Updated: May 7
The first session is often an anxious experience for couples and there are mixed expectations. You may be thinking “can this person help us?” “what kind of questions are they going to ask me?” “I bet they take sides with my partner and tell me I am wrong” etc. Some people are hoping for miracles and others think it is a complete waste of time. One thing that is common of all couples counsellors, hopefully, is we don’t have an emotional attachment to the outcome therefore, we can offer an unbiased perspective.
One of the first questions I ask each person in that first session is “what are your goals for being here?” Nine times out of ten the answer “to get is to get things back to where they were.” Unfortunately, that is an unrealistic expectation because when you first meet, a lot of magic happens. There is hope, there are butterflies, there is excitement and there is that intoxicating rush of chemicals in the brain with the anticipation of a future with this new person. All those yummy things that happen when we fall in love. We tolerate and overlook a lot of the annoying habits and we make exceptions and allowances for things that by the time you have come to couples counselling, have become the most infuriating things on the planet! While we can never truly go back to the honeymoon phase, what we can do is work to fall in love all over again and establish a new relationship that is built on mutual trust, mutual positive regard, honesty and intentional communication. This is the relationship that has the legs to be long-lasting because it has a solid foundation.
In the first session, each person individually presents their case for everything that is wrong with the relationship, how unbearable their partner is and how miserable life with them has become. While one person is making their case, I watch the other person who is usually internally haemorrhaging getting ready to launch their scathing rebuttal. This however, is usually the first time in recent memory that one person has been allowed to speak without the other jumping in after a few syllables to correct, contradict, criticise and condemn. If you are this person, do your best to remain calm and know that you will have your turn to speak.
Your counsellor in that first session, will hopefully be very welcoming and do their best to put you at ease and explain their process of working. Some therapists will want to use inventories and have you fill out relationship satisfaction forms or other diagnostic questionnaires. These most certainly are useful however, I don’t really use them as I feel they can add to what is already an anxious situation. I prefer just to encourage couples one at a time in the first session to get it all out on the table. The first session is about allowing each person to be heard and voice their distress.
Hold the intent that the session will be a positive experience. If we go looking for negativity, we are guaranteed to find it.
Managing your expectations in the first session is critical. It has been a very difficult time for both of you leading up to this session and as previously mentioned, sometimes couples hope that all their problems will magically be resolved after a couple of visits. Your counsellor is a guide. We make suggestions based on what has worked for couples in the past with similar issues. If communication is the main problem, get ready for your therapist to introduce you to the Imago Dialogue. If the problems are really pervasive, you can expect to hear Gottman Therapy. If the whole family is involved, you’ll most likely be on the receiving end of Family Systems Therapy. The reason your counsellor suggests these approaches is because they work, and they have decades of research backing that up. Whatever your therapist recommends, know they are suggesting it for a good reason. So keep an open mind.
Making the decision to finally go and see a couples’ counsellor is often a difficult one and you should absolutely commend yourself for honouring your partner, your relationship and yourself for making the effort to at least see if someone can help. The most important things I can suggest for that first session are to manage your expectations, keep calm and keep an open mind. Also, and perhaps most importantly, hold the intent that the session will be a positive experience. If we go looking for negativity, we are guaranteed to find it. If we look for positivity, we are guaranteed to find that as well. We always find whatever we are looking for so choose your intention wisely.