3 Things Your Therapist Wants You to Do Before Couples Therapy Begins

Partners sit on opposite ends of sofa, turned in opposite directions and facing away from each otherFrom my many years as a couples therapist, I have learned one of the most difficult phases of the work is when a couple has committed to repairing your marriage, but before the repair has begun.

It’s an important time: you and your partner have decided to go to couples therapy, so you’ve researched local counselors and booked an appointment. But your first session hasn’t happened yet and you’re still feeling distressed, disconnected, or dissatisfied.

Some models of relationship counseling have specific tasks for this stage, such as the online relationship assessment for the Prepare/Enrich program. Therapists may also have their own preferred assessment measures, such as the classic Dyadic Adjustment Scale or the newer Gottman Relationship Checkup.

But these assessments are meant to inform your therapist about where to start treatment, about the issues and dynamics contributing to conflict or distress. They don’t help you and your partner get through the days or weeks until your first appointment with any more peace or patience.

So what should you be doing? Thinking about? Paying attention to? Here are three things I ask of couples seeing me for the first time, before therapy begins:

1. Prevent Further Damage

To prevent further damage, do your best to stop unhealthy patterns of interaction that are causing distress in the relationship. There has been enough conflict already. In other words, it’s important to bring your best self to every exchange so you don’t heap problems on top of problems. You’ve committed to therapy to make positive changes, and they can start right now.

For example, if you’re used to yelling at each other, preventing further damage means keeping your volume low and your tone pleasant. If you’ve been sleeping in separate rooms, preventing further damage means respecting the boundaries each of you have set to avoid distress.

If you find yourself back in a familiar dance of hurt feelings, miscommunication, or bad habits, remember to prevent further damage. Notice what is happening, halt the unhealthy spiral, and choose a different response.

2. Prioritize Self-Care

To prioritize self-care is to choose behaviors that nourish your body and spirit. The road to relationship health through therapy may be long and difficult, so it’s important to prepare yourself mentally and physically. Prioritizing self-care means taking good care of yourself.

If you find yourself back in a familiar dance of hurt feelings, miscommunication, or bad habits, remember to prevent further damage.

Here are seven ways to be intentional about self-care:

  1. Eat fresh, healthy foods.
  2. Drink plenty of water.
  3. Rest when you are tired.
  4. Prioritize sufficient, uninterrupted sleep.
  5. Exercise and stretch your body.
  6. Seek joy through the arts (music, comedy, theater/movies, art).
  7. Soak up love from supportive relationships (children, friends, family).

You may realize it’s been a while since you were intentional about caring for yourself. Don’t worry—self-care can start right now.

3. Practice Introspection

No matter which theory of couples therapy your therapist is trained in—Emotionally Focused Therapy, Imago, and the Gottman Method may be the most well-known for their evidence-based practice—one of the primary ways your therapist will intervene in your distress is to help you and your partner think and feel differently about what is happening. These skills of perspective taking don’t come naturally to all of us, but there are ways to practice before therapy begins.

One way to practice introspection is to think about your experience from a new perspective. I’ve written previously about the power of therapy to shift your point of view, and the metaphor can help before therapy even begins. Ask yourself: What are the ways I understand or explain what is happening in my relationship? Are there alternative ways to understand it, even if I don’t agree with them? How does my partner explain what is happening? Are we looking at things from the balcony or the dance floor? What might I see if I look from the other perspective?

Another way to practice introspection is to become familiar with the idea of mindfulness. Yoga, guided imagery, apps like Headspace or Calm, or spending intentional time in nature are readily available ways to bring mindfulness into your life.

Ready to begin couples therapy? Contact a licensed counselor in your area.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Emily Cook, PhD, LCMFT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Lisa

    April 19th, 2018 at 9:00 AM

    What if my husband won’t go to therapy in the first place? We need it, but he refuses.

  • Matt

    April 24th, 2018 at 4:45 PM

    Go on your own. Show him that you’re interested in making yourself better, that you would like him to go to, but you’re not going to force him. I took me going to therapy solo for 4 or 5 weeks before my wife agreed to go. She’s starting out with a different therapist in the same clinic, but she needs to sort out stuff on her own before we try to repair “US”. Hope that helps. I guess you could say you can show a horse where the water is, but you can’t force it to go to therapy with you.

  • Gerty

    June 29th, 2018 at 9:26 AM

    I thought that it was interesting that you mentioned self-care. I wouldn’t have thought that it applied to this situation, but it makes sense that you have to take care of yourself before you can nourish other relationships. I think that this will be good advice for my friends.

  • Taylor

    December 4th, 2019 at 8:51 AM

    I found it interesting when you said to look at things from the balcony or the dance floor before therapy begins. My brother is starting couples therapy with his wife since they argue about finances all the time. I’ll have to show him this before he goes into his first session.

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