Relationship Counselling: An Inside Look

Relationship counselling can be of benefit to any couple, regardless of what stage your relationship is in. Relationships Australia SA not only offers relationship counselling through our Personal Counselling service, but we also teach the Graduate Diploma of Relationship Counselling through our Registered Training Organisation, the Australian Institute of Social Relations.

To demystify the process and understand the benefits of relationship counselling, we recently sat down with Janet Muirhead, our Practice Manager of Relationship Counselling, to get the inside scoop.

Q: What is relationship counselling?

People come to relationship counselling when they have concerns about their relationships. In relationships, we can be good at having our own say and not necessarily listening to what the other person is saying.  It’s important, however, that each of us feels heard. A counsellor’s job is to ask questions from another point of view, that helps to open up possibilities in the relationship and helps to move the couple away from their usual interactional pattern. Even small changes can lead to something better.

One of the golden rules of counselling is that there should be news of difference to come out of each session. We hope people will leave with some new snippet of information about their relationship; maybe a new, or renewed, experience of being heard or acknowledged; or some different understanding of what drives each of them.

Q: How does relationship counselling work? Do people come in together or separately?

At Relationships Australia SA we work in both ways – at some sites we like to have individual sessions first. It’s often good for people to come individually so that they can feel heard by the counsellor and we can check for any safety issues. Then we, most of the time, move into a couple counselling session. Occasionally it’s more appropriate to see people individually. The counsellor will make that decision on a case-by-base basis in consultation with the clients.

Q: Who should go to relationship counselling?

If you go to an accountant annually to get assistance with your financial matters – or the dentist to get a regular clean, why not go to a relationship counsellor to get a break down each year about what’s happening in your relationship?  It’s helpful for every couple to have a tune-up every now and again. I find that after counselling people are more open to reviewing their relationship themselves.  People intend their relationships to last for a lifetime and during lifetimes, there are many changes.  Some relationship manage to navigate changes better than others do.  Family transition points, for instance, are often times of disruption for the couple.

Research tells us that people have usually been thinking about coming to counselling for seven years before they get here. By the time that happens there’s may have been a huge amount of injury occurring in the relationship.  At this point there’s quite a task ahead of the couple and the therapist! The best thing is for people to come in where there is still plenty of goodwill in the relationship.

Q: What topics do you typically cover in a session?

Most people who come in want to work on their “communication” – but this covers everything from conflict to lack of connection, from affairs to sexual concerns, from family violence to parenting or extended family issues.  Most people come in because something has gone astray with the hopes and dreams they had for their relationship.

Q: What is the counsellor’s role?

The counsellor’s role is not to give advice; it’s more to open up the possibilities for new ideas and strategies for people to try and a way to help people discover something different about the meaning each person gives to the others’ behavior.  Sometimes the counsellor explores relevant issues from the past but most often couple counsellors help focus clients on possibilities for now.  Counsellors are also vitally interested in the strengths of the relationship. Counsellors ask lots of questions but these questions are to help people discover things for themselves or their relationship.  These questions may not have been asked before or it might be questions that explore different timelines or different areas of the relationship. Counsellors can also suggest things for the couple to experiment with as a couple and can sometimes facilitate significant change.

Q: Now for the hard question, does relationship counselling really work?

Relationship counselling helps people live much more comfortably in their relationship. The effectiveness of counselling really depends on how much people are invested in their relationship. If people have only been together for a year and the differences are starting to concern one party or the other, it might be a wise decision to separate. But if people have been together for 5 or 10 years and have invested a lot in the relationship, they usually want to turn it around.

The evidence shows that it does work, but it’s very difficult to do research in this area. There have been randomised control trials where the whole experiment is set up very carefully, and we know in those conditions it is very effective – it improved relationships at 80%. Relationships Australia has quite a lot of their own research in this area, we did a study several years ago and found lots of positive things about people coming in to counselling.

Q: Do you have any final advice for couples considering relationship counselling?

My advice would be to approach a counsellor that is trained in couple therapy, and go as early as you can. If your partner doesn’t want to go at first, it won’t hurt for you to go in and have a conversation with a counsellor separately.

With couples counselling, if things haven’t changed significantly by the first 5 to 6 sessions then we would probably be thinking about going in a different direction. But have hope that things can change quite quickly sometimes.

Relationships Australia SA offers Personal Counselling services including relationship counselling, to learn more please visit our website or call us at 1300 364 277. The Australian Institute of Social Relations offers the Graduate Diploma of Relationship Counselling and currently accepting registrations of interest for 2018.