the spectrum is what is sometimes referred to as domestic terrorism where there is violence, intimidation, use of power and control tactics and threats in order to control the behaviour of one partner and prevent them from leaving the relationship or getting help. This type of abuse if often one-sided and the party who is subjected to this frequently lives in fear of their partner. In these circumstances couples counselling could be quite dangerous and would not be appropriate as things could get said in session that could put the abused person at risk of violence at home. If this is your situation their are resources available to help you and please get help immediately as your life could be in jeopardy.

At the other end of the spectrum of abusive behaviours is what is sometimes called common couple violence, where there has been an increase over time in the escalation of couple conflict where both partners are increasingly losing control in the heat of the moment and doing and saying things that they regret. This may include throwing objects, name calling, insults, pushing, trying to prevent someone from leaving during a fight. The term "common" is misleading here because it is sounds like it might mean that it is normal and acceptable to violate other people's boundaries, scare them, or undermine their self-esteem when couples fight. This is not the case. These behaviours, even if mutual, are severely damaging and destroy relationships over time.

Additionally, this kind of violence can escalate into more serious violence and both parties are at risk of serious consequences including jail, criminal records, injury, trauma, anxiety, low-self-esteem, depression, suicidality, and substance abuse.

With common couple conflict some therapists will do couples counselling others will recommend doing individual work or some combination of couples counselling and individual psychotherapy. Regardless, the first stage of this work would be doing some safety planning in order to de-escalate the confict and ensure that all parties are acting safely, respectfully, and not-infringing on the rights of the other.

It is important to be honest with your therapist about the severity and frequency of conflict in the relationship in order for them to be able to help you stay safe and get the tools to act in harmony with your own values.

+ My partner is addicted to porn and it is destroying our relationship. Should we do couples counselling or should he do his own therapy?

Like substances, porn is often used as a way of seeking comfort when distressed and can be a way of engaging in stimulating sexual activity without all the fear and anxiety that may come with real human sexual contact - especially if there are problems in the relationship. Because porn use may be impacted by couple distress and because it can impact relationships and intimacy - it is often a good idea to do couples counselling.

Couples counselling and couples therapy can allow you to talk together about the impact of porn use on your relationship, help you both understand what is motivating the porn use, help you develop relational strategies to reduce the porn consumption, and create more opportunities for meaningful sexual intimacy in your relationship.

If your partner is not comfortable discussing his porn use with you he may benefit from meeting with an individual psychotherapist where he can discuss these issues privately prior to or at the same time as participation in couples counselling or couples therapy.

+ Marriage counselling vs Couples counselling

I explain the differences between the common terms that are used for couples therapy in the "couples counselling vs couples therapy" answer, but to sum it up, the differences between these terms are not generally that meaningful but there are exceptions.

Sometimes marriage counselling or marriage therapy can be conducted within a religous or cultural context where individauls are not just getting help for their relationship but are also being mentored on what it means to be a spouse, traditional roles and expectations, religious understandings about sexuality and intimacy, parenting, and traditional ways of resolving disputes. When marriage counselling happens within a specific religious and cultural context it can be very different than what is often presented as couples counselling or couples therapy in non-religious environments.

In our work, regardless of what we call it, committment is an important part of working through relationship problems and sometimes the committment of marriage means that a couple is more committed and has a better chance of working through the pain and fears that are arising in their relationship. However, approximately half of those who get married end up divorced and there are an increasing number of non-married couples who are deeply committed and who are committed for arguably more helpful reasons - because they deeply value their relationship rather than the fear of "failing" in the eyes of their communites and families.

In terms of finding the support that you are looking for it will likely be more helpful to understand the approach of the specific therapists that you are considering than to look for "marriage counselling" instead of "couples counselling".

+ Is Couples counselling just for couples in crisis?

While many people who come for couples therapy are in a fair amount of distress it is not always the case and there are very good reasons to get support for your relationship before you have one foot out the door already.

As mentioned in the answer above "Marriage Counselling vs Couples Counselling" a big factor in couples ability to successfully resolve their challenges is the degree or committment that they have in the relationship. While it is not uncommon to be questioning things when you are in pain, the earlier you get help the better chance you have both because you are likely to be more committed but also because you have less damage to undo. We all know that in our worst moments we have said things that we regret. Everytime we unnecessarily hurt our partners, we undermine the good will and trust. That trust and good will need to be fostered in order to work through the pain, misunderstanding and fear that arises when couples are in distress. The sooner you get support the better in terms of setting you up with the insight and tools that you need for a strong, safe, and loving life together.

With that being said - it is never too late to seek help. Often the painful patterns that we get stuck in that lead us to question our committment are more straightforward than we think. If there is enough mutual will and commitment there is a very good chance that you can create the kind of relationshiop that you want.

+ Will Couples Counselling Work if my partner doesn't want to come?

Maybe. For couples counselling or couples therapy to be effective both partners need to be willing to engage in the therapy process. That means that they have to be open to acknowleding what they think and feel and to take responsibility for their part in the problems.

However, not everyone has experience with therapy and there are a lot of misconceptions about what couples counselling is. Therapy can seem like a challenge to certain old beliefs that a lot of people are taught to think, such as "I should work this out for myself", "only weak or messed up people do therapy". This kind of misinformation may lead certain partners to be reluctant and cynical about the process.

However, in our experience, even cynical and reluctant partners can start to quickly see the benefit of these types of conversations in the first few couples counselling sessions. Feeling heard, understood and respected as well as getting some new perspectives and tools to help manage some of the more frustrating challenges that they face can convince many reluct partners of the value of couples therapy. If your partner is willing to give it a try - than it is certainly worth it. They don't have to be convinced that it will benefit them - just an open enough mind to walk through the door. We will take it from there.

+ can we bring our kids to our couples therapy session?

We advise against this. If your kids are old enough to be part of the therapy process and you think they should be involved we would recommend doing some family therapy but couples therapy is just for the adults and focuses on the relationship.

Since couples counselling often involves talking about adult subjects like conflict, sex and intimacy and parenting challenges, it could be damaging for children to be part of those conversations. When kids are involved, the conversations need to be different and this will take away from the effectiveness of the couples counselling sessions. Best to find a babysitter.

+ is sex therapy different than couples therapy?

Yes and no. Many couples therapists have experience working with common sexual issues that arise in relationships, as this is an integral part of couple relationships and marriages and sex can often be impacted by other challenges in a relationship - like broken trust, resentment, and conflict. However, sex therapy is its own discipline and people who specialize in sex therapy have additional specialized training that allows them to work with more complex sexual challenges in more helpful ways.

Many couples find that after resolving the core emotional wounds in their relationship through couples counselling and couples therapy that their sexual fears, differences in sexual desire and pleasure either resolve themselves or are much easier to work with since they are now working on them as a team with a foundation of trust and respect. Sex is a very intimate and vulnerable act and when we don't feel emotionally safe and secure or when their are issues with trust - our sex lives will often be impacted. Even feeling secure enough to say - "I don't like it when you..." can be tough when feeling insecure in a relationship.

When seeking out a couples counsellor it is helpful to let them know that you are having concerns about sex so that they can help you determine if those types of concerns are within the scope of what they do or if you might be better served working with someone who specializes in sex therapy.

+ How long does couples counselling take to see real results?

The amount of change and how long it takes to see that change in couples counselling depends on a number of factors. Research on psychotherapy in general suggests that a bulk of change occurs within the first eight sessions, however, with couples counselling it often takes a little longer because of the complexity of the issues and more people in the room.

Research on Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, the most empirically validated model of couples therapy, suggests that it takes on average 10-20 sessions to see lasting change. Some couples take less time to arrive at the results they are seeking and some couples take longer.

While couples counsellors will not be able to give you an exact number of sessions that will be required, they may be able to give you an estimate after meeting with you and getting a picture of what the challenges are, your level of commitment to making change, and your goals for therapy. Even if you aren't willing or able to commit to a full 10 - 20 sessions, a lot of couples find some immediate benefit from a few sessions of couples counselling but the results are not likely to be as great or as long lasting.

+ Does it make sense to do marriage counselling if my spouse has a substance abuse problem?

Depending on the seriousness of the substance abuse it may be necessary for your spouse to do some special addictions counselling at the same time as marriage counselling or prior to it.

However, substances are often used to cope with the emotional distress - a way of seeking comfort in the absence of adequate comfort within the marriage. Understanding how, why and when the substances are used, how it is related to the marital distress and what kind of support is available within the marriage will help to determine if marriage counselling is the best approach for addressing the substance use or whether another approach is needed.

Addictions can result from marital distress and can certainly cause marital distress as well. For this reason it is often helpful to do marriage counselling as part of the addictions work.

+ Will marriage counsellors help couples who have an open or polyamorous relationship?

Many marriage counsellors and couples therapists will work with couples, married or not, who have an open or polyamorous relationship. Some marriage counsellors and couples therapists won't, either because they are not comfortable doing so from a personal standpoint (personal beliefs about marriage and monogamy) or because of a lack of professional competence in working with the challenges that come with open and poly relationships since these relationships are less common than monogamous relationships.

Couples counsellors and marriage therapists who work with open and poly couples recognize that it requires an incredible amount of skill and thoughtfulness in communication for couples to navigate their relationship agreements in ways that honour each other's boundaries, their relational ethics, and to ensure that everyone is safe and respected in the process.

Despite innaccurate assumptions that are sometimes made about poly and open relationships being driven purely by hedonistic and impulsive desires, couples who are truy committed to a lifestyle of ethically sharing intimacy and love beyond their primary couple relationship know that it requires a ton of courage to face issues of jealousy, possessiveness, insecurities, and fears of abandonment.

Open and poly relationships also require ongoing consideration and thoughtfulness of the impact of one's choices on intimate partners. This ongoing process of negotiation and consent around relationship boundaries is not for the faint of heart.

For these reasons it is important that open or poly people who are looking for help with their relationships can trust that couples therapists and marriage counsellors are at least somewhat familiar with the complexities of open and poly relationships, that couples counsellors aren't holding misguided assumptions about the motivations of engaging in this way of living, and that the couples counsellors are comfortable challenging their own inherited assumptions about how relationships are supposed to be within the dominant culture of monogamy. Additionally, couples therapists and marriage counsellors who work with open and poly couples need an excellent understanding of relational ethics and how to support self-responsible and authentic communication.