How To Get The Most From Couples Therapy

This document is designed to help you get the most benefit from our work together. The first three sections deal with how to prepare for and maximize the value of our sessions. The fourth section summarizes some brief concepts about relationships and productive couples therapy.

Your job is to create your own individual objectives for being in therapy. Like a good coach, my job is to help you reach them. I have many, many tools to help you become a more effective partner – they work best when you are clear about how you aspire to be.

My goal is to help you each make better adjustments and responses to each other without violating your core values or deeply held principles.

Goals and Objectives of Couples Therapy

The major aim of therapy is increasing your knowledge about yourself, your partner and the patterns of interaction between you. Therapy becomes effective as you apply new knowledge to break ineffective patterns and develop better ones.

The key tasks of couples therapy are increasing your clarity about:

  • The kind of life you want to build together
  • The kind of partner you aspire to be in order to build the kind of life and relationship you want to create
  • Your individual blocks to becoming the kind of partner you aspire to be
  • The skills and knowledge necessary to do the above tasks

Tradeoffs and Tough Choices

To create sustained improvement in your relationship you need:

  • A vision of the life you want to build together and individually
  • The appropriate attitudes and skills to work as a team
  • The motivation to persist
  • Time to review progress

To create the relationship you really desire, there will be some difficult tradeoffs and tough choices for each person.

The first tradeoff will be time. It simply takes time to create a relationship that flourishes: time to be together, time to be with family, time to play, coordinate, nurture, relax, hang out and plan. This time will encroach on some other valuable areas – your personal or professional time.

The second compromise is comfort. That means emotional comfort, like going out on a limb to try novel ways of thinking or doing things, listening and being curious instead of butting in, speaking up instead of becoming resentfully compliant or withdrawing. At the beginning, there will be emotional risk taking action, but you will never explore different worlds if you always keep sight of the shoreline. In addition, few people are emotionally comfortable being confronted with how they don't live their values or being confronted with the consequences of their actions.

The other comfort that will be challenged is energy comfort. It simply takes effort to sustain improvement over time – staying conscious of making a difference over time – remembering to be more respectful, more giving, more appreciative etc. It takes effort to remember and act.

The other effort is even more difficult for some people – that is improving their reaction to problems. For example, if one person is hypersensitive to criticism, and his/her partner is hypersensitive to feeling ignored, it will take effort to improve their sensitivity instead of hoping the partner will stop ignoring or criticizing.

In all these areas, there is generally a conflict between short-term gratification and the long-term goal of creating a satisfying relationship. The blunt reality is that, in an interdependent relationship, effort is required on the part of each person to make a sustained improvement. It is like pairs figure skating – one person cannot do most of the work and still create an exceptional team.

How to Maximize the Value from your Couples Therapy Sessions

A common yet unproductive pattern in couples therapy is making the focus be whatever problem happens to be on someone's mind at the moment. This is a reactive (and mostly ineffective) approach to working things through.

The second unproductive pattern is showing up with each person saying, “I don't know what to talk about, do you?” While this blank slate approach may open some interesting doors, it is a hit or miss process.

The third common unproductive pattern is discussing whatever fight you are in at the moment or whatever fight you had since the last meeting. Discussing these fights/arguments without a larger context of what you wish to learn from the experience is often an exercise in spinning your wheels.

Over time, repeating these patterns will lead to the plaintive question, “Are we getting anywhere?”

A more powerful approach to your couples therapy sessions is for each person to do the following before each session:
1. Reflect on your objectives for being in therapy.
2. Think about your next step that supports or relates to your larger objectives for the kind of relationship you wish to create, or the partner you aspire to become.

This reflection takes some effort. Yet few people would call an important meeting and then say, “Well, I don't have anything to bring up, does anyone else have anything on their agenda?” Your preparation will pay high dividends.

Important Concepts for Couples Therapy and Relationships

The following ideas can help identify areas of focus in our work and/or stimulate discussion between you and your partner between meetings. If you periodically review this list, you will discover that your reflections and associations will change over time. So please revisit this list often, it will help you keep focus during our work.

Attitude is Key

When it comes to improving your relationship, your attitude toward change is more important that what action to take.

What to do and how to do it can often be easily identified. The real challenge is why you don't do it.

How to think differently about a problem is often more effective than just trying to figure out what action to take.

Your partner is quite limited in his/her ability to respond to you.
You are quite limited in your ability to respond to your partner.
Accepting that is a huge step into maturity.

The definite possibility exists that you have some flawed assumptions about your partner's motives. And that he/she has some flawed assumptions about yours. The problem is, most of the time we don't want to believe those assumptions are flawed.

Focus on Changing Yourself Rather than Your Partner

Couples therapy works best if you have more goals for yourself than for your partner. I am at my best when I help you reach objectives you set for yourself.

