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Ask A TFI Expert: What Is Couples Counseling?

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It's_Your_FaultCouples counseling seems to be everywhere these days–from reality shows to tabloids we see the concept tossed around and listed as a possible solution to a couple’s issues. But are these depictions and portrayals of couples counseling reflective of an actual couple’s experiences?  Despite this increasingly ever-present idea, what do we actually know about couples counseling?

Today we turned to Family Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Adia Gooden, PhD, for her expert insights on what couples counseling is.

Many couples often feel intimidated by the idea of going to a stranger for help with their relationship problems. Fears about what couples counseling is can sometimes keep couples from engaging in counseling at the time that it might be most helpful. The following are some things you can expect from couples counseling:

A safe space

Couples counselors work to provide a safe space for each partner to share their thoughts and feelings and to be heard. Couples often find that it is easier to talk about issues with their counselor because they are able to share things that are difficult to express at home. Couples counselors actively work to develop a relationship with each partner as well as the couple overall. The counselor’s goal is to get to know each partner and understand and help them express their concerns.

A better understanding

Couples often enter counseling gridlocked in arguments about disagreements that they have had for a long time. Couples counselors do not serve as judges who decide which partner is right and which is wrong. Instead, couples counselors work to help partners really hear and understand each other. Couples counselors often help each individual partner to gain a better understanding of their own thoughts and feelings about situations in addition to helping partners get a sense of where their partner is coming from. Additionally, counselors provide couples with educational information about to address issues and what kinds of behaviors generally help relationships to function better.

A place to learn

Many times partners have good intentions for their interactions but lack some of the skills that would help them to communicate and interact effectively. Couples counselors work with partners to develop skills that help them to listen attentively, express thoughts and feelings clearly, and manage conflict effectively. Couples counselors might use a specific activity in session to help partner’s practice listening to each other or calm down during an argument. The couples’ counselor also serves as a model for how partners can respond empathically to each other. Counselors often assign “homework” to partners to help them practice the skills that they are learning in therapy. Examples of homework could include partners spending 10 minutes a day talking to each other about how their days went and practicing providing empathy while listening to each other.

A way forward

Couples often come to counseling unsure about whether or not to stay together or separate. Couples counseling does not help all couples stay together (in some cases it can be better for partners to part ways) but it does help partners to figure out what they would like to do with their relationship. Couples counselors can help partners identify the strengths and weaknesses in their relationship as well as ways to address the problems. Couples counselors also help partners to clarify their commitment to the relationship. If a couple decides to stay together the therapist can help them develop a road map to guide them as they continue to move forward together. If partners decide to split up, a couple’s counselor can help them to separate in a way that is best for each partner and any other people the relationship might affect.

Seeking couples counseling can be a courageous step for partners who are having difficulty in their relationship. Although it can be hard work, extensive research has shown that couples therapy is effective for approximately 70% of those couples who engage in it. People in long-term relationships face a number of challenges related to life stressors and navigating differences. The high divorce rates in the United States (approximately 50% for first marriages) points to the difficulties many couples have in navigating these challenges. If you are having trouble in your relationship we encourage you to talk to your partner and consider seeking couples therapy.


Adia Gooden, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Family Institute at Northwestern University receiving advanced training in the treatment of couples and families. One of Dr. Gooden’s primary foci for her fellowship is specializing in working with couples for premarital issues and counseling, couples conflict, and difficulties with marital satisfaction and intimacy issues. Dr. Gooden enjoys supporting couples in reflecting on their relationships and helping partners to engage each other in constructive and positive ways. As a member of The Family Institute’s Couple’s Program Dr. Gooden is involved in reviewing research, developing presentations, and consulting about couples and couple therapy.

To read Dr. Gooden’s full bio, please visit our website.

Dr. Gooden is a part of The Family Institute’s couples therapy services, where we believe that if we are able to help couples from all walks of life have stronger, healthier relationships that we are doing our part to make our society stronger. The members of the Couple Therapy Program is a subset of The Family Institute’s staff practice who meet on a weekly basis to discuss the latest research, to provide case consultation on complex cases, and to disseminate our knowledge through providing trainings to other professionals as well as engaging in scholarly writing on how to alleviate couple distress. Visit our website to learn more about the couples counseling and therapy services we provide.

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