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How Does Couples Therapy Work? A Clinical Psychology and Social Psychology Podcast Episode.

How Does Couples Therapy Work? A Clinical Psychology and Social Psychology Podcast Episode.

Whilst psychology students and psychology professionals often heard about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and other forms of individual psychotherapy, we don’t often hear about couples therapy. Leaving a lot of people interested in psychology in the dark about what is couples therapy, how it works and how approaches does it use to bring around the therapeutic change needed for the relationship to work. In this clinical psychology podcast episode, we explore how does couples therapy work, what psychological approaches does it use and more. If you want to learn more about psychological therapies, relationships and the therapeutic process, you’ll love today’s episode.

This podcast episode has been sponsored by Psychology Of Relationships: The Social Psychology of Friendships, Romantic Relationships And More. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also, you can buy the eBook directly from me at

How Does Couples Therapy Work?

As we know from previous podcast episodes, the entire point of therapy is to help improve lives, decrease psychological stress and help a person with the difficulties they’re experiencing. That is the general basis of all therapeutic work. Yet the main difference between individual and couples therapy is that couples therapy introduces three parties into the therapy. Instead of the traditional two, being the client and the therapists. Since couples therapy represents the two clients and the therapist.

This introduces extra complexity. Especially as the couples therapist has to deal with not only their own therapeutic alliance with each of the clients but the relationship between the two clients as well. Which if they’ve come to couples therapy are in a very bad shape and are normally negative towards each other.

Also, it is worth noting that couples come to therapy because they are highly conflicting views on the same experiences and one of them or both is highly distressed about the relationship. As well as it might sound sad but it isn’t weird or odd for one client to be more hopeful or positive about the relationship and wanting to seek out therapy compared to the other one.

What Happens In Couples Therapy?

When it comes to how the therapy works, most couples therapy is done together where you have both parts of the couple in the therapy sessions together. Then contacting or seeing one member of the couple alone is sometimes needed when extra information about the relationship is required by the therapist. Yet it is always done with the permission of the other person.

Although, sometimes a single person does couples therapy to help force a change in their relationship at home because the other part of the couple doesn’t want to attend therapy themselves. Which I think is a shame but it is great that this part of the couple still wants to try therapy in a less common but still useful way.

In addition, if we dive into the details about couples therapy, we need to understand that couples therapists ask a lot of questions about a range of topics. Including some questions about each partner’s family origins and other questions that challenge their beliefs as well as their perspectives.

Of course, it has to be stressed that therapists never ever take sides in arguments yet they might call out a person on the basis of their behaviour contributing to relationship problems. Since relational science has firmly demonstrated that one person alone doesn’t cause a relationship to experience problems, it is always both partners.

Everyone in a relationship has a role to play in a problem.

As a result, the entire point of couples therapy is to bring partners closer together or, if unfortunately needed, to intelligently end the relationship. This is done by the process of making the partners learn compassion for themselves and their partner, resolving dilemmas, rekindling the feelings that made them attracted to each other in the first place as well as helping the partners to develop constructive ways to manage their own negative feelings.

Furthermore, similar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, in-between therapy sessions, couples are asked (and they really should do these things) to practice the skills, insights and behaviours they’ve learnt in therapy at home. Since something I always remember about therapy is that therapy is never a passive process, a therapist is more of a tool-giver instead a magical fairy. In other words, the therapist can give the clients all the tools they can but unless the clients want to change, the therapy will sadly fail.

Therapeutic Approaches In Couples Therapy

As psychology students and professionals, we are definitely not strangers to different approaches to the exact same problem, and most of the time there is a “better” approach. For example, it is easy to argue based on the empirical evidence that CBT is better for depression and anxiety for example, compared to the systemic approach.

Couples therapy follows a similar idea because there are several approaches that a therapist could take when helping clients. Also, these approaches have some level of empirical support behind them.

However, whilst these different theories take different approaches to relationships, they all share the goal of improving a couple’s functioning and they seek to make a relationship a source of happiness and meaning for a couple. As well as similar to other therapists, couples therapists are normally trained in more than one of these approaches so they can be flexible and draw on different ideas from different approaches.

We’ll look at three approaches to couples therapy now.

Emotion-Focused Therapy

This form of psychotherapy focuses on helping a couple restore a couple’s emotional and physical bond viewing this bond as the best deliverer of change in a relationship. The therapy draws on attachment theory to encourage a couple to express and access whatever lies under their anger or feelings of alienation. Then it is this revelation or disclosure of their vulnerabilities that becomes a very powerful means for making the other partner responsive.

Following this and with the contact being restored in the relationship, the couples have a renewable source of comfort and this allows them to solve whatever problems they face, together.

The Gottman Method

Anyone who’s read into the field of relationship psychology is definitely familiar with Gottman because he designed this method and therapy. The therapy focuses on emphasising the outsize power of negative emotions in harming a relationship, stressing the importance of bids for connection and response from each other, a couple’s vital need to repair the damage done by them missing their bids and the value of sharing their thoughts and feelings. Gottman called these a couple’s inner worlds.

Through this method the partners learn how to show their love, affection and respect for each other as a way of building closeness and make something Gottman called “love maps” that reflect the partner’s psychological world.

Imago Relationship Therapy

Our final therapy is certainly one I had never heard of before but it’s interesting to know that the theme of this therapy is “getting the love you want”. It basically focuses on enabling the partners to fulfil the ideal type of love they developed early in life through attachment to a caregiver. This can be thought of as the ideal type of love between a mother and a child.

To achieve this each partner takes turns listening and talking, mirroring or reflecting what the other one saying to show that they’re listening and they’re understanding what the other is talking about. Then this has the added bonus of validating the other person’s feelings and perspective.

In other words, I think the entire point of all these therapies is making sure that each partner does feel understood, listened to and valued.

What’s The Difference Between Couples Counselling and Couples Therapy?

For our final section, we need to understand that whilst couples counselling and therapy has a lot of overlap, there are immense differences too. For instance, couples counselling focuses on a single current problem between each member of the couple and this tends to be done in six sessions or less.

Whereas couples therapy is a lot more involved and it is a deep exploration into the roots of current problems with the full intent of repairing the dysfunctional patterns of interaction that the couple has. As well as this has a lot to do with undoing the emotional damage each partner has inflicted on each other during the course of the relationship.

In addition, this normally involves each partner helping the other to understand their needs so each partner knows what they want and how to support the other person as well.

Normally couples therapy involves an average of 12 sessions but as everyone knows relationships are dynamic, complex and they really depend on the goals of the couple going for therapy. Since when dealing with problems like infidelity, this requires a lot more work by the partners and the therapist and require some time.

Yeah I can understand how solving infidelity problems can be tougher than others.

Relationship Psychology Conclusion

Couples therapy is something I hope none of us ever have to go through or need in the first place. Yet as I’ve mentioned before being a psychology student or professional doesn’t make us immune to the topics we learn about and love. Therefore, if you do need couples therapy, then I’m saying unofficially go for it, it might be the very thing that saves a relationship you treasure.

However, we now know that couples therapy is about improving feelings of closeness, feelings and generally making partners more understanding towards each other. As well as tackling the dysfunctional patterns of interactions that happen inside the relationship.

Couples therapy can be a great area to work in with challenges, fights and domestic arguments from time to time. To say two days are never alike is probably an immense understatement but it is what makes our profession so much fun to learn about, study and want to work in so we can improve lives and help people.

I really hope you enjoyed today’s clinical psychology podcast episode.

If you want to learn more, please check out:

Psychology Of Relationships: The Social Psychology of Friendships, Romantic Relationships And More. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also, you can buy the eBook directly from me at

Have a great day.

Clinical Psychology Reference

Beasley, C. C., & Ager, R. (2019). Emotionally focused couples therapy: A systematic review of its effectiveness over the past 19 years. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 16(2), 144-159.

Cross, L. B. (2013). Couples therapy. Routledge.

Garanzini, S., Yee, A., Gottman, J., Gottman, J., Cole, C., Preciado, M., & Jasculca, C. (2017). Results of Gottman method couples therapy with gay and lesbian couples. Journal of marital and family therapy, 43(4), 674-684.

Hewison, D., Casey, P., & Mwamba, N. (2016). The effectiveness of couple therapy: Clinical outcomes in a naturalistic United Kingdom setting. Psychotherapy, 53(4), 377.

Clulow, C. (2018). Sex, attachment and couple psychotherapy: Psychoanalytic perspectives. Routledge.

Gehlert, N. C., Schmidt, C. D., Giegerich, V., & Luquet, W. (2017). Randomized controlled trial of imago relationship therapy: Exploring statistical and clinical significance. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 16(3), 188-209.

Johnson, S. M., Hunsley, J., Greenberg, L., & Schindler, D. (1999). Emotionally focused couples therapy: Status and challenges. Clinical psychology: Science and practice, 6(1), 67.

Rajaei, A., Daneshpour, M., & Robertson, J. (2019). The effectiveness of couples therapy based on the Gottman method among Iranian couples with conflicts: A quasi-experimental study. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 18(3), 223-240.

Rathgeber, M., Bürkner, P. C., Schiller, E. M., & Holling, H. (2019). The efficacy of emotionally focused couples therapy and behavioral couples therapy: A meta‐analysis. Journal of marital and family therapy, 45(3), 447-463.

Schmidt, C. D., & Gelhert, N. C. (2017). Couples therapy and empathy: An evaluation of the impact of imago relationship therapy on partner empathy levels. The Family Journal, 25(1), 23-30.

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