what to expect from your first couples counseling session

What to expect your first couples counseling session

Most people don’t know what to expect from the first couples therapy session.  In this post we’ll explore 15 top reasons couples come into therapy.  We’ll also look at what the process of starting couples counseling looks like on a practical and emotional level.  All with the intention of helping you better prepare yourself for a successful experience.

Perhaps you’ve already tried lots of things to improve your relationship.  If not, check out this post with some ideas for things you can try before starting to think about marriage counseling.


Deciding to work on your relationship is a big step.  The average couple waits until the point of crisis to come into relationship therapy.   And we all know how high the divorce rate is, so there’s that.  Whether you’re looking for premarital counseling or you’ve been together for years, setting aside the time, resources and energy to work on your relationship is huge!  Take a moment to notice and appreciate you’re doing something constructive to address the problem.

Before we get into the process of couples therapy, let’s explore some of the top reasons couples usually seek support.


15 reasons couples seek therapy

  • Your sex life needs help.  In a relationship, each person will undoubtedly have different sexual needs.  It’s important to be able to talk about what you want and ask for what you need.  Sometimes if there’s lots of conflict it can be hard to connect sexually with your partner.  If your sex life has hit a lull and you’re not sure how to move forward, couples therapy can be a great way to move the needle on this topic.
  • You’re fighting. A lot.  All couples have conflict.  However, if the fights are getting worse or it’s hard to focus on other aspects of your life, it’s probably time to seek support.  There are plenty of tools available to learn how to listen and respond to each other in a respectful, authentic and meaningful way.  Yelling at each other, name calling and other ineffective ways of communicating will continue to push you further apart.  Stop the pattern today.
  • Your partner feels distant.  People react in different ways to pain.  Some people get angry and others pull away.  If you notice that your partner is pulling away, that could be a sign your relationship needs attention.  If your partner is working later or scheduling more trips, that could be sign they are pulling away. Shutting down in conflict is a coping skill that some people use, and at times it can cause strain on relationships.
  • You’ve had an affair or betrayal.  There are different ways that people cope with relationship stress and one of those ways is having an affair or betraying their partner’s trust.  Once trust has been broken, it can be challenging to rebuilt it. However, there’s probably an underlying reason why the betrayal happened in the first place and that’s important to understand that reason, too.
  • You’re having an emotional affair.  An emotional affair is something that can develop in place of intimacy and connection in your primary relationship.  If you’re fighting a lot with your partner or they are emotionally distant, it can be tempting to replace them with someone else.  However, this does not solve the main issue and can be very hurtful in the end.
  • You’re lying to your partner.  If you find yourself lying to your partner, it’s probably a good idea to seek couples therapy. Whether you’re telling small little lies or large, more damaging untruths, this could be a sign of something more important that needs attention.  If you’re not able to be your full authentic self in your relationship, intimacy and connection will quickly evaporate.
  • You’re having the same fight over and over.  We all know the routine. It’s the same fight, over and over. Maybe it’s about the dishes or your mother-in-law, but it never seems to change. The good news is that the pattern can be altered, but it will take work.  There is a problem somewhere in the communication chain that needs to be addressed and changed.  And it’s probably not really about the dishes.  Let’s be honest here.
  • A major life change is causing stress.  Life events like moving, changing jobs, getting married or having a child can cause immense stress on your relationship.  If you notice that you’re pulling apart or fighting more around a life event, it can be important to get more support. Major life events can be bonding moments, or they can pull you apart.  What do you want to happen?
  • Someone is struggling with addiction.  Addiction can be devastating to couples and families. It’s crucial that you get support with something this intense. Addiction doesn’t have to be the end of a relationship, but it will take hard work to change ingrained patterns and ways of coping.  Couples therapy will usually not be enough on its own to help with addiction, but it can be a good place to start.
  • Other communication problems.  Communication problems is often an umbrella term used to describe feeling dismissed or unheard by your partner.  A pattern of repetitive fighting is a communication problem, but so is a pattern of distancing and shutting down.  If you feel that it’s difficult to have small or large conversations, that could be an indicator of a communication problem in your relationship.
  • Finances.  Talking about money is hard! Finances can be even more complicated to talk about than sex.  Our views around money are emotionally linked to security, safety and trust. We develop these points-of-view early on in our families growing up and it can be hard to talk about them with our partners.  Do you and your partner have an open dialogue about money and finances? Are you clouded with shame about the topic? Couples therapy can help open up the conversation around money.
  • Rehashing old resentments.  When there has been a relationship rupture in the past like cheating, lying or cruel behavior it can be hard to move forward.  In order to put the past behind you, you have to heal the wounds. That will mean tough conversations, courage and hard work. Each member of the couple has to be willing to look at their part in keep the past alive.
  • You’re scared of anger. Anger can be a scary thing in relationships.  While it is impossible to control which feelings you have, it is possible to control how you communicate them.  Uncontrolled anger can be corrosive in a relationship. When you’re angry it can be easy to communicate in poor ways.  However, if you’re scared of anger that can lead to a pattern of conflict avoidance. Avoiding conflict can lead to a cycle of resentment.  Couples therapy can help you face your fears about anger and build up the courage to talk about tough things.
  • You get defensive.  It’s easy to get defensive in heated conversations with our partners.  However, when we get defensive we go offline and we’re not able to hear and understand what our partner is saying.  We’re busy trying to protect ourselves and it can be hard to make good decisions when we’re in fight, flight or freeze mode.
  • You get sucked into the blame game.  Blame can be a toxic communication tactic in close relationships.  When you feel blamed you typically will become defensive. Blame is the process of pointing fingers and it prevents you from having open and honest conversations about your wants and needs.  When blame enters the room, you both lose.

