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5 things therapists wish you knew before starting couples therapy

If you feel like the pandemic is putting a strain on your relationship, you're not alone, according to couples therapists.
Seeing a therapist isn't a sign of failure or weakness in a partnership — it's an opportunity to work through issues issues and, ideally, build a stronger relationship.
Seeing a therapist isn't a sign of failure or weakness in a partnership — it's an opportunity to work through issues issues and, ideally, build a stronger relationship. TODAY Illustration / Jean Fran?ois de Troy/The Met
/ Source: TMRW

The COVID-19 pandemic is testing relationships in a way that most couples have never experienced as they juggle the stresses of being stuck at home, working and helping their children attend virtual classes.

"The pandemic has made it really hard because you are being so forced to be together in ways you aren't used to having depend on each other. It is definitely bringing out different characteristics that people might not be used to encountering in their partner," Valerie Goss, a marriage and family therapist in Los Altos, California, told TMRW.

Goss said she's received more messages over the past year from couples who want to start therapy, figure out how to be better partners and/or determine whether it's time to end their relationship. Before starting couples therapy, experts say there are five key things couples should know that will contribute to their success.

1. It's OK to ask for help

Seeing a therapist isn't a sign of failure or weakness in a partnership — it's an opportunity to work through issues and, ideally, build a stronger relationship. However, couples don't always agree about whether it's the right choice.

"I think the primary obstacle for anyone going into therapy, especially couples, are the feelings of fear and shame. 'Wow, I must be really messed up if I have to see a therapist,'" Goss said. "That’s not the case. It may feel scary or embarrassing, and so acknowledge (that it) is normal to feel this way, but that shouldn’t stop you."

Jamie Schenk DeWitt, a therapist in Los Angeles, recommends people approach their partner with the suggestion of couples therapy by using a sentence that starts with the words "I feel."

"This automatically creates a safe atmosphere where neither partner will feel defensive or attacked for something that isn’t working in the partnership. Next, it is important to ask your partner how they feel about going," DeWitt told TMRW. "Make sure to empathetically listen to their thoughts, feelings and concerns, so they feel a part of the process too. After all, the more you both can enter into couples counseling feeling heard and seen the better the odds are that you will feel good about starting."

2. Not every therapist will be the right fit

Making it to that first therapy session, even over Zoom, is a step that should be applauded. However, it's important to talk to your partner after about whether the therapist is the right fit for your needs.

"As a client, you are also interviewing and evaluating the therapist because sometimes it isn't a perfect fit," Goss said. The important part is to not be discouraged and to try another therapist if you and your partner aren't feeling a connection with your provider after that first session.

"The first therapy session is really about an introduction. In that way, it is important to not expect to walk out with helpful ideas or interventions. Usually it’s just gathering information," Goss said. "Hopefully each person gets to talk. Sometimes one can dominate. It’s important everyone gets a voice."

3. Make your appointments sacred

Making positive changes requires a long-term commitment and effort. Experts say therapy is most effective when couples keep their weekly regular appointment, no excuses.

"After you have arranged a day and time for your weekly session, agree that this is a sacred appointment that you will both do everything in your power to keep," DeWitt said. "Obviously, you will both be understanding when life happens and you have to miss a session, but this appointment should be kept as frequently as possible."

Her tip for sticking with it might sound unthinkable after a tough session, but she advises couples to hug or hold hands.

"Physical touch creates oxytocin, which is a bonding hormone," she said. "A little oxytocin can go a long way to help bring down each of your nervous systems in order to reconnect and make you want to return the following week."

4. Take your homework assignments seriously

Going to therapy is great, but the work doesn't stop when you and your partner leave your weekly session. That's why most therapists will give their clients homework.

"I've seen couples after a session is over, they don't talk about it. It doesn’t accomplish much," Goss said. "But the work continues outside of the therapy session."

Homework assignments, whether it's carving out quality time to chat about your day or practicing being a better listener, are where the real growth can happen.

"The big thing is that couples learn to communicate with each other differently and that isn’t an easy thing to do," Goss said. "We assume we are good listeners. That is often times not the case. Listening skills are something that needs to be addressed and relearned."

5. Make time to connect before or after each session

When tough conversations come up, one partner can feel like they're being attacked or that trust has been eroded. Remember that you're going to therapy because you care enough about each other to invest the time and emotional energy to building a better relationship.

DeWitt recommends couples treat their weekly appointments like a "date night."

"This can be challenging when peoples’ lives are already so hectic, but creating time for each other before or after can give you space to reconnect and appreciate all the hard work that you are doing to repair your relationship," she said.