There are many reasons an individual might seek the help of a relationship or family therapist. Romantic relationships often encounter challenges, and many partners have difficulty communicating unmet needs and feelings. Patterns of behavior and communication can also become entrenched, making it harder to address the underlying issues that may be affecting the relationship and the individuals in it. Some couples also wish to smoothen the transition between being a couple to being in another role, or they hope to learn ways to address concerns before they become major points of contention in their relationship.
Empirical evidence suggests that couples therapy can be helpful for reducing distress within a relationship and improving its quality. A therapist can the different address issues you may be experiencing in your relationship, which can help foster healthy communication skills between you and your partner.
Different professionals may provide relationship counseling, including marriage and family therapists, clinical psychologists, and clinical social workers. Finding a professional who is trained in therapeutic approaches that are specific to your relationship concerns can be key. Therapists may employ a number of different approaches to treat their clients, including emotion focused couples therapy (EFCT) and cognitive behavioral couple therapy (CBT). Here, we’ll explore various techniques utilized by relationship counselors in an effort to help you decide which one may meet your needs most effectively.
Relationship Counseling Defined
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines relationship counseling in two ways, one of which is: “any form of psychotherapy focused on improving the relationship between individuals by helping them resolve interpersonal issues and modify maladaptive patterns of interactions, thereby fostering the healthy psychosocial growth of all parties. It is an umbrella term encompassing couples therapy and family therapy.”
With couples therapy, both parties are seen at the same time to address issues within the context of the relationship. While individual sessions may at times be provided, especially in the beginning, most of the sessions are held between the couple and the therapist.
Marriage and family therapy, for example, may offer premarital counseling and address marital problems, intimacy issues, and mental health challenges within the context of the couple and family. By design, it’s intended to be brief and solution-based, with clearly established goals for the couple and/or family. On average, marriage and family therapy takes about 12 sessions.
Relationship Counseling With Different Professionals
Professionals who provide relationship counseling may include marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, and other licensed clinical professionals. Those seeking relationship counseling might benefit from finding a professional who specializes in therapeutic approaches that address relationship concerns.
Ideally, a therapist who focuses on relationships has supervised couples therapy training in relationship counseling and understands how to approach your unique relationship style and concerns. These professionals likely have specific tools and strategies they use during sessions to promote recovery and healing. While some counselors/therapists work with traditional couple dynamics, others have training in nontraditional couple dynamics, such as nonmonogamy.
Types Of Relationship Counseling
Approaches to relationship counseling differ. Some of the various types of counseling for couples include:
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT): EFT is a humanistic psychotherapeutic approach that integrates adult attachment theory with the development theory of personality and relationships. Developed in the 1980s, it offers three different modalities, one of which is geared toward couples. The other two modalities are focused on treating mental health conditions (EFIT – emotionally focused individual therapy) or repairing family bonds (EFFT – emotionally focused family therapy). Incorporating the principles of Carl Rogers’ school of attachment theory and “relational systems techniques,” this method also provides educational programs designed to improve relationships.
Emotion Focused Couples Therapy: As an “experiential, humanistic and systemic therapy grounded in attachment theory and social neuroscience,” the focus of EFCT lies in helping couples “access and reprocess their emotional experiences to restructure partners’ interaction patterns.” EFCT aims to create new emotional experiences between partners and help them improve their ability to practice emotional self-regulation. It also seeks to help facilitate the expression of primary emotions, such as sadness, and help partners understand the feelings behind secondary emotions like shame.
Cognitive Behavioral Couple Therapy (CBCT): This approach is based on social learning theories and “focuses on the interplay between partners’ cognitions, behaviors, and emotional responses to help them improve their communication and problem-solving.” CBCT aims to help partners gain communication and problem-solving skills that address and modify unhelpful thinking patterns and attitudes with the goal of decreasing emotional and relational distress. Relational distress can include unrealistic expectations and irrational assumptions between the individuals in the relationship. One of the main techniques of CBCT is cognitive restructuring, where partners are asked to “identify and evaluate cognitions as they occur.”
Integrative Behavioral Couples Therapy (IBCT): Developed by UCLA professor and clinical psychologist Andrew Christensen, IBCT encourages acceptance and change for couples in therapy. It’s based on the principle that for therapy to work, couples must make “some concrete changes” and gain more emotional acceptance of their partner. IBCT integrates many treatment strategies using a behavioral theoretical framework and refers to principles of cognitive behavioral couple therapy (CBCT).
Relational Life Therapy: An integrative approach to couples therapy developed by Terry Real, relational life therapy aims to help people build “more authentic, honest, and intimate connections.” It focuses on the use of “loving confrontation” to help people see how their behavior is affecting the relationship. Relational life therapy also relies on “deep trauma and inner child work” techniques to encourage a deeper connection and offers relationship skills to couples to carry forward into their relationship.
Discernment Counseling: Aimed at helping couples with differing views on the future of their relationship, discernment counseling is intended to assist couples in gaining more clarity about the next steps of their relationship. If one or both partners have already come to a decision, they might still come to counseling to discuss what led them to their decision. Discernment counseling may be suitable for those who are receptive to considering their options, be it to stay in the marriage, divorce amicably, or consider postponing their decision to end the relationship. As a short-term form of counseling, it typically takes between one to five sessions and requires both parties to attend.
The Gottman Method: Based on 40+ years of research by psychological researcher and professor John Gottman, The Gottman Method views relationship difficulties under a model named the “Four Horseman,” which predicts the probability of divorce. The four factors of the “Four Horsemen” include criticism of the partner’s personality, defensiveness, stonewalling or withdrawing, and contempt. The Gottman Method encourages closeness and more mutually supportive behavior through the employment of seven principles. These principles include sayings like “turn toward one another,” which involves reacting to a partner’s bid for connection in a loving way, and “solve problems that are solvable,” which involves using compromise and negotiating skills to maintain and foster emotional connection.
The Viability Of Online Relationship Counseling
As with any other kind of counselor or therapist, you may want to have a checklist to help you select a counselor that meets your needs. This includes the training and license of the counselor/therapist, your specific goals, the kind of therapeutic approach that interests you, and any other criteria that are unique to you and your partner.
When evaluating your options, it might be helpful to consider online relationship counseling as a potential fit. A platform like BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed therapist through phone calls, video chats, or in-app messaging. Its sister site, ReGain, is built specifically with couples in mind. Research findings reported before the pandemic suggested that teletherapy may be “particularly useful for couples” in accommodating scheduling difficulties and other barriers, such as childcare.
Through BetterHelp, you can find therapists trained in specific couples therapy approaches, such as cognitive behavioral couple therapy (CBCT), emotion focused couples therapy (EFCT), or The Gottman Method.
Research shows that couples who participate in online therapy experience just as many positive outcomes as those seeing a therapist in person. Many report feeling a greater sense of control and comfort created by the distance of teletherapy, allowing them to be “fully immersed in the therapeutic process.”
Many licensed professionals offer relationship counseling, which can make it difficult to choose just one. Finding a provider who specializes in the therapeutic approach that is relevant to your concerns may help you narrow down your search. Moreover, some counselors/therapists work with people in traditional relationships, while others have training in nonmonogamy and other less traditional couple dynamics.
As with other types of therapy, it might be useful to have a checklist of requirements when selecting a therapist to ensure the right fit for your relationship. As you explore possibilities, online couples counseling might be another viable option to consider. Many qualified, licensed couple and family therapists offer their services online, making this form of support more accessible. Online couples therapy has been found to create similar outcomes as in-person therapy while also posing unique benefits and