Finding a therapist

Alright, maybe you’re struggling with one of the issues above or maybe there’s something else going on entirely.  The first step to get the process going is to find a counselor you click with.  Finding a couples therapist is not always an easy job.  While there may be a number of counselors in your community, it is important to find a therapist with experience and training in working with couples.  Not every therapist will have that training and expertise and working with couples requires a unique skill set that is essential for a positive experience.

How do I know if we have the right therapist?

Whether you’ve asked friends or other professionals for referrals or you’ve done an online search on your own, finding the right therapist takes time and commitment.  Most couples counselors will offer a free phone or video consultation and I recommend you talk with a few people to see who you are most comfortable with.

I’m scared about what I may hear from my partner.

Unlike individual therapy, when you do counseling with your partner you never can be sure what may come up.  Your partner may be holding a secret or have feelings that they’ve been holding back for years. While this can be scary, it can also provide an opportunity for growth and renewal.  One of the main purposes of couple therapist is learning to have new experiences in your relationship. That could mean better communication, more sex or less fighting, but the bottom line is that in order to change you have to have different experiences together.

Before you start

In order to explain what starting couples therapy is like, I will describe the way that I typically work with partners.  Remember that every therapist may approach things differently, but this will give you a good general overview of what the process looks like.

Before starting couples counseling, I always do a video consultation with one (and hopefully both) members of the couple.  The purpose of the phone consultation is for you to learn more about the process of couples work and to ask any potential questions you may have.  On my end, I’m also listening to make sure I’m the best person to help you with your situation. If I don’t think I’m the right person, I’m always happy to suggest other therapists who may be a better fit.

Anticipating the first session

Before we start, you’ll get access to my client portal online where you can fill out paperwork, set up payments and schedule future sessions.  The paperwork is pretty straight forward. You’ll learn more about my policies and procedures and provide me with more information about your goals for couples therapy.

First couples counseling session

The first couples counseling session can be uncomfortable for some people.  You’re inviting a stranger into the inner life of your relationship. During the first few sessions we’ll be learning more about each other and setting clear goals for our work together. Again, you’re interviewing me to make sure I’m the right person for you.  At any time if you feel like I’m not the right fit, I encourage you to let me know.  That way I can help you find someone else who may better meet your needs. Also, I’ll be asking many questions and learning a ton of information during out first few sessions.

