What exactly happens in couples counselling? And how can couples counselling help with your sex life? If you’ve ever been curious about it, I hope I can answer a few of your questions here, as well as give you some top tips that I learned from couples counselling myself.
Consider this an FAQ with some of the most common questions people ask about this kind of counselling, along with three key things I learned when I went that could help you and your partner open up discussions about your sex life.
Why do people go to couples counselling?
There are many reasons people go to couples counselling. They may be going through a particularly difficult time – often external factors like grief, redundancy, infidelity, having a child (or children leaving home) – can trigger couples to seek external help. At other times you may just find that you’re struggling to connect with each other, and you want to explore how to recapture some of the closeness that you’ve felt in the past.
Some people go to couples counselling to ask for help with specific sexual issues – perhaps questions of different libidos, or erectile dysfunction, or other changes in circumstance that can affect what happens in the bedroom.
Whatever your reasons for going to couples counselling, I assure you that you’re not alone in wanting someone to give you a helping hand over a rocky patch in your relationship. While some people go to couples counselling because they want help mediating a break-up, for the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on counselling that has the aim of helping to bring you closer together. That’s the kind of counselling that I had, and that’s where I learned some of these helpful bits of advice.
Couples counselling: what happens behind closed doors?
Different counsellors will have different techniques for facilitating discussion, but my partner and I went to Relate so I’m going to base this on what our counsellor did.
We began with an initial assessment session, where we both had the chance to air our thoughts on what we were struggling with and what we hoped to get from our time there.
When we had been assigned a counsellor we did one introductory session together, then separate sessions for the next two weeks. The reason for giving people individual sessions is so the counsellor has the chance to explore some of your questions one-on-one, and also ask important questions to ascertain that there is no coercion or abuse. After that, we had weekly sessions together, where our counsellor talked us through lots of different things including some of the relationship tips I’m going to explain in more detail below.
Naturally couples counselling won’t be for everyone, but I think it can be really beneficial for many – it certainly helped me. And in the name of sharing, here are three key things I learned in couples counselling that could be helpful to you in your sex life.
1. Learn someone’s Love Language
If you’ve not heard of ‘Love Languages’ before, allow me to introduce you: the basic idea is that different people have different preferred ways of expressing and receiving love. The Love Languages website breaks these down into five broad categories: tokens of affection, quality time, physical affection, acts of service and words of affirmation. Don’t get too hung up on the categories, though, because the main thing is to understand that your partner may like to give/receive love in a different way to you. For me, words of affirmation are really important: I want my partner to tell me I’m funny, sexy, cool, etcetera. He prefers physical affection: lots of hugs and touching. The words don’t work as well on him, so I can tell him he’s awesome till I’m blue in the face, and it won’t have the power of a hug.
In a sexual context, knowing your partner’s love language can help if you want to improve your sex life. Do they like you expressing love via quality time? Blocking out a night each week in your diary for a sexy evening complete with massage oil and candles might be the way to go. Do they like receiving gifts (or giving them)? Carve out an hour to spend with each other browsing the couples sex toy or lingerie sections of this website, so you can buy each other tokens of your sexy esteem.
2. Learn active listening
When I first went to couples counselling I already thought I was pretty good at listening to my partner, but it turns out I wasn’t. I hadn’t really been actively listening: repeating what I understood of his words back to him to check I hadn’t misinterpreted it. The idea behind active listening is that even if you’re nodding your head and drinking in what someone’s saying, there’s still room for misinterpretation. Not to mention the fact that your partner may still feel like they’re not being heard, if all they get is an ‘uh huh’ every now and then.
When applying this to your sex life, I think the best example is if someone tells you they might be interested in trying a new fetish. Within every kink there’s a world of diversity and possibility, so if someone says they want to try ‘bondage’ there’s every chance you might just assume exactly what kind of bondage, based on porn you’ve watched in the past or other people who have talked to you about it. So apply some active listening here:
“Bondage sounds fun! What kind of bondage do you mean? Could you give me some examples?”
When your partner tells you, repeat what they’ve said back to them to check what they’re after – try and make a sexy game of it if you can! Let them elaborate on what they want, then ensure you’re checking back in with them as well. For instance:
“I get that you want to try rope, that sounds awesome! When you say you want to be tied up and teased, that sounds to me like perhaps you want me to tie your wrists to the bedposts and play with your new sex toy. Does that sound hot? How about if I tie your ankles too? Is that too much, or is that along the right lines?”
There’s a common (and incorrect) misconception that sex should happen ‘naturally’ without any form of communication. That if you have to clarify things you’ll ‘ruin the mood.’ This is total rubbish. I’d argue that having sex without communication is what’s unnatural – what are you, psychic?! Besides, discussing what each of you want can be fun and hot in and of itself – building the mood and getting you excited for the sexiness that is yet to come.
3. Discuss your relationship (or sex) models
Humans are like magnets for assumptions and misconceptions. We live in a society that tells us all manner of weird and wonderful stuff about the human condition. Some of it’s true, some of it’s false, and some of it falls somewhere in the middle whereby it may be true for those we know but it’s certainly not true of everyone. One of the most helpful things that I did with my partner in couples counselling was to discuss what relationships had looked like to us when we were younger. We both had fairly different backgrounds in terms of our parents and the way they behaved with each other, and just talking these things through made us realise that a lot of the preconceptions we were bringing to our own relationship had been shaped when we were very young.
In your sex life, one of the most useful discussions you can have runs along these lines: discussing what you want and expect in the bedroom, and where those expectations come from. Some people find that porn has heavily influenced their kinks or expectations, others may find that past relationships have done similarly. I’m not saying whether these things are good or bad – they are all about how you deal with them. Sitting down with your partner and talking about these can help you both work out where you stand, and which bits of your baggage you want to keep, and which you’d like to discard. It can also help bring you closer together, as you start to understand a little more about how the other person thinks.
Read more this our blog post about sexual communication, or visit the Relate website to find out more about couples counselling. Relate is the place I went to, but other couples counselling organisations (and individuals!) are available too of course.