Before you start couples counseling

Before you start couples counseling, try this first

Starting couples therapy is hard.  There.  I said it.  And I’m a relationship therapist.  So I can only imagine if you’re reading this that you’re struggling with the idea of starting counseling with your partner.  The research shows many couples suffer for five years together before they call up a couples counselor.  So what can you do in the meantime?  

Below are some suggestions for things to try with your partner if you’re unsure if you’re ready for couples counseling.  I recommend calling a counselor like, yesterday, as your relationship is certainly worth it. However I know that’s not possible for everyone.  

Read a self-help relationship book together

Reading a book with your partner can be a bonding and educational experience.  

Set aside time to make it happen

The act of setting aside time to focus on your relationship is crucial to maintaining a strong bond with your partner. What you decide to do together is less important than the act of setting aside quality time to focus on each other.  Whether it’s reading, hiking, cooking or doing home improvement, pick something that you can make a part of your routine.  Then make sure to do it!

What to do?

If reading is your thing, here are some tips to get the most out of the experience.  Pick a time each week to talk about the book. Ideally, you want this to be a predetermined time that will work for you both each week. It’s less ideal if one person has to always initiate the discussion. Commit to a time and if one of you has to reschedule, take that responsibility seriously.

Before you sit down to talk about the book, read a chapter or two and spend some time yourself thinking about what you’ve read.  Then compare notes.  What did you like?  What spoke to you?  Experiment with being vulnerable and really listen to your partner when they speak.

Below are some books I’d recommend you explore together. 

5 essential books for couples to read together

  • Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find and Keep Love, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
    • Attachment theory is a scientific way to understand why we bond and attach to certain types of people. This book breaks down the science and provides clear and simple real-life examples to learn from. It’s a quick read, but it packs a punch.
    • Who is this for? This book provides clear examples to explain why we are the way we are in relationships with other people. I’d recommend this for couples and singles looking to deepen their own understanding of how they are in relationships. It can help you understand the ways in which you relate to others, and that will certainly impact any partnership. The material is rich and there is plenty to dive in and process. If one of you is comes from a more logical place and the other person leads with emotions, this is a good book for you. 
  • Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, by Esther Perel
    • Esther Perel is a leading New York based couples therapist. She talks about the challenges of maintaining excitement and connection in long-term monogamous relationships. Through case examples, she outlines some common concerns long-term couples come into therapy with. She offers strong insights and practical advice for staying happy and committed. If you like her work, she has an excellent podcast about couples therapy I’d also recommend.
    • Who is this for? This book is for couples that have been together a long time. She explores crucial topics for couples to examine together. This is the book for you if you’ve ever wondered how to keep excitement alive or what to do if you feel your partner pulling away. Perel is also a fantastic writer and storyteller, so the book is joy to read.
  • Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship, by Stan Tatkin
    • Wired for Love explores the ways in which we can better understand our brain and how it works in love. It also provides insight into the way our partner’s brain works, and how we can better connect and support each other in coupling. Tatkin uses a brain-body approach and helps breakdown neuroscience into practical principals that couples can actually use.  The advantage of understanding the science behind attachment is that it removed the blame game from the conversation.  When we can better understand our attachment style, we can better understand our brain in relation to our partner.
    • Who is this for? I’d recommend this book for couples who enjoy understanding the science behind their emotions. Tatkin provides 10 practice principals that you can experiment with in your relationship. If you enjoy understanding how things work and you like the idea of science based tools to explore, this is the relationship book for you.
  • Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman and Nan Silver
    • This book explores the landmark research of Dr. John and Julie Gottman. The Gottmans have researched the habits and behavior of thousands of couples and have scientific evidence about what works and what doesn’t in relationships. Gottman provides simple, practice advice and offers a framework for how to improve pretty much any relationship.
    • Who is this book for? I’d recommend this book for couples looking for concise, action-oriented advice for how to improve your relationship. Each chapter provides a number of exercises and discussion points. You can easily read this with your partner and take a few practice pointers away to improve your relationship.
  • Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, by Sue Johnson
    • Hold me Tight is a classic couples therapy book written by a master. Sue Johnson shares her theory of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy in a form that is easily accessible for most people. She breaks it down into seven conversations, making it an easy book to read and discuss with your partner. Her case examples are poignant and her insights into the negative cycles that couples can get stuck in are priceless.
    • Who is this for? This book is for couples looking for an easy to follow guidebook on relationships. Johnson breaks the process down into an easy to understand format. It’s less science and brain based than some of the other books on this list. This is a book for you if you lead with your emotions and you want some guidance on how to keep them in check and change negative cycles.

Fall in love with your partner again, by asking questions

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times with questions that were designed to foster intimacy between two strangers.  Why not recreate the experiment yourself with your own partner?  Below I’ve included ten fun questions to ask your partner that will hopefully foster intimacy.  

How well do you know each other?  

Even couples who have been together for years can be surprised by asking these questions.   There are parts of ourselves that we keep to ourselves.  Maybe we’ve asked these questions in the past or maybe we’ve never ventured into this terrain.  It can be fun and exciting to learn something new about each other.

Traps couples fall into

It can be easy to fall into routine when you’re in a long-term relationship. You’re running a household, maybe you have kids, and it can be hard to find time to nurture intimacy.

Schedule date night

It’s usually helpful to set aside a regular date night or activity that the two of you can rely on each week. If you’re not doing this with your partner now, I suggest you start.  It’s important to have a scheduled time to focus on each other each week.

How to use these questions

On your next date night, I encourage you to bring these questions along and take turns listening and responding.