Setting goals

In couples therapy, it’s really important that everyone is clear about what the shared and individual goals are.  In our work you’ll articulate what you’d like to be different in your relationship. Then I’ll help you find individual goals to work on that will bring you closer to that reality.

How does change happen?

First things first, I can’t change your partner.  I don’t have that kind of power. However, I do have the ability to help you figure out what you can do to make the situation better.  Change happens when you and your partner take individual responsibility for your part and are motivated to do the hard work necessary to have a different experience together.

I’m nervous about starting marriage counseling

For some people, the idea of coming into couples counseling and talking about your relationship is stressful.  That makes perfect sense. It will take some time to feel comfortable with the process. We will be talking about areas of your relationship that you want to work on.  For those uncomfortable with change, being nervous is a perfectly acceptable place to start.

I’m excited to start couples therapy

For other people, the idea of couple therapy is exciting.  Perhaps you’ve been dealing with a similar issue for a long time and you’re ready to get to work and make some meaningful change.  This is also an acceptable emotional experience to have at the start of a process like this.

You’re getting to know me

During the first few sessions you’ll be getting to know me.  During that time, I’ll encourage you to check in with yourself about how it’s going.  Over time, you’ll hopefully develop trust in me and the process.  The most important thing to me is that you get the right support for you and your relationship.

What does the process look like going forward?

At the beginning of our work together, we’ll meet all together and individually.  For the first session I typically will meet with you as a couple.  After that, I’ll meet with you and your partner individually for one session each.  The purpose of the individual session is so that I can learn a lot about your history in a very quick way.  We often take in much of what we know about relationships from those relationships we’ve seen modeled for us in our life.  I like to have that background so that I can help you in the present. After the individual sessions, we’ll meet all together again and usually stay that way moving forward.

Is there a lot of work outside of session?

The short answer is yes.  While we can make lots of progress in session, I will make suggestions for things you can do together in between our meetings.  We’re going to be exploring ways you can improve your relationship and the more energy you can put into that, the bigger the rewards.

I’m feeling hopeless about my relationship

Many couples begin the process of couples therapy feeling hopeless. Sometimes they’re not even sure if they want to stay together. Whether you decide to stay together or not, the process of couples counseling can be helpful.  You don’t have to make the decision about staying or going at the beginning of the process. Couples counseling can be a useful way to learn what you want from a relationship and how to make that a reality.  Those are useful lessons for this relationship or the next.

How long will it take?

Again, this will vary by couple.  I recommend sticking it out for at least six months.  While it’s a big investment of time and money, so is a break-up or divorce.  While it’s true that you can have some small wins in the first few sessions, it typically takes longer to make meaningful and lasting change.

Will couples counseling work?

Sadly, there are no guarantees in life.  That is true of couples counseling as well.  That being said, even in times when couples decide to break-up, I have seen individuals grow, evolve and blossom through couples work.  The measure of success is not necessarily whether you stay together, it’s more important that you can be more of yourself and find more contentment and peace in your life.

How do I know if it’s working?

Sometimes things get worse before they get better.  This can be true when you work on your relationship, too.  Whenever you’re learning a new skill, you have to expect that you’re not going to be very good right at the start.  If you’re learning an instrument, you’re probably not going to start out playing in a symphony. As you learn, experiment and incorporate the skills you’re mastering in couples work, your relationship will often start to feel better.

What if couples therapy makes things worse?

This is always a possibility.   In fact, like I said above things usually get worse before they get better.  However, chances are there are conversations you’re not having and things you’re not sharing that you’ll have to deal with eventually.  Might as well get some practice having difficult conversations sooner rather than later.

The good news

While the process of couples therapy can be daunting, it can also make life so much better.  After working with tons of couples, I can tell you that change is possible.  Pain can be worked through.  Love can deepen. Communication can improve. It will take hard work, but it’s certainly possible.  Don’t give up.  And you don’t have to go it alone.

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Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist with an office in Denver, Colorado. He works virtually with folks in California and Colorado. 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.