Relationship counseling is something we all hear about in a variety of contexts.
Since relationship counseling is something that is often brought up when a relationship is already in distress, we might assume that it only functions to help couples who are experiencing serious problems.
However, relationship counseling in all forms seeks to help couples and individuals address issues in their relationships. It is also about understanding each individual and how they function; increased self-awareness of behavior and actions leads to an enhanced understanding of how they might work in a relationship.
This article gives you an overview of what relationship counseling is and the psychology behind it. It also provides several resources for helping couples and singles in your practice who are struggling to engage in healthy relationship behaviors.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients build healthy, life-enriching relationships.
This Article Contains:
- What Is Relationship Counseling?
- How to Lead Your Sessions: 4 Tips
- The Psychology Behind Relationship Therapy
- A Look at Relationship Imago Therapy
- Individual Relationship Therapy: Helping Singles
- Helping Your Client Through a Breakup: 3 Ideas
- PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Tools
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Relationship Counseling?
Ultimately, relationship counseling explores issues in relationships. The focus is on factors that may have led to challenges that cause couples to disagree, fight, and even end relationships (Harmon, 2017).
Individuals may also seek relationship counseling if they are in the early stages of a relationship, looking to learn more about patterns in romantic relationships, or exploring why they are struggling to find the right person.
Typically, relationship counselors and therapists work with the couple together and individually to gain a more specific understanding of why they are seeking counseling and what steps both parties need to take to ensure that their relationship continues to bring them long-term satisfaction and personal fulfillment.
Not sure whether relationship counseling is for your clients? Although any couple or individual can request relationship counseling at any time, there are a few factors that might indicate that relationship counseling may be beneficial.
- A history of interpersonal communication issues
- Progression to a new stage of the relationship (e.g., getting married, moving in together, the addition of a child or children, combining finances)
- Issues with sexual or emotional intimacy
- Entering a relationship with someone who has children from a previous relationship or blending your families
- Assistance with managing other relationships (e.g., extended family, friends)
- Navigating the end of a relationship
- Issues with trust because of past or present trauma
- An emotional or sexual affair with a person outside the relationship
How to Lead Your Sessions: 4 Tips
The first few minutes of your session are the most important, as they set the scene for your clients and indicate the structure for the upcoming session.
Although relationship counseling may take on a different format than traditional one-to-one therapy, it is important to approach these sessions with a combination of traditional counseling and relationship-specific methodology.
Below are a few ideas for leading your sessions.
1. Aim to understand both perspectives
Even though couples may enter counseling together, it is still imperative to understand what each person feels are the issues troubling them and how they think those issues are affecting the relationship.
The Marital Conflicts Questionnaire can help couples lay out the problems that are impacting their relationship and write down their perspectives.
A good start in getting to know the couple is getting them to fill out background activities and questionnaires. The Relationship Qualities Worksheet is a great activity for couples to fill out together or individually.
Completing an exercise like this can help couples remember what initially brought them together and help bring them back to a place where they want to fight for their partnership.
2. Start each session with an appreciation exercise
Since couples often come to relationship counseling when they are struggling with communication, there may be additional issues with appreciating each other, as couples often forget to make time to do this.
An exercise you can do with your clients is outlined below (adapted from Meyerson, 2008):
- Ask the couple to face each other, looking directly into each other’s eyes.
- Classify one person as the ‘sender’ and the other as the ‘receiver.’ Partners will change positions during the exercise.
- The sender is then asked to state one thing they like about their partner (e.g., “I really love your positive attitude and how you always see the bright side of a situation.”).
- The receiver mirrors this appreciation (e.g., “So, you really appreciate how I have a positive attitude and how I always find the bright side of a situation?”).
- The sender is then asked to deepen the appreciation by using the sentence stem: “This is so special to me because…” The receiver then explains why it is special to them, and the sender again mirrors the statement.
- The couple switches roles, and the process repeats.
3. Be conscious of the session’s purpose
Having a conscious relationship requires each person to recognize their role and reactivity levels when conflicts arise.
The purpose of the relationship counselor in helping couples become more conscious is to help them truly listen to each other and be aware of what they are thinking and feeling.
An activity that can increase a couple’s ability to be conscious of each other’s intentions is breaking down the reasons why they both agreed to come to therapy (Meyerson, 2008).
