How long does couples counselling take? – Top 6 things about couple counselling people want to know most: Part 6 of 6

This is part six of a series addressing the top 6 things people want to know about couples counselling. Quite simply, these are the questions I’m asked most often by those who consider coming for couples counselling. While it is difficult to properly answer such questions in a short series of blogs like this, I’m doing my best. For a list of all 6 questions, please see part one of this series. This blog addresses the 6th most often asked question: How long does couples counselling take?

Answer: This question is pretty much impossible to answer with a straight-out number. It would simply be silly of me to say “I can most definitively state that successful couples counselling takes 5 sessions!”. The difficulty here is that there are so many variables and questions that need to be answered that are couple by couple specific. To name but a few…

  • Are both parties engaged in the counselling process and working hard to find answers and solutions?
  • Is one party unsure of what they want, or even whether they want to work on the relationship?
  • Is there an outside factor influencing matters such as mental health issues or drug and/or alcohol use?
  • Is the couple looking to resolve a specific, readily identifiable issue for a specific purpose, or are the difficulties they are facing more nebulous and general?

Each of these gives a different answer to the question of how long couples counselling takes. Despite the multitude of variables that can affect things, I can provide some general answers to this question you may find helpful and I will try to do this below.

Whatever the overall intentions of a couple are: be these to work together to resolve their issues vs. decide whether or not to separate, the first thing we will do in couples counselling is to work to identify the underlying issues as accurately as possible. This process most often takes 3 or 4 sessions. At the end of it a couple is usually better able to clearly identify the factors that run underneath their arguments or problems and are then better able to make decisions as to what to do about them.

Once this more accurate understanding has been reached, where a couple has chosen to work together to alter their behaviour so they are no longer causing pain or hurt to their partner, this can usually be achieved with a further 2 or maybe three sessions. This focus on behaviour differs from the well meaning, but ultimately doomed promises of the past because the motivation for the promise is different. If a person makes a promise to somebody to do (or not do) a specific thing, but doesn’t really understand why that other person has a problem with that behaviour in the first place, then the promise is generally short-lived. I call this “best behaviour mode” and few of us can keep it up for more than a month or two – tops! We fail in these promises because we genuinely see nothing wrong in doing whatever it is we promised not to do, and each day we don’t do it we feel we’ve been deprived of something that is our right.

What is different now however, is that having come to a different understanding of the underlying issues that are active in a relationship, these promises are based on something else entirely.  Now we are making a promise to do (or not to do) a specific thing because we understand what the other person’s difficulty is with that problem. We understand how and why it affects the person we love in the way it does, and we make the change in behaviour because we want to, and not just to stop somebody from giving us a hard time.

On the other hand, where couples choose to focus more on healing their underlying issues, (rather than just change behaviour and work together to work around them), this can see us having a further 5 to 10 sessions, and even then one individual may later choose to undergo individual counselling to work out things that were inappropriate to talk about in joint sessions (see part 5 of this series).

In my personal practice, looking back over my records for 2018, 2017, and 2016, I can accurately state that the average number of sessions for a couple has been 9. There are some couples who have attended more than that, and some that have completed what they needed to do in only 4 sessions, but the average is 9. I hope this series on the top 6 questions I am most often asked about couples counselling has been helpful and informative.