3 Tips for Successful Couples Counseling

tips for successful couples counselingAre you looking for some ways to work better with your clients? Would you like some ideas to help couples improve their relationships?

Love, Pat, EdD, LMFT and Eva Berlander, Ph.D provided some valuable guidance in their talk about “The Power of the Therapeutic Contract” at the 2016 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium.

To dramatically boost your success with clients, they recommend that you:

  • Make a therapeutic contract
  • Focus on what works
  • Create a receiving place

Establish a Therapeutic Contract

The therapeutic contract/agreement has three main components:

  1. How Can You Help?
  • Ask your client(s) to spell this out in positive, measurable and specific terms.
  • Ask for an example of it. What would it look like? What would your partner do? And if your partner did that, what would that feel like or inside of you? In this way, you won’t misinterpret it and the client’s partner can’t get it wrong if he/she does it.
  1. Roadblocks
  • Ask clients how they stop themselves from getting what they want.
  1. Congruence
  • Bring the client/couple into congruence with what they say they want.
  • This entails helping them be in a receiving place to accept what it is that they want.

It is best to create a therapeutic contract from the very beginning of your work with your clients. This will hold you accountable, clarify their expectations and set their goals in a clear and achievable manner. This approach, in turn, will help you build rapport and increase your ability to deliver superior outcomes for your clients.

Focus on What Works

When couples come in, