Finding the right support for your relationship can be quite a challenge. The market is saturated with coaching, counseling, and psychotherapy services. It is very difficult to assess what services or professionals would be the most helpful for your relationship and to tell when the right time to seek help is.
In this article, we answer three common questions people have about hiring a relationship professional.
- When is the right time to reach out to a relationship professional?
- What is the difference between relationship coaching, couples counseling, and psychotherapy?
- How can I know if the service or the relationship professional we chose is the right match?
Let’s start with timing.
When to reach out to a relationship professional?
The most obvious answer is that you seek support when a relationship problem has been persistent for a while and you are struggling to work through it on your own.
- A problem can be anything that affects the quality of your relationship and your lives.
- A while for you can mean anything from a few weeks to months or even years.
- A struggle to work through it can be anything from avoiding talking about the problem to constantly arguing about it to having that specific conflict spill over into other aspects of your life.
Partners that would benefit from help usually say that they feel stuck, don’t know how to talk about the problem, or have talked about it too much with no resolution. One or both partners may feel misunderstood or lacking understanding, fall into the loops of blame, guilt, or shame.
You will also hear from a lot of relationship professionals that you should not wait for a problem to happen or to wait until it becomes unbearable to reach out for help. When navigating the swinging lifestyle, in particular, some professionals suggest seeking out help sooner rather than later.
You can also reach out when a problem is likely to occur.
- For example, you may be getting ready for a transition such as moving to a new location, opening your relationship to a different non-monogamy style, planning a pregnancy or going through fertility treatment, or anything else that may add confusion or stress or provoke disagreement between partners.
Relationship professionals would also agree that you do not have to have or anticipate a problem to reach out for support. You can reach out when you are already satisfied with your relationship and want to maintain or make it better.
- For example, you can have no problem with sex but want to bring more playfulness, creativity, and eroticism into it. Or, you already make good lifestyle decisions together and want to learn ways to make them faster or wiser.
To reach out for support, it is important that both partners consent to start the process. They do not have to be equally motivated or happy to start it, but they need to agree to it.
What’s the difference between relationship coaching, couples counseling, and psychotherapy?
Believe it or not, many relationship professionals are confused about this question as well.
This is because all three are similar in the sense that:
- They all (should) offer a supportive environment for you to discuss your challenges.
- Coach, counselor, and psychotherapist all help navigate discussions, by listening attentively and asking constructive questions.
- Coach, counselor, and psychotherapist do not tell you how to manage your relationship – they may propose examples or show you alternative behaviors, but they do not suggest that there is one right way.
- Coach, counselor, and therapist (should) approach the couple with curiosity to learn about them and help them learn about themselves, not from the position of the all-knowing authority.
- Coaching, counseling, and psychotherapy all have the intention to raise relational awareness and facilitate change.
The differences are about:
- The psychological depth and the importance of the past;
- The duration and structure of the process; and
- The level of training, expertise, and experience of the professional.
Your level of relationship functionality
Are you looking to understand or mend what’s broken or improve what’s already good?
Do you both acknowledge the problem and are willing to work on it?
While therapy can still be efficient for the couples who are highly or relatively functional at the moment they start the process, coaching is likely to be inadequate for couples who are facing challenges that affect them more seriously.
For example, you want to bring more playfulness into your already mutually satisfying sex life – a relationship/sex coach can help have open and honest conversations, offer suggestions or tools, support in planning, and follow up with you to discuss challenges. It is a context in which you can explore and create opportunities together as you move from solid functionality or mild challenges to an improved or richer relationship.
If you are experiencing challenges that are (more) difficult to communicate or understand, that may stem from the past, and significantly affect the person or the relationship, try working with a relationship therapist instead. Counseling stands between coaching and therapy, touches both ends, but leaves more complicated dysfunctionalities to psychotherapy.
Psychological depth and the importance of past
To what level are the current happenings connected to what you have been through in the past?
