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Introduction to relationship counseling

I’ve written this to address some questions and issues that often show up in relationship counseling.

How relationship counseling works

Often people think of counsellors as being like doctors, who diagnose the problem and “fix” the patient. In some ways, a relationship counsellor is more like a personal trainer than a doctor. A personal trainer can tell you what to do to get physically fit and give you encouragement, but they can’t move your arms and legs for you. There is no pill you can take to get fit, and there is no pill you can take to have a good relationship.

As your relationship counselor I will educate you about ways to make your relationship work better, tell you what to practice to become more skilled in relationship, and have you practice those skills with your partner in our sessions. Just as with a personal trainer, you will improve much faster if you also practice between sessions.

The more effort you put in, the more results you will see.

Openness and trust

Many people are having trouble trusting their partner by the time they come to relationship counseling. The first step to getting back to a trusting place with your partner is to be open to the possibility that the relationship can work, and to be open to the possibility that relationship counseling can help.

As your counselor, I don’t expect you to trust me immediately; trust is earned, after all. But relationship counseling isn’t something I do to you, it’s something I do with you. In order for me to earn your trust, you are going to have to be open to taking some risks and trying things that I suggest. I don’t expect you to do everything I say unquestioningly, but if you aren’t open to try anything – or if you won’t try anything until your partner changes – then you will make it very difficult for counseling to help you.

Fairness and equal treatment

As your relationship counselor, I am always going to try to treat you fairly. Treating you fairly, however, is not the same as treating you and your partner the same, or even treating you equally. You are different people, and you each have different personalities, wants, and needs. Therefore, I don’t strive to treat you equally; I strive to treat you each fairly and appropriately.

On the other hand, I assume that you have both contributed pretty equally to your relationship as it currently exists. In relationships where one partner is more assertive than the other, the less assertive partner sometimes thinks this is an inaccurate and unfair assumption for me to make. No matter what else is true, though, you chose your partner and chose to stay with them. Staying in a relationship where you feel you are a victim contributes to the relationship being the way it is. (If you truly believe that you are powerless and a victim of your partner, then individual counseling is probably more appropriate than relationship counseling.)

If you ever feel that I, as your relationship counsellor, am being unfair, not paying enough attention to you, or taking your partner’s side against you, I encourage you to say so. It is perfectly reasonable for you to ask me to clarify what I am doing and why. A question like that can help us all get more conscious about what is happening in the session.


The first thing that has to be able to happen in relationship counseling is that you have to be able to listen to the therapist without getting activated. The second thing that has to happen is that you have to be able to listen to your partner without getting activated.

Getting activated is also known as being triggered. It is when you go into fight/flight/freeze mode. It is a particular emotional and physiological state evolutionarily designed to deal with dangerous situations. The more emotionally intense or important or scary a situation is, the easier it is to become activated. When you are activated, it is extremely difficult to pay attention to anything other than attacking or avoiding the source of danger. Because of this, it is not a productive state to be in when you are doing relationship counseling or engaging in relationship activities.

By the time they come to relationship counseling, some people can become activated by just thinking about their partner or the relationship. Thinking about the relationship with their partner present is often even more activating.

So it is very important that we establish the relationship counseling sessions as a safe place before we do any potentially activating work. This is why, especially in the beginning, I am going to do two things that you may find frustrating: I am going to stop you if you start speaking or behaving in a counter-productive way, and I am going to spend time helping you to learn and practice self-soothing techniques.

Sometimes people find learning self-soothing techniques frustrating, and wonder when we are going to start doing “real work”. If you and your partner start being defensive as soon as you start talking, then the first “real work” we have to do is get you to the point where you can talk without getting defensive. In fact, that may very well end up being the hardest and most useful work you do in counseling.

Honesty vs. “Dumping”

One of the hard things to figure out in relationship counseling is how to be honest without dumping on or attacking your partner. This is especially challenging when you feel angry or upset.

The goal of honesty is to show yourself. When you are being really honest you will likely feel somewhat vulnerable or exposed. Dumping is usually a result of trying to protect yourself.

The best way to handle fear that comes up about being vulnerably honest is to name it. For example, saying something like “I feel hurt hearing you say that, and it scares me to admit it because I’m afraid that you won’t care that I feel hurt.”

Notice that in the above example the speaker is talking about his or her own feelings: hurt and scared. This is honest, and might be somewhat hard for the other person to hear, but it is not attacking the other person.

A good rule of thumb is “less is more”. Often people say what is most important in one short sentence, such as “I feel hurt hearing you say that.” Most of the time what follows is a defense, not a description.

As your counsellor, I will try to help you when you are struggling with how best to communicate your feelings. When in doubt, just say that you aren’t sure how to say what you want to say so that I can help you.

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