When you’re the listener, try and keep an open mind and quiet any judgement or criticism that may come up. Ask open ended questions like “What is it you like about that?”or “How did that come to be?” Make space for your partner to open up and share more of themselves with you.

When you’re the person responding to the questions, dig deep and be vulnerable. Try and share something new with your partner and push yourself to go right up to the edge of your growth point.

If you don’t make it through all of the questions, keep them around for next week. If you do make it through them, keep asking new questions.

In our most intimate relationships, most of us have a deep desire to be seen and heard by our partners. This is a key component to continued intimacy, connection and growth as a couple.

10 fun questions to ask your partner

  1. If you were to write a book about your life, what genre of book would it be and why?
  2. What do you look forward to each morning and each week?
  3. What people, places or things do you miss most from your childhood?
  4. Can you share a sexual fantasy that we haven’t shared before?
  5. What are the three things that are most important to you right now, besides me of course?
  6. If you could trade places with anyone in the world, living or dead, who would it be and why?
  7. How is your adult life different than you imagined it would be as a kid?
  8. What are three things you want to accomplish in the next ten years?
  9. When do you feel most afraid?
  10. What do you like most about our sex life?

The more you can be curious about your partner, the closer you will become. Intimacy takes intention and time. Allow yourself to see and be seen and the possibilities are endless.

Tough questions for couples to ask each other

If you enjoyed the process of getting to know one another again, why not turn up the heat a little?  For many couples, there are scary topics that are avoided at all cost.  However, by avoiding difficult topics you can foster a climate of distance.  Below are some more challenging questions to explore together.  Again, set aside time and make space to explore these topics.  If you get tripped up, seek support from a professional.  

Do we like and respect each other?

Another way to phrase this question, “how is our friendship?”

One of the most important things a couple can do is invest in their friendship. John Gottman, a leader in couples counseling research, emphasizes how important it is to nurture friendship with your partner.   In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (referenced above), he outlines a number of ways to begin the process of healing and rekindling a strong friendship.

Friends like and respect each other.  They assume good intent.  Typically they will prioritize spending time with one another and have a lot in common.  Those all seem like important ingredients in a romantic relationship, too.

Can you change that behavior that bothers me?

Sometimes your partner can annoy you.  If you spend enough time with anyone, there will be small behaviors or habits that get under your skin.  This in and of itself is usually not the end of the world.

Whether it’s the way they dress or how they fill the dishwasher, there will be things that your partner does that bother you.

How can we communicate better?

  • Start with self-reflection.  Why does this particular behavior bother you?  That can help you navigate how or if you decide to bring it up with your partner.   There are some battles that are not important enough to engage in.  There is some level of acceptance that we have to have with our partners.  However, if you decide you can’t live with the behavior anymore, how would you go about addressing that with your partner?
  • Avoid snapping.  If you’ve carefully looked at your own feelings around the problem behavior and you’ve made the decision to speak up, I recommend you do so sooner rather than later.  When we let things build up and fester, there’s more of a chance we may snap and bring something delicate up in an indelicate manner.  Plus, holding in resentment is no fun!
  • Lead with respect.  Start with a compliment.  Watch your tone.  And be aware that you may hit a sensitive nerve.  Think back on that friendship bit mentioned above!
  • Ask permission.  Check in with your partner and ask if they’re open to some feedback.  If they’re not in the right headspace to hear feedback you may be better off waiting for a different time.

These are good things to keep in mind whenever you bring up a sensitive topic for discussion with your partner.

How can we talk about sex?

There are certain topics that are universally hard to bring up.  Sex, money and politics usually rank in the top three.

However, sex is a really important topic to be able to talk about with your partner. Here are some concrete steps to keep in mind when navigating a discussion around sex.

  • Establish that you’re on the same team. You have the same goals and want the same outcome. Acknowledge sex is a sensitive topic and it makes you uncomfortable. Join together and be curious, in a nonjudgmental way.
  • Fantasize together. Maybe you’re uncomfortable or unsure what is missing in the bedroom. Instead of watching Netflix one night, browse online together. Establish some ground rules to create a sense of safety and then share clips from movies, porn, or erotic fiction, whatever works for you.
  • Set aside time for fun. It is important to make sure you’re spending enough quality time together. For some couples, it is important to schedule a date night on the calendar every week. Other couples might be more free flowing and spontaneous. Regardless of your style, when you feel close, supported and valued by your partner, chances are you’re likely to have more sex.

Is there a better way to talk about money?

Money and finances are one of the most difficult topics for couples to talk about.  This is especially true when you were raised with different philosophies and ideas about money.

What are your shared goals about money?  If you picture a Venn diagram, there will usually be some area of overlap between the two of you.  Start there and then work on communicating the ways in which you’re different.

Get support.  Money can tap into lots of primal emotions.  Find a financial advisor or couples therapist that can help you untangle the emotional component of talking about finances.

Should we go to couples counseling?

Talking about your relationship can be tough.  If you try and navigate some of the topics listed above and you keep hitting roadblocks, it may be time to consider couples therapy.

With the support of a professional you can identify your common and individual goals and make a game plan to find solutions.

Seeking support doesn’t mean you’re a failure.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite.  Most couples wait until they’re really in distress before they reach out for support.  The more time you wait, the more entrenched the negative patterns will become.

By coming to understand the past and present, you can plan a more harmonious future together.  That usually will start with a few tough conversations.   Give it a try, and remember, if you keep hitting roadblocks find some support.  You don’t have to do it alone!

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist with an office in San Francisco, CA. Tom feels passionately about helping people have better relationships. The purpose of this blog is not to provide advice or to take the place of working with a mental health professional. For more information please visit the homepage.