FAQ - couples therapy

Specialist practice for systemic couples counseling in English

They cry, they swear, they scream, they are silent. Not as a couple in your own living room, but in a practice. Because they don't know what to do as a couple, they hope for help from a therapist. There are hundreds of scenes like this in films, books and podcasts. But in reality, many people don't know how such a meeting actually works. We asked three couples therapists the most important questions.

When is the right time for couples therapy?

The general rule is: as early as possible. If you don't get anywhere with the advice of family and friends, you should consider getting help from a neutral expert. Especially when the fronts harden, when things constantly escalate without anything being clarified. When something unexpected happens that throws you off track, such as unemployment, illness or an affair, and puts a lot of strain on the relationship. When the thoughts of separation take over, the presence of your partner causes you physical discomfort or when you no longer have anything to say to each other and feel more and more lonely in your time together. However: "I need a minimum amount of energy from my clients in order to want to change something," says Andrea Bräu, a therapist from Munich. If this willingness is not there, it will be difficult to save the relationship. "I often experience that women have said to their husbands for years: Let's do therapy. But by the time the husband is ready, it's often too late - because the wife has long since emotionally withdrawn. She wasn't heard." The more established the problems are, the more difficult it becomes to work on them. “But there is no wrong time for therapy,” says Cornelia Ulrich from the “Familien-Notruf” advice center in Munich. However, there are also couples who just sit with a therapist to have official confirmation that nothing is working anymore and that everything has been tried.

What makes therapy successful?

What exactly success means for a couple is highly individual. For example, there are fewer arguments at home, we can talk to each other better, and we dare to say what we actually want. That's why it's essential to talk to the therapist about goals and concerns at the beginning: What is important to us, where do we want to go together, what connects us? A therapist can help figure this out. The prerequisite for this is that both partners feel understood. “The chemistry between the couple and the therapist has to be right,” says Thomas Prünte, a psychologist from Hamburg. "If you manage to look through the eyes of the man, the woman and sometimes the eyes of the children, you can make a difference." In addition, each partner should be willing to look at where it hurts the most: at themselves. It is not enough to simply demand that the other person change so that things can get better again. It's always about the relationship with yourself. "I have to question what my contribution to the problem is and be prepared to change something in my behavior. If I just wait for the other person to make a move, nothing will happen happen," says Cornelia Ulrich. Not even in the next relationship.

How does couples therapy work?

At the beginning there is a detailed inventory: What is going wrong? What would have to happen for things to get better? Where is the couple at the moment, how satisfied is everyone with the relationship? Goals can be formulated based on these statements. “I speak to each individual about this - in the presence of others,” says Cornelia Ulrich. "This is important because the partner then has to listen and can learn something new. And sometimes it's the first time they understand what the actual problem is." The presence of the therapist automatically creates a different atmosphere than at the kitchen table. Not only do you listen differently, you also ask different questions. As the therapy progresses, the focus is on how the couple felt after the last session, what has changed, and whether either person was able to appreciate the other's perspective. Homework can help to reflect everyday life or question relationship patterns. "If a couple managed not to escalate in an argument, I ask the question: How did you manage that? What went differently than usual? When did you notice that you were falling into old patterns and how did you manage to do it in time to get out?" says Thomas Prünte. Not everyone is helped by something tangible for the time between classes. "If I notice that a couple tried in a panic to quickly implement something we discussed the evening before we met again, then you can leave it alone," says Andrea Bräu. "I don't want to tell anyone anything. People should learn here to help themselves."

Should you go to a therapist even though everything is going well?

There have long been offers of preventative couples therapy in which people can learn how to communicate with one another in a meaningful way before the first problems arise. The advantage: dealing with each other constructively without tears, accusations or tantrums. The disadvantage: Another field of self-optimization. But even if everything seems to be going well: when in doubt, something can be found.

How many sessions does a couple need?

Important: The actual therapy takes place between sessions. In everyday life. If you think the couples therapist will sort it out, you can save yourself money. Making a minimum number of appointments in advance is not necessarily helpful; after all, couples therapy can no longer make sense after the first hour. As a rule, many models are aimed at short-term therapy. “You usually need five to ten appointments for something to change,” says Andrea Bräu. "Most of my clients come every two weeks. If there is a big crisis, they initially show up once a week. I usually take stock after five meetings and see which direction things are going." Cornelia Ulrich sees it similarly: "I always ask at the end of a meeting: When would it be good to make a new appointment?" The following applies: just don’t stress. Anyone who travels a lot for work, cares for a relative or doesn't know who will look after the children during this time is under pressure and may not be as operational as desired.

Do you always have to go there together?

Yes, it’s called couples therapy after all. However, it can make sense to invite the partners individually if you get stuck. At Thomas Prünte the agreement is that everything that is discussed alone can be used for further advice. The therapist should not become a keeper of secrets. Andrea Bräu also wants to know both sides: "If someone comes to me alone for the first time as a kind of ambassador, I don't want them to show up in pairs on the next visit." Rather, the other person should also be heard alone in advance. "Otherwise he'll always be the new guy." If one of them refuses to come along at all, things become problematic - although the initiative usually comes from only one of them anyway. “If one changes, the other must automatically change too,” says Andrea Bräu. "Otherwise the distance between the two will be too great." Basically, no one should be afraid of therapy; counseling does not have to mean the beginning of the end. No one is pilloried as the culprit. There are always two people who have their share in what is.

When does couples therapy end?

When the relationship is on the right track. There are fewer topics that are annoying. Communication has changed significantly. You can deal with problems better. Depending on the task, it becomes apparent whether a couple's dynamics have improved or whether it has led to one seeing more clearly. “We give each other feedback. If the impression is that things are going well, therapy can be ended,” says Thomas Prünte. However, the decision is clearly up to the couple - except: "If I keep hearing about the same difficulties but neither partner tries anything new, I ask: What do you think will happen here?" says Cornelia Ulrich. "I can't do magic." If you feel like you can't quite cope on your own, arrange a kind of check-up to take stock about once a year in the presence of the therapist.

Can you save any relationship with therapy?

No. That's why the top priority of any sensible couples therapy is: the outcome is open. “How a couple decides in the end is not in the hands of the therapist,” says Thomas Prünte. “That remains the responsibility of both of them.” Sometimes it is possible to find love for each other again and to understand each other as a team, or to realize that there is nothing that connects you anymore.

How do you find a suitable therapist?

The easiest way is to get a recommendation from a friend. But that doesn't mean that this therapist has to be likeable. The most important indication of whether you are in good hands in a practice is: Do both partners feel comfortable there? Gut feeling decides. If you are looking for something on your own, you should take a look at the self-portrayal of the respective practice website and see whether the information about costs, appointments and travel is correct. If you're not sure after the first hour whether it will work, it's better to keep looking and change therapists. Suitable also means that the advisor behaves neutrally towards both parties and does not try to impose his views on the couple or even judge their decisions. Because the term couples therapist is not a protected professional title, there are many ways to get there: There are numerous organizations and institutes that offer such further training. Some therapists have previously studied psychology, while others have worked as social educators, alternative practitioners or counselors. In the end, however, the training path does not automatically mean quality.

Who will cover the costs?

The costs for couples therapy are not covered by statutory health insurance because you are not sick, but want to change something in your life