Is marriage counselling the same as couple counselling?

Marriage counselling and couple counselling are both part of a relationship therapist’s work.  Is there any difference between them?  The answer is –  it depends.  If a  couple is in a long-term relationship, they live together, have joint financial obligations, know each other’s family, particularly if they have children together, then the practical and relationship issues that couples have to deal with are the same, whether they are married or not.  A married partner has greater protection under the law, however, so it is when a couple decides that they want to end the relationship that being married, or not, becomes the most significant; an unmarried couple can face greater uncertainty, and have even more need for legal advice.

So although I work with many married couples, relationship therapy is open to all couples, including, of course, same-sex couples, .  Each stage of life presents different challenges.  I see a surprising number of couples who have been together for five or six years, but have only recently married.  Many have a small child.  They thought that committing themselves to marriage and children would heal the cracks in their relationship, but after the initial euphoria of the wedding or the birth, the opposite has happened.  Expectations of married life, and the fear of failure have increased.  Differences that were forgotten during the excitement of planning the future have resurfaced in the cold light of routine, and can’t be ignored any longer.

Good counselling supports you to find out why your relationship  isn’t working,whether you have been together a life-time, a few years or just a couple of months.  It helps you to communicate your feelings and your needs better,  and to discover what has to change if you are to stay together.  Individuals also come for relationship therapy; you may be struggling to get over a relationship that has ended, unsure whether to continue with your partner, or wondering why your relationships never seem to last.

I don’t think there’s any such thing as a ‘normal’ marriage or a ‘traditional’ relationship.  I come across couples who are living together, and are far more ‘married’ than those who have done the whole big white dress, expensive party thing.  A good marriage is about comfortable, shared commitment to the same values and goals.  Saying vows in front of your friends and family can help you to achieve that, but if you don’t listen to each other, or understand each other properly, then that legal piece of paper won’t help a bit.  My job is to give you the time, the space and the support to do some honest talking and listening. Many couples don’t look for help until it’s almost too late.  So if you are starting to struggle, ring a Relate-trained or BACP registered counsellor. The research shows that the sooner you get support, the better your chances of staying together.  Married or unmarried, it’s the commitment to making your relationship work that makes the difference.

How do I know we have built a good counselling relationship?

I’ve worked with them for months, watched them argue, defend, then start to listen and understand each other.  I’ve seen them slowly turn more towards each other, to talk together, rather than just  angrily through me.  They have told each other what they really need, begun to negotiate different ways of talking and communicating… and suddenly the work is done, they are ready to take over, to ‘go it alone’.  I have got to know them and to like them.   I have thought about their problems, looked for different ways of working with them, been a mediator, a listener, a curious friend, a reflector of all that they have told me and each other; and now it’s time to let them go.

I always have mixed emotions when clients move on.  It’s a great feeling if a couple want to stay together and look as if they will make it happen now.  It’s a  privilege to help a couple separate in a way which causes the least hurt and misunderstanding for them and their family, but it’s also important to acknowledge the sadness that both are feeling, even if they know they can’t go on living together.  If we have built a good counselling relationship, I am bound to feel attached to a couple, to hope things go okay, to feel curious about ‘what happens next’.  But the counselling relationship is a professional one;  I am often a container for a couple’s emotions, I can support them to  to deal with them better, but I know the work is done when they are able to understand and contain feelings for each other, or, sadly, when they recognise their partner can’t do that for them, and their future is not together.

So if we have built a good counselling relationship, I will feel sad to see a couple move on, but hopeful that it is an ending which holds the seeds of new beginnings for them both.