Problems occur when reality departs sharply from our expectations, hopes, desires and concerns. It's human nature to try and change one's partner instead of adjusting our expectations. This aspect of human nature is what keeps therapists in business.

The hardest part of couples therapy is accepting you will need to improve your response to a problem (how you think about it, feel about it, or what to do about it). Very few people want to focus on improving their response. It's more common to build a strong case for why the other should do the improving.

You can't change your partner. Your partner can't change you. You can influence each other, but that doesn't mean you can change each other. Becoming a more effective partner is the most efficient way to change a relationship.

It's easy to be considerate and loving to your partner when the vistas are magnificent, the sun is shining and breezes are gentle. But when it gets bone chilling cold, you're hungry and tired, and your partner is whining and sniveling about how you got them into this mess, that's when you get tested. Your leadership and your character get tested. You can join the finger pointing or become how you aspire to become.

Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn't have to do it.

Fear lets you know you're not prepared. If you view fear in that mode, it becomes a signal to prepare the best you can.

You can learn a lot about yourself by understanding what annoys you and how you handle it.

The more you believe your partner should be different, the less initiative you will take to change the patterns between you.

Zen Aspects of Couples Therapy (Some Contradictions)

All major goals have built in contradictions, for example, speak up or keep the peace.

All significant growth comes from disagreements, dissatisfaction with the current status, or a striving to make things better. Paradoxically, accepting that conflict produces growth and learning to manage inevitable disagreements is the key to more harmonious relationships.

It's not what you say. It's what they hear.

Solutions, no matter how perfect, set the stage for new problems.

Tough Questions

Asking good questions – of yourself and your partner – helps you uncover causes beneath causes.

In a strong disagreement, do you really believe your partner is entitled to their opinion?

Under duress, do you have the courage and tenacity to seek your partner's reality and the courage to express your reality when the stakes are high?

Why is it important to let your partner know what you think, feel and are concerned about? (Because they really can't appreciate what they don't understand.)

What is the price your partner will have to pay to improve their response to you? How much do you care about the price they will have to pay? (Everything has a price and we always pay it.)

Can you legitimately expect your partner to treat you better than you treat him/her?

Can you legitimately expect your partner to treat you better than you treat yourself?

If you want your partner to change, do you think about what you can do to make it easier?

When a problem shows up, it's natural to think “What should I do about it?”
A much more productive question is, “How do aspire to be in this situation?”

The Importance of Communication

The three most important qualities for effective communication are respect, openness and persistence.

Good communication is much more difficult than most people want to believe. Effective negotiation is even harder.

A couple's vision emerges from a process of reflection and inquiry. It requires both people to speak from the heart about what really matters to each.

We are all responsible for how we express ourselves, no matter how others treat us.

Communication is the number one presenting problem in couples counseling.
Effective communication means you need to pay attention to:

  • Managing unruly emotions, such as anger that is too intense
  • How you are communicating – whining, blaming, being vague, etc.
  • What you want from your partner during the discussion
  • What the problem symbolizes to you
  • The outcome you want from the discussion
  • Your partner's major concerns
  • How you can help your partner become more responsive to you
  • The beliefs and attitudes you have about the problem.

No wonder good communication is so hard.

Some Final Thoughts.

You can't create a flourishing relationship by only fixing what's wrong. But it's a start.

Grace under pressure does not spring full-grown even with the best of intentions – practice, practice and more practice. Practice the right things and you will get there.

Love is destroyed when self-interest dominates.

If you don't know what you feel in important areas of your relationship, it is like playing high stakes poker when you see only half your cards. You will make a lot of dumb plays.

The possibility exists that we choose partners we need but don't necessarily want.

To get to the bottom of a problem often means you first accept how complex it is.

Trust is the foundational building block of a flourishing relationship.
You create trust by doing what you say you will do.

It's impossible to be in a highly inter-dependent relationship without ever being judgmental or being judged.

If you strive to always feel emotionally safe in your relationship and get it, you will pay the price by becoming dull.

If neither of you ever rocks the boat, you will end up with a dull relationship

Knowledge is not power. Only knowledge that is applied is power.

Most of the ineffective things we do in relationships fall into just a few categories:

  • Blame or attempt to dominate
  • Disengage/withdraw
  • Resentful compliance
  • Whine
  • Denial or confusion

These are the normal emotional reactions to feeling a threat or high stress. Improving your relationship means better management of these reactions.

Everything you do works for some part of you, even if other parts of you don't like it.

Everything you do that takes a sustained effort is governed by three motivations:

  • Avoid pain or discomfort
  • The benefits involved
  • Be a better person

It's also true for your partner.

If you are asking your partner to change something, sometimes it's a good idea to ask if the change is consistent with how they aspire to be in that situation.

