So you and your significant other are planning to go to couples therapy. That’s great! Deciding that you want to put in the time to work on your relationship is — well, maybe not half the battle, but it’s a great first step. Next up is actually being in therapy, together, hashing things out under the guidance of a patient stranger. Which raises several questions: Where do you even start? How do you go in with the right state of mind? How do you get comfortable enough with said patient stranger to let them help you?
Here are five questions you should ask to make sure your first session — and all the sessions that follow — are productive, healthy, and lead you two to (or back to) romantic happiness.
Is there anything stopping me from making this productive?
You’ll only get out of therapy as much as you put into it — and if you’re not willing to let it be helpful, you’re really just signing up for an expensive waste of time. To make sure that doesn’t happen, do a little preemptive self-reflection to figure out if anything’s preventing you from opening up.
With new clients, “I ask them to be honest with themselves,” says Christian Jordal, a clinical assistant professor of couples and family therapy at Drexel University. “Are they committed to the process of seeing this therapist weekly?” If the answer is no, try to identify why — or have your therapist and your partner help you figure it out as fodder for your first session. You can also consider setting a time limit — say, a few months — after which you and your partner can reassess how you want to proceed. It’s a lot easier to go all in for a finite amount of time than it is to commit to an indefinite process.
Is there anything I need help communicating?
Yes, your first time in therapy can be daunting, but the beauty of doing it as a couple is that you’re in this thing together. If there’s an issue you have trouble talking about, but that you know you want to address with your therapist, enlist your partner to help you through it — maybe they can nudge you to bring it up, or fill in the gaps for whatever story or idea you have trouble expressing. Remember: This is a team exercise, and the team is at its strongest when you can compensate for each other’s weaknesses. Use your teammate.
To Your Partner
Is anything off-limits?
“Make sure there’s a conversation about what they’re comfortable sharing with the therapist,” says Shannon Chavez, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. “[Therapy] is a place where you want to have open disclosure, but asking if there are any things they would rather not bring up [ensures] a partner’s not caught off guard or feeling like something was talked about without their consent.” It might be frustrating to not be able to bring up what you believe to be a problem area for you two, but you’re already working on the relationship just by following your partner’s wishes. You’re earning trust; you’re setting and respecting boundaries. That says a lot, even if if it means letting certain issues go unaired.
What’s standing in the way of our relationship being as good as you want it to be?
To determine what the goal of your sessions should be, relationship therapist and clinical sexologist Laurel Steinberg recommends that each of you identify a couple whose relationship you admire, and then discuss what it is that makes their bond so appealing: Maybe they always seem to be having fun together, or maybe they’re great at giving each other space to do their own thing.
Whatever it is, you now have an action plan: “Figure out that discrepancy and bridge the gap,” she says. “What are they doing to lead them to feel the way that they do, or live the quality of lifestyle that they are?” Using that as a roadmap, make yourself concrete steps to get from where you are to where you want to be.
To Your Therapist
Have you ever been to therapy?
A good therapist, Jordal explains, will gladly admit to their own experience with it. If they’ve never been on the other side, they might talk about whatever it is they do to tend to their own emotions — mindfulness, meditation, reading certain books. The key is that they’re willing to be open about it.
“There’s this belief that mental-health practitioners have it all together. It creates a false hierarchy,” he says. “I want my clients to realize that I’m not an expert, I just have expertise.” That distinction can be critical in terms of how you approach your therapy session: You’re not there to get advice dispensed from on high by some all-knowing in an armchair; you’re there to figure out your relationship with the help of an objective listener who can bring distance and objectivity to the discussion.
Or, as Jordal puts it, “part of therapy is connecting with [your] own expertise,” working with your partner to figure out how to solve your own problems, rather than hoping to have your problems solved by someone else. Your therapist may have the degree and the notepad, but really, who knows your relationship better than you?