If you are considering couples counseling for the first time, you may be wondering what to expect from the first session.
You might think, “What will it be like?” or “Will I be antagonized by the therapist or my spouse?” You also may be skeptical of therapy even working for your relationship. A lot of fears and stigmas that stem from the idea of couples counseling are often put to rest after a couple attends their first therapy session.
You Will Meet Together as a Couple
When you meet the therapist for your first session, you and your partner will meet the therapist together (rather than individually). Most of your sessions will be together, apart from one or two individual sessions. The purpose of the individual session is for the therapist to receive some background and history on each of you separately and give the counselor a chance to be more understanding to each of your specific needs.
After that initial session together, you may have one (maybe a second) individual session, and for the rest of your sessions, you and your partner will be working together on your relationship issues. The first session will set the stage for what you can expect during future sessions, and will prepare an environment where you and your partner can be encouraged to express your feelings and past experiences together.
Address History of Relationship Distress
During the first session, expect to discuss the history of your relationship distress. The therapist will want to know the main problems you are experiencing, and what causes most of your stress within the relationship.
Some aspects of relationship stress that may be discussed include parenting conflicts, intimacy issues, and communication issues (or other types of distress). It is essential to be open and honest about your relationship history with your therapist because it is the basis for setting goals in counseling. Once the significant issues of your relationship are highlighted, you will all work together to find ways to improve those areas of distress within your relationship.
Goal setting is very important to understand when it comes to therapy. As you attend your first session, you will set goals for the relationship. The goals you set will help you and your partner to experience more positive interactions and connectedness.
What if you don’t really know what your goals should be? It’s okay – it’s the first session. If you are unsure of where to start with goals, your therapist can help you to set your first goals.
Contrarily, if you know what goals you want to work on together, that can be a great start. Based off your relationship history, you and your partner can determine goals to propose to your therapist. Either way, your therapist will be there to guide you and your partner to a place of peace and connectivity.
What if Our Goals are Different?
Every person that goes to counseling has different goals, which means you and your partner may have different perspectives. You could be going into counseling hopeful that the relationship is worth fighting for, while your partner is not so sure. This could make your initial goals a bit different from each other.
Despite differing perspectives shared during the first session, it doesn’t mean that the relationship is doomed. Both of you can still work together with the therapist to find healing and improvement for your relationship. The overall goal is to achieve confidence in yourselves individually, and as a couple to move forward in the relationship.
To be successful in couples therapy, you must find balance when working on relationship issues with your partner. Whether you choose to part ways or work through your relationship issues, the therapist will determine a treatment plan that fits your needs, promoting healing and positivity (regardless of the outcome).
You Should Feel Understood
Having a good connection with your therapist is vital if you want to have productive counseling. Your therapist should display empathy and understanding toward both of you during your sessions.
For example, if you are expressing concerns with your therapist, you should feel that you are being taken seriously. Confidence in your therapist will leave you feeling relieved and comforted by the fact that you feel understood during therapy.
If not, you will likely not trust the therapist, leading to doubts and distress in therapy (and your relationship).
Feeling understood is more than just being taken seriously. Your therapist should create an environment for you and your partner to openly express your feelings and concerns. You should be encouraged and motivated to achieve your goals, and overtime feel confident that reaching those goals is possible.
Fear of Incompatibility or Divorce
Many people fear that relationship counseling will lead to a therapist encouraging you and your partner to split up – that is not the case.
Counseling is meant to promote healing, not separation. A therapist is not to express whether they think you are compatible or if divorce is in order. Their role is strictly to walk you through the struggles of your relationship by teaching you how to handle your differences, achieve effective communication, and cope with your relationship issues together.
The decision to separate or stay together is entirely up to you and your partner.
Being vulnerable is essential to success in therapy. Vulnerability is allowing yourself to talk about the pain, embarrassment, and insecurities you struggle with in your relationship.
Naturally, you may tend to withhold information at the beginning of your session because your therapist needs to earn your trust. When you start to feel comfortable enough to show some vulnerability, you will receive much better outcomes during therapy.
If you plan on setting and achieving any goals during your time in counseling, you should make it a goal to build a trusting relationship with your therapist in order to feel comfortable expressing your weaknesses.
Clearly, there are a lot of thoughts and concerns that will cross your mind when you try couples counseling for the first time, and that is all completely understandable. Building trust with a therapist can take a long time, as well as healing your relationship. The best way to approach your first few sessions of couples counseling is to go in with an open mind, and be honest with yourself, your partner, and your therapist.
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Dr. Melissa Estavillo is a Licensed Psychologist and founder of Biltmore Psychology and Counseling. With over 7 years of experience, she specializes in both individual and couples therapy in Phoenix, AZ. She integrates complementary methodologies and techniques stemming from Emotionally Focused Theory, Psychodynamic Theory and Other Evidence Based Practices to offer a highly personalized approach tailored to each client.