Is your relationship affected by mental health challenges and past trauma?
Psychotherapy can help you become more conscious of, verbalize, communicate, and understand the challenges that are rooted in the past, in experiences of trauma and adversity, family dysfunction, or mental health issues.
Coaching is more about surface-level changes. “Surface-level” does not mean that these changes are unimportant. It just means that they do not require a lot of psychological digging, large-scale changes in the ways you think and behave.
It can still mean that you change the way you communicate through conflicts, that you increase the level of relationship satisfaction, improve your sex and connection. These are all very important!
Counseling can be a step in-between, helping a couple increase awareness about the scope of challenges they need to work on, connecting surface-level challenges to issues that are more at the core.
Duration and structure of the process
How much structure do you need? How much time are you willing to invest in the process?
Coaching tends to be the most structured approach to providing help to couples. While therapy and counseling can handle more confusion and ambiguity, coaching processes usually have a clear, specific, measurable goal to start with.
There are a lot of different approaches in psychotherapy, counseling, and coaching, that can be very different, and even opposite.
For example, CBT or REBT psychotherapy can have a very structured process, compared to psychodynamic approaches that have more fluidity and leave more room for whatever partners or the therapists bring into the session.
Therapy is likely to be more adaptive to the changes of topics within the process while coaching processes tend to be more structured and focused.
Psychotherapy and counseling usually have stricter boundaries around the role of the professional, the duration of the session, and the setting. Coaching is more flexible in that regard.
Psychotherapy and counseling usually assume continuity, whereas coaching can be limited to single sessions.
The level of training, expertise, and experience of the professional
Relationship professionals have different schooling (formal and informal education), different fields of study or work, and different personal and professional experiences.
What you choose depends on what you value and prioritize in the professional you choose to trust.
Words of caution
Please be careful when selecting a relationship professional especially coaches. “Coach” is not a legally protected term so anyone can use it including unqualified people. If they have no training, education, or even common sense they can still call themselves a “relationship coach”.
You probably know many people that haven’t been in a car accident this year but that doesn’t mean they have what it takes to teach a driving school. Simply because a “coach” hasn’t been divorced does not mean they are qualified. To be fair, it is possible to be a good relationship coach without a relevant college degree or formal training but you should be extra diligent when reviewing them.
There are even coaching “certifications” that can be purchased by anyone. Keep your guard up and don’t be afraid to ask about their qualifications. Remember it is your relationship on the line so seek out the best qualified. Hopefully, they have spent years of learning, researching, and talking to others and are not simply trying to profit from couples in need.
Be your own best advocate.
Knowing which service is right for your relationship
People differ in ways they assess how well a person they are talking to understands them or how capable they are to help resolve an issue they are working through.
Before you look for support, try to identify your own criteria:
- What is important for me/us in a coach, counselor, or a therapist?
- What kind of person would I/we like them to be?
- What qualities would I/we like to see in my/our coach, counselor, or therapist?
- How would I/we recognize those qualities?
The relationship professional of your choice should be able to:
- Provide you undivided attention
- Discuss expectations from the process with you with transparency and openness
- Listen carefully and check for understanding
- Take no sides in the process
- Restrain from moralizing or judging the relationship of the partners in any other way
- Make room for each voice to be heard in a session
- Set clear boundaries that each partner is aware of
- Provide information about their background, experience, and qualification
- Provide information about scheduling policies and payment
Also important to know:
- Not all relationship professionals are sex-positive. Make sure to ask before starting.
- Some relationship professionals provide a free consultation before you decide to start a process. This can be an opportunity to see whether you feel comfortable around them and in conversation with them.
- Some people will notice a difference or improvement after the first session. Some may need more. If you feel discouraged with the process, try addressing your dilemmas and concerns in the session before dropping out.
And in the end, we would like to praise your courage and send lots of support.
Each relationship is a work in progress.
It is ok to consider help and to ask for it. It takes courage to understand that in some paths we do not have to walk alone.