The therapist asks each person to come up with a guess about why the other person agreed to come to therapy.
The other person mirrors the reason and then adds more reasons. They take turns until all the reasons have been stated, and then each person is given an opportunity to correct or confirm each reason.
This activity serves to help couples understand what each other is thinking in a neutral environment. It also gives the therapist a roadmap for potential issues that might be explored in future sessions.
4. Make the therapist’s position clear
When people think of couples therapy, they may jump to conclusions regarding the purpose of the session and the perspective of the therapist. The most important thing to note is that a therapist is not present to function as a referee or determine who is right or wrong.
The sessions should be framed as helping the couple learn about an alternate form of communication where both parties are working together to understand each other.
The Psychology Behind Relationship Therapy
Relationship therapy can be framed by several different theories. Arguably, the most highly researched of these is attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969).
Attachment theory is based on the idea that an individual’s ability to form and maintain close relationships is determined in the first few years of life. While secure attachment is formed through consistently meeting the physical and emotional needs of a child, insecure attachment is facilitated through a lack of consistent emotional and physical support (Bowlby, 1969).
Insecure attachment causes a child to internalize a negative working model of themselves, portraying themselves as unlovable and others as unreliable or even dangerous.
Attachment-related anxiety is characterized by an individual being sensitive and worried about rejection and abandonment, while attachment-related avoidance is characterized by discomfort and aversion to intimacy (Callaci, Peloquin, Barry, & Tremblay, 2020).
In this framework, early attachment can therefore be a strong predictive factor in determining future romantic relationships. Imago Relationship Therapy can provide more specific insight into how early childhood experiences affect your clients’ romantic relationships.
For additional information, consider our article on The Positive Psychology of Successful Relationships.
A Look at Relationship Imago Therapy
Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly developed Imago Relationship Therapy (Psychology Today, 2021).
It is a form of couples counseling and coaching that aims to reduce conflict by helping couples learn to communicate effectively.
The primary goal for those in committed partnerships is to work out misunderstandings by reducing conflict and rediscovering ways to communicate and find common ground (Psychology Today, 2021).
Imago Relationship Therapy is centered on building empathy between partners. A specific empathy-related skill that is related to relationships is the development of sensitivity to how situations work (Schmidt & Gelhert, 2017).
It is important to develop empathy to succeed in your romantic relationships because understanding the perspective of another person, specifically someone you are sharing your life with, is helpful in communicating about your mutual and individual goals.
Helping your clients understand the other person’s feelings and perspectives will help them to communicate more effectively and allow both individuals to feel that they are being heard.
Individual Relationship Therapy: Helping Singles
Although relationship counseling is typically categorized as a type of counseling to help couples through problems in their relationship, individuals who are single can also seek out relationship therapy.
The purpose for singles seeking relationship therapy may be to determine whether they want to change their approach to dating and relationships. Relationship counseling for singles might also examine the patterns that clients have when choosing romantic partners and look at why they choose individuals with specific personality types or re-enter cycles that are toxic to their wellbeing.
Relationship therapy questions you can ask your single clients include:
- Do you really want a relationship, or are you just doing what you think you are supposed to do?
- Do you find yourself dating people with similar personality types?
- Has your relationship history impacted your future?
- Is there a barrier keeping you from opening yourself up to potential partners?
- What do you feel that you have to offer a potential partner?
- Do you feel there is something inherently wrong with being single?
Helping Your Client Through a Breakup: 3 Ideas
When you go through a breakup, the insular cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, which are responsible for handling physical pain and bodily distress, are activated (Soeiro, 2018).
Other systems that are activated include the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex, which are both parts of the dopamine system and associated with addiction.
Your body likens the moving on process to overcoming an addiction to a substance, making the withdrawal or the grieving process more difficult.
When helping your clients get through a breakup, it is important to keep this in mind, as it can be very difficult for clients to work through the pain. It can also be challenging to engage in the self-reflection that is recommended for clients to move forward.
Strategies that may help your clients move on from a breakup include (adapted from Soeiro, 2018):
1. Mindfulness meditation
Meditation is a powerful tool that can reduce stress and anxiety, and increase our awareness of the present moment (Soeiro, 2018). Encourage your clients to engage in 5 to 10 minutes of meditation a day to help their practice develop and become a staple in their daily routine.
