Some couples need counselling, others coaching

Image: 123RF / Katarzyna Białasiewicz

There is a silent tension among professionals regarding the difference between couples counselling and couples coaching.

We often receive inquiries from couples who are confused between the two.

Perhaps the biggest difference, in our view, is around goals.

Coaches ask questions to help partners in a relationship to, for example, improve communication, personal growth or help them respond to needs better.

Improvement will be judged on metrics decided on by the stakeholders.

Counselling is more about providing a safe space for the couple to communicate so they can resolve emotional issues or come to terms with something that is hard to talk about, like a previous divorce, infidelity, illness or a death.

Essentially, counselling clients are looking to heal; coaching clients are looking to get results according to whatever goals they set.

Counselling tends to look back and be problem-centred, while coaching is more forward-looking and troubleshooting.

Another way to think about this is to say that couples counselling is about dealing with unresolved issues from the past that are affecting your ability to be happy together, today.

For example, a marriage counsellor may typically say: You said you had difficulty trusting your partner because of how your parents treated you when you were younger. Tell me about that.”

Couples coaching is more about assessing and adapting your habits in the present to get the results you want in the future.  

Examples could be: We want to organise our time better so we can spend more quality time together”, or something more long-term like, How do I keep my ongoing conflicts with my in-laws from really hurting our marriage?

Couples don’t need to be facing some crisis to see a coach.

However, it may be time to see a marriage counsellor.

Making the choice to do so can feel like a very big step.

It involves admitting things are not great in your partnership, which is often tough and scary to admit.

There are plenty of telltale clues like feeling stuck in bad patterns; emotional distance and loneliness; dismissive behaviour; difficulties with in-laws and friendships; abuse; addictions; differences in parenting styles; disagreement on financial management; untreated anxiety and depression; and difficult childhoods.

One of the most common reasons for seeking counselling is the need for help in overcoming a major breach of trust.

Perhaps it was infidelity; lack of protection with in-laws or friends; a series of lies or deception about money.

The rebuilding of the foundation of trust can often be helped by establishing a forum in which both parties are free to express their vulnerability.

Frequent arguments are another sign of problems in a relationship, whether  “small” squabbles or huge blowouts that leave a lot of drama in their wake.

Either way, it’s the pattern of the increase that is important. This could indicate a risky trajectory into constant arguing.

More importantly, it could indicate significant problems under the surface that aren’t really being dealt with.

Maybe poor communication is another problem and you feel misunderstood or ignored, or don’t know what is happening with your spouse emotionally as of late.

Often, one of the most tangible outcomes of marriage counselling is an increase in communication, and a major improvement in its quality.

A skilled counsellor can equip couples with tools that will help them connect, hear, and understand each other better.

Therapy can also become a safe and supportive place for couples to bring up things that are difficult to talk about in other settings.

How a couple handle conflict is one of the best predictors of whether their relationship will go the distance.

Maybe you or your partner shuts down, lashes out, gives the silent treatment or gets vengeful or passive-aggressive.

Unfortunately, there are no shortage of dysfunctional ways to handle conflict, which make the original problem that much worse.

Sometimes the cruel double-whammy of a setback in life affects a marriage.

Many couples go their separate ways after the heartbreaking loss of a child, for instance, or long-term unemployment, a health crisis, and so on.

Sexual issues can also be both a symptom and a cause of relationship problems, which means the subject is often at the forefront of couples’ complaints.

Sometimes there is a gradual decrease in physical intimacy, or more overt conflict, with one partner expressing frustration, a partner constantly being rejected, or sex being used as a bargaining tool.

Whatever the issue, a skilled counsellor can help couples start working on it.


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