How Does Online Couples Therapy Work?

Couple doing online therapy on their couch.Romantic relationships demand a lot: each partner must find a way to support and nurture the other’s needs while identifying and asserting their own needs.

When one person in a couple experiences stress, that stress can affect their partner and the relationship. Factor in kids, jobs, and financial entanglement, and it’s easy to see why so many people struggle in their relationships.

There’s no right way to be part of a couple. No matter what challenges your relationship faces, therapy can help you identify your needs. In couples counseling, you’ll work with your therapist to manage relationship challenges and address your needs in a way that’s consistent with your values.

Sometimes face-to-face therapy is not available or easy to access. Online couples therapy offers similar benefits to in-person therapy, with the added convenience and privacy of getting support at home. Here’s what you can expect from online counseling.

What is Online Couples Counseling?

Online couples counseling offers the same benefits of in-person counseling, but over the internet. You’ll use a secure platform to talk with your therapist—by video, in most cases. Couples usually meet with their therapist together, from the same location. However, online counseling can also be a good option for couples who live apart, or who are separated by military deployment, long-term hospitalization, or other barriers.

People who choose online therapy report similar levels of satisfaction with their treatment to those who choose in-person counseling.People who choose online therapy report similar levels of satisfaction with their treatment to those who choose in-person counseling. For some couples, online therapy may even mean the difference between accessing therapy to heal the relationship and getting no help at all.

Telemental health may be especially beneficial for:

  • Couples with busy schedules.
  • People who live in geographically isolated areas.
  • People who find driving or going out in public stressful.
  • Couples who do not want someone else to see them at a therapist’s office.
  • Couples in which one or both partner has a disability that makes it more challenging to attend in-person therapy.

Does Online Couples Therapy Work?

Romantic relationships are a source of love and comfort. Many people rely on their partners to fill the role of best friend, mentor, financial partner, and co-parent. So when a relationship is struggling, many people feel as if their entire world has been upended. It’s easy to feel hopeless about couples therapy, especially if you feel like you’ve tried everything. But the research shows that couples therapy works. According to a 2015 analysis, couples therapy is most effective when therapists identify the goals of couples therapy; use standardized tools to assess progress; and systematically monitor both the progress of therapy and the quality of the therapeutic alliance.

Online therapy follows a similar model to traditional counseling. In fact, therapists can do nearly everything online that they can in person. It may take a little more time to get comfortable with one another, especially when there are technical difficulties. Quality online therapy on a good platform works well, and even allows the therapist to read subtle cues such as tone of voice and body language.

When to Avoid Online Couples Therapy

Online couples therapy is not for everyone. When there is domestic violence, most experts advise that the couple avoid joint therapy. That’s because therapy treats the partners as equals, each of whom has valid concerns. When there is violence, the partners do not contribute equally to the problems in the marriage, and the abusive partner may even use therapy to justify their violence. Moreover, traditional couples therapy aims to keep the couple together, and some therapists may even ask the couples to commit to a certain number of therapy sessions. This may cause a victim to remain in an abusive relationship longer, potentially endangering their life. The online context may make it easier to conceal abuse, intensifying the risk.

Some other signs online therapy may not be a good fit include:

  • The couple can’t access the internet or only has very old computers or tablets, making it difficult to see or hear the therapist.
  • One or both members of the couple distrusts technology and feels anxious about distance counseling.
  • One or both members of the couple feel stressed or anxious in the family home, and prefer the environment of a therapy office.

Questions to Ask About Online Relationship Counseling

When searching for a couples therapist, it’s important to find someone who can offer specific details about their treatment philosophy. You can ask potential counselors the questions such as the following to see if they are a good fit for you:

  • What therapeutic philosophy do you use? Can you show us research indicating this approach works?
  • What is the goal of therapy? Are we working to decide whether to stay together, or is the goal to improve the relationship?
  • How will we know therapy is working?
  • What do we need to do outside of therapy sessions to improve our relationship?
  • How long does therapy typically take?
  • How much do you charge?
  • Do you accept insurance or offer a superbill so we can seek insurance reimbursement?
  • What do you do to ensure our privacy? Do you use an encrypted therapy platform?
  • Will we share our ideas about what constitutes a healthy relationship?

What to Expect from Online Relationship Therapy

Most online counseling uses video so that you can talk, read one another’s body language, and create an experience similar to traditional counseling. During the first few sessions, you will work with your therapist to identify treatment goals, share the history of the relationship, and cultivate a sense of trust.

As therapy progresses, you’ll each talk about your issues in the relationship, then work to identify strategies to manage these issues. Your therapist may give you homework, ask you to notice specific feelings or behaviors in between therapy sessions, or encourage you to come to therapy prepared to talk about a recent dispute. In some cases, the therapist may recommend individual counseling to deal with issues such as depression, trauma, and anxiety.

Your therapist should gently challenge each of you. If therapy is going well, you’ll be encouraged to confront unhealthy thoughts and feelings. Your therapist should also validate your emotions, and should not take sides—though they might offer insight on various conflicts, or help you identify unreasonable expectations. You should feel comfortable giving your therapist feedback, and the therapist should regularly assess and revisit treatment goals.

Finding the right therapist is key to seeing improvements in your relationship. A good therapist listens to your goals, helps you identify practical solutions, and helps both partners feel safe. Begin your search for a licensed therapist here.

Are you a therapist? Join GoodTherapy’s community today! We offer a secure telehealth platform for therapists powered by iSalus. Members also get access to our wide range of continuing education webinars and are listed in our popular online therapist directory. 

References:

  1. Halford, W. K., Pepping, C. A., & Petch, J. (2015). The gap between couple therapy research efficacy and practice effectiveness. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 42(1), 32–44. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jmft.12120
  2. Huffine, C. (1999). 12 reasons why couples counseling is not recommended when domestic violence is present. [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.dhs.state.or.us/caf/dv/desktools/couples_counseling_12_reaso.pdf
  3. Rickwood, D., Wallace, A., Kennedy, V., O’Sullivan, S., Telford, N., & Leicester, S. (2019). Young people’s satisfaction with the online mental health service eheadspace: development and implementation of a service satisfaction measure. JMIR Mental Health, 6(4). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6492057/

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