Businesses and marriages fail for the same three reasons. A failure to:

  • Learn from the past
  • Adapt to changing conditions
  • Predict probable future problems and take action

Effective change requires insight plus action. Action without insight is thoughtless. Insight without action is passivity.

If you want to create a win-win solution, you cannot hold a position that has caused your partner to lose in the past.

“To be a champ you have to believe in yourself when nobody else will.”
–Sugar Ray Robinson, middleweight boxing champion, considered by many to be the best fighter in history, pound-for-pound.

As always, we share our material in the hope that it promotes better couples therapy and improved relationships for couples around the world. We urge you to create a similar document that reflects your own thoughts and approaches to couples therapy for your clients. If you find that this document is such a good match that you couldn't say it better yourself, then be sure to include on your copies the heading with The Couples Institute and our names as authors. Thank you.~Pete and Ellyn

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Amazing article! I wish that I read this sooner. Great thinking for making the most out of couples counseling. I need to read this everyday! Thank you for writing this!


I specialize in trauma and not couples work. However, I routinely refer to this article and website for my clients needing preparation or guidance as they consider the challenges to couples work and possibly therapy. THANK YOU Couples Institute!

Therapist in Berkeley
Therapist in Berkeley

Thanks for this helpful article! I really like how you emphasize “difficult tradeoffs and tough choices,” and how it prepares couples for knowing they will need to do some things differently if they are looking for real change.
Thanks again!
Greg Mayer

Nina Raff
Nina Raff

LOVE this. Thank you.

Scholarship Scouts
Scholarship Scouts

Super helpful! My wife and I are going to marriage counseling next week and I just read this – and I’m going to share it with my wife ASAP. I think preparing for counseling is probably just as important as actually going – especially if you are in a bad place before attending. Attitude is everything. This article put me in the right mindset and I plan to get a lot more out of counseling thanks to this.


Thank you for this excellent resource!


I am going to Personal Therapy tomorrow and stumbled across your web page. I found some great advice to help clarifying an approach to my problems. Very insightful.

Dalila Jusic-LaBerge
Dalila Jusic-LaBerge

Love the article. I love how it emphasizes personal responsibility in relationships.

Jacklin Andrews
Jacklin Andrews

This is an amazing piece of work. I think that if a client actually read and absorbed all that is in the article he/she/they would be along ways along the path towards a more satisfying relationship. I find when I am reading through it that I think about my own relationship and wonder about what I might do to make things better for us around the house here. Thanksl
Jacklin H.


Really helpful! Starting couples therapy tomorrow and this helped me to write down a page of things in preparation, with more focus on objectives and self-reflection! Thank you!

Lucy Tuazon
Lucy Tuazon

I appreciate you helping me learn more about couples therapy, I’ve been wanting to have a consultation about this and I already told my husband about it. We do not really have that big problem but I wanna do this to maintain and improve the quality of our marriage. It’s great to know that this could help with discussing certain issues that are really important for couples. Thanks!

Sharon Wilson-Smith
Sharon Wilson-Smith

I agree that your relationship will suffer if you don’t feel emotionally safe with your partner. My husband and I had a conflict due to alleged cheating. We can’t help but argue all the time. What I want is for us to move on from what happened so I can give him my trust again. We’ll see a couple therapist soon.


How does this apply when your on the wrong end of the therapy? All she wants is something new without me. How can you rebuild a one sided thought of rebuilding. The tips are great I did learn whats to be expected. Tomorrow’s our first session after 19 years of marriage my fear is greater then any other I’ve ever faced.

Kellee Goetz
Kellee Goetz

This was a beautiful and helpful read thank you!!
We start therapy tonight. Im so nervous but I want my husband back! 15yrs of marriage is riding on therapy working for us!

Mike lauria
Mike lauria

I’m just listening

Tom Tunstall
Tom Tunstall

An you correct this typo?
A much more productive question is, “How do aspire to be in this situation?”
I don’t understand. Thanks.


I need to increase the intensity in a highly reactive couple where there’s a history of highly charged blow ups and resulting stonewalling and avoidance patterns… anybody have new, fun ways to engage with shutdown? Near exhaustion for both individuals and their marriage is taking a huge hit. Thanks for your engagement!


There’s almost a feeling of whiplash as I enter here…. The level of change is huge! Yet there’a very little willingness to stay in the structure and hold the tension. It’s just change, bam. Change. Boom. Like, I feel hurried to stand some ground, define, identify, no body knows how to relax… He fears being lazy… she’s acting out his fear of abandonment… now what? How to we inject fun back into an unavailable couple?

Ali Begoun
Ali Begoun

Very good! I like the idea of handing out a document that sets the tone for proactive behavior and offers clarity at the onset. Very useful.

John Lukow
John Lukow

A little bit cliche. Very broad vague advice. Tell the depressed person they should smile more.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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