To help your clients get started, our article on Mindfulness Meditation Podcasts has a selection of podcasts helpful for beginners and individuals looking to be guided through mindfulness practice.
2. Make small changes to the living space
Does your client have a specific ornament that their former partner got them? Does the furniture placement remind them of the good times they had with that person they are trying to forget?
Well, now is the time to change it up! The goal of your client refreshing their space is to renew it and limit their memories of the time they had with that person.
3. Take up new activities
Now is the time for your client to take up that activity their former partner never wanted to try. It is more important than ever to come up with new ideas to occupy their time so they can develop new interests and even meet new people.
Another tactic you can encourage is for your clients to schedule activities that bring them pleasure. This worksheet called Pleasant Activity Scheduling allows clients to ensure they are maintaining a balanced schedule. It also gives them the opportunity to record their weekly activities to determine if they continue to bring them pleasure.
PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Tools
We have a few resources to help your clients improve their relationships further.
This Imago Workup Worksheet explores how childhood experiences can impact your relationships in adulthood.
The first section invites clients to list any negative qualities of the people who raised them, and the second section invites participants to list any unconscious repetitions of these patterns in adulthood.
The worksheet also invites clients to reflect on their feelings as a child and look at any unmet needs that may contribute to their current behavior.
The How to Improve Communication in Relationships worksheet lists seven essential skills that couples should work on to improve their communication.
This worksheet is a great tool for relationship counselors who are looking to introduce several concepts to their clients. It outlines how each skill works and provides examples that couples can implement into their everyday communication.
The Expressing Gratitude to Others worksheet is designed for all relationships, not just romantic ones. It invites clients to practice gratitude by providing activities where they can show how much they appreciate significant people in their lives.
This is an excellent tool for singles who have just gone through a breakup, as they can reflect on who they are grateful for and take their focus away from their former partner.
In addition to these tools, the following articles will add value to your treatment arsenal:
- 7 Ways to Improve Communication in Relationships
- 21 Couples Therapy Worksheets, Techniques, & Activities
- Codependency: What the Signs Are & How to Overcome It
- 10 Ways to Build Trust in a Relationship
A Take-Home Message
Relationships require ongoing attention to ensure that couples are growing alongside each other and not in opposite directions.
However, one of the most difficult things to facilitate as a relationship counselor is opening up each session with topics that are relevant to your clients. One of the important roles that a relationship counselor has is to help their clients realize where they need to engage in self- and collective improvement to maintain healthy relationships with their partner and themselves.
One critical thing you can help your clients realize, no matter their relationship status, is the importance of individual self-care and love. These activities – I Am Great Because and Self-Love Journal – can help your single clients develop an appreciation of themselves, which can help them have healthier and more productive relationships with others.
We hope this article provides you with helpful strategies and activities to improve your clients’ romantic lives. Whether you are helping a couple struggling with more difficult issues, a single person who is experiencing a hard breakup, or a couple who is going through a new milestone, it is important to emphasize that relationships are not a one-size-fits-all model. What works for certain people may not work for others.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.
If you want more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
- Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. Basic Books.
- Callaci, M., Peloquin, K., Barry, R. A., & Tremblay, N. (2020). A dyadic analysis of attachment insecurities and romantic disengagement among couples seeking relationship therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 46(3), 399–412.
- Harmon, J. (2017, March 22). 10 Good reasons to seek relationship counseling. GoodTherapy.org. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/10-good-reasons-to-seek-relationship-counseling-0322175/
- Meyerson, J. (2008). Success with couple’s therapy: A step-by-step approach. Social Work Today, 8(3), 16–18.
- Psychology Today. (2021). Imago relationship therapy. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/therapy-types/imago-relationship-therapy
- Schmidt, C. D., & Gelhert, N. C. (2017). Couples therapy and empathy: An evaluation of the impact of Imago relationship therapy on partner empathy levels. The Family Journal, 25(1), 23–30.
- Soeiro, L. (2018, April 23). Six psychological strategies for getting over a bad breakup. Psychology Today. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/i-hear-you/201804/six-psychological-strategies-getting-over-bad-breakup