When and how to seek couple’s counselling

Couple’s counselling can help the relationship even when the path seems dark and dreary


Couple’s counselling, in India, is unfortunately often resorted to only when things get completely out of hand, and when the relationship has almost reached a point beyond rescue. This is because of the resistance in either or both the partners to access help. Some reasons that hold them back may be:

  • Counselling is stigmatised as a process only for ‘crazy people’. So couples are offended by the thought of being put in that category.
  • The counselling process may shed light on the person’s own imperfections and clearly mirror the role they might be playing in their relationship status. This is something they may fear seeing as it would mean moving out of one’s comfort zone and changing for the sake of saving the relationship.
  • If either or both of the partners have an inflated sense of self and believe they do not need the counselling process or that they are perfectly capable of handling their own issues then it’s a dead end. They may even pride themselves on being highly evolved and consider themselves as counsellors to others.
  • Some couples refuse to accept in the first place that there is a problem. They believe that people must view them as perfect and competent at all times.
  • Irrational beliefs such as seeking help is a sign of weakness and giving help is superior than seeking help.

The truth, of course, is very different. If there is anything worse than having a problem, it is being in denial of having one, and therefore not seeking timely help. The better way to handle a problem between you and your partner would be to:

  • Firstly become aware that there is a problem
  • Acknowledge that something needs to be done about it
  • Admit that you too are playing a role in causing or complicating the problem
  • Accept that help is necessary to bring about necessary changes
  • Access the necessary help
  • Act in new ways facilitated by the counselling process

Is it the right time to reach out

Some signs that hint it’s time you sought the guidance of a competent counsellor are:

  • Either one or both are of you are progressively feeling discontented and distant in the relationship as the reasonable relationship needs are not being fulfilled. Emotional and physical intimacy is getting eroded by the attitude and behaviour of the other.
  • Communication is multiplying problems rather than facilitating solutions with either one or both not feeling emotionally received in the relationship.
  • Core values and lifestyle choices are so different that both of you cannot find a way to be happy and at the same time together. A win-win solution eludes you.
  • All attempts of decision-making on matters that affect both, end in a conflict or a stalemate.
  • Active/passive aggression or depression is visible in either one or both of you [Though, you may need outside help to identify these signs].
  • Either one of you voices unhappiness in the relationship or the inability to get through to the other.
  • Either one or both of the partners ask for couple’s counselling as s/he finds herself/himself incapable of understanding the relationship dynamics. S/he is unhappy, confused, anxious or angry and truly wants clarity on various issues which s/he is unable to get through to the partner.

If one partner resists couselling

Couple’s counselling is helpful only if both access it of their own free will. It is important that neither one begrudges the other on the suggestion of counselling.
If there is displeasure or anger associated with the counselling process it will be counter-productive. Moreover, resistance is an indicator that the partner cares more about herself/ himself than the relationship and will not move from her/his stated position on all matters. The resistant partner would then have to assume total responsibility for further deterioration of the relationship.

Discomfort-anxiety [I should not be made uncomfortable] and ego-anxiety [I should not be viewed as imperfect] are two key impediments in the resistant partners. If the partner who seeks counselling is unable to get the other to gracefully and willingly seek help together, then couple’s counselling cannot proceed. Then the unhappy partner could through individual counselling evaluate whether s/he can ever find personal happiness in the relationship, even if the relationship itself is not a fulfilling one. Based on that evaluation the individual could then take a call to either stay back, or exit the relationship.

Preparing for the first session

If both partners are willing to humbly subject themselves to the process because they truly care for the relationship, then they need to individually write out the core issues that according to them need to be resolved. This should be done before the first appointment with the counsellor. They should put down their needs that are not being addressed by the other, their present and future concerns based on the present status of the relationship, as well as insight [if any] into how they might be contributing to the problems, and finally what are the deal-breakers [if any] in the relationship. Preparing individually and in advance could help make the first session a fruitful one. It also indicates that both are willing to actively participate in the counselling process and assume responsibility to fix things. They are not immaturely assuming that the counsellor will be the ‘expert’ who will ‘fix’ their marriage with them passively subjecting themselves to the process. Remember that without the willingness to do all that it takes to sort things between both of you, and to actively participate in the healing of the relationship the counselor alone cannot help. When it comes to saving a failing relationship the willingness to change old ways becomes most important.

Should we agree in advance on issues to be discussed with the counsellor

It is not necessary that both discuss and agree with each other in advance about what will be spoken to the counsellor, as you both may have differing views on the same. If one of them is uncomfortable with a certain issue being brought up with the counsellor it is usually because of ‘discomfort-anxiety’ or ‘ego-anxiety’ but it might be the issue that is the biggest contaminant in the relationship and therefore it necessary to be brought up in counselling. Moreover, a discussion about what will be brought in counselling might provoke another conflict even before seeing the counsellor. Therefore both should prepare individually, and speak freely and in an uninhibited way to the counsellor bringing up everything that concerns them in the relationship. A professional and discerning counsellor knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff, and focus on relevant issues that highlight the need for change in both. Therefore both should simply speak their minds.

How much should we tell the counsellor

Both need to implicitly trust the counsellor and be completely open and vulnerable if you are to be helped as individuals, and if the relationship issues are to be honestly evaluated and negotiated. Withholding any data regarding facts, feelings, thoughts, opinions, needs, fears, concerns or beliefs can only be detrimental to the counselling process, as the counsellor can only work with what you bring to the table. Therefore, if one truly has a will to grow and work on the relationship then s/he will resort to transparency.

Choosing the right counsellor

It goes without saying that the counsellor should be professional, ethical, non-judgmental, respectful, discerning, empathetic, as well as someone who is capable of holding a mirror to you by confronting you compassionately as and when needed. A discerning counsellor is like a potter who holds the pot and moulds it at the same time, who can unconditionally accept an individual separate from his traits, as well as confront him/her for those traits/behaviours that need to be transcended. The beneficent counsellor is one helps with insight into yourself and is willing to struggle with you to nurture your growth.

It is best to go to a counsellor who comes recommended by others who can vouch that they have been truly helped. A good counsellor is one who herself is living effectively. Just as you would not take a cough medication from one who is coughing himself, similarly you need to find out about the counsellor before seeking help. There are many who set up shop and preach what they do not practise. Only one who nurtures healthy relationships in one’s own life will be competent and effective in helping you live effectively and nurture healthy relationships.

Finally, I repeat that for couple’s counselling to be effective both partners must have the ‘will to nurture a healthy relationship’, and the counsellor must have the ‘will to dedicate’ herself to such growth in both partners.

This was first published in the December 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Minnu Bhonsle
Dr Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.


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