Keeping Hope in Your Relationship: The Value of Couples Counseling
All relationships have their quirks, but many couples are able to assume that their issues or concerns about their relationship aren’t particularly serious. Many of us have heard phrases like “marriage takes work,” and we may or may not notice when that day-to-day kindness and selflessness turns into a bigger struggle.
Unfortunately, this can result in waiting until multiple crisis points in your relationship have come and gone before visiting a couples’ counselor.
Heather Vandenbark is a therapist with Foundations Counseling, and one of her specialties is working with couples. She wishes that more couples would consider the benefits of talking through the challenges of a long-term relationship before things come to a head.
Vandenbark points out that many couples only associate counseling with relationships in jeopardy, but that doesn’t have to be the case. She recommends that everyone try therapy at least once in their lives, since so many valuable coping mechanisms and communication tools can be shared in a therapy session.
When you visit a couples counselor for the first time, whether you’re relationship is experiencing severe trouble or just a small conflict, it’s good to know what to expect. The initial conversation is all about getting to know you and your partner, and what you each want to get from the experience.
“I get a lot of questions about what does this progression look like, and how long are we going to be here?” says Vandenbark. “I tell couples that we’ll create goals and talk about what work the couple is ready to put in. The first session is the couple getting to know me and my approach as well.”
When viewed as an opportunity to devote time to talking to your spouse, couples counseling doesn’t have to be such a daunting experience. Vandenbark even recommends a few sessions for those who are engaged or considering marriage.
“Pre-marital counseling is really important for people, and it’s rare that people have it,” she points out. “It’s so helpful to understand and talk about what a healthy serious relationship should look like.”
Vandenbark’s philosophy in her therapy sessions shifts based on what the individual couple needs, but she does want to put at least one myth to rest.
“Some people think I’m going to side with one person or the other, and some men assume I’ll side with the woman,” she says. “I don’t do that, since I’m there to help you both. If you feel a concern like this, don’t stop coming to counseling, just talk to me about it.”
Another important point is to know that couples counseling sessions are only the planning and launching part of the process; the real work continues at home.
“I have to remind people that I can’t fix your relationship. I only see you about an hour a week,” she says. “I can give you tools and strategies to try, but the work happens between you two together between sessions.”
The first few sessions of couples therapy can be rather vulnerable, and it only makes sense to ask the therapist for some answers and help as you get started. Vandenbark’s favorite moment, though, comes after couples take a next step.
“It’s the moment when I’m pushing them out of the nest. At first, a couple may rely on me rather than themselves,” says Vandenbark. “I love the moment when I say, ‘you two have a conversation,’ and after they’ve done the talking, I can say, ‘Do you see what happened here? You addressed the conflict, and I didn’t have to say anything! You guys are ready - you can go fly!’ That moment when I can tell them you don’t need me any more, that’s my proudest moment.”
Foundations Counseling can offer more than just couples counseling, and their many counselors have a variety of overlapping specialties. Heather Vandenbark can work with you individually or as a couple but she can also refer you to other members of the Foundations team if their specialties fit what you’re looking for.
Keep an eye out for Heather Vandenbark’s future counseling offerings; she’s working on one of the premier certifications in relationship-related counseling from the Gottman Institute, which could lead to potential group marital counseling sessions and marriage retreats.
4 Communication Reminders From a Couples’ Counselor
It’s easy to let the days, months, and years go by without thinking there’s an issue with how you and a spouse communicate. Many couples don’t notice that they’ve slowly drifted apart or stopped talking about the important parts of their lives.
Only when major conflict emerges do they see a potential issue to solve, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
At Foundations Counseling, Heather Vandenbark is one of the counselors available to talk to couples about the elements of their relationship that might benefit from more communication. We talked to her about some of the major areas where many couples can improve their communication in order to keep a positive relationship through the years.
While couples may shy away from it, especially if they feel that something is lacking in their intimacy, talking about what each partner needs and desires can be important.
At the root of some bigger family conflicts may be the lack of connection that the couple themselves feels. Finding out what is preventing that connection, and rekindling the romance, can help to ease other conflicts and make everyone more ready to work together.
“Intimacy doesn’t just mean sex,” Vandenbark points out. “It can be physical but also emotional, and if there’s no communication about it, the connection can be hard to maintain.”
How You Give and Receive Love:
One resource that Heather uses often with couples is the book the Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. This book points out that most of us have particular ways that we prefer to receive love, from words of affirmation, to acts of service, to physical touch. When couples have a mismatch in how they tend to give love and how their spouses want to receive it, they can grow distant. Discussing their love languages and trying new methods of expression can really help couples connect.
Disagreements and Conflict:
Conflict is one of those issues that, when addressed head-on, can stay small and manageable, but when it’s ignored it can get out of control. Vandenbark noticed this during the COVID-19 pandemic in particular.
“Couples had some realities hit them in the face because, after the busy-ness of life slowed down, they realized they weren’t sure how to communicate or address conflict,” she says. “It’s important to address conflict, you just have to be respectful about it.”
If you worry that addressing conflict will just look like fighting, talking with a therapist can really help you find strategies and ways of talking that help you both express your concerns respectfully and work toward a resolution.
Keeping the Spark Alive:
While the advice may sound unusual if you’ve been together for decades, Vandenbark recommends that couples never stop dating each other.
“I don’t just mean go out to eat,” she says. “Dating each other throughout your relationship means really spending time listening to each other and doing activities together that help you grow closer.” Planning a date night here and there may be a challenge when your lives are busy, but a little investment in a simple and enjoyable date night now can help you avoid falling into a long-term pattern of not speaking to each other much.
Heather Vandenbark believes that counseling can be a way to add hope back into your long-term relationship with your partner. Consider a first session at Foundations Counseling to learn more about communication strategies that are attuned to you and your partner’s specific goals for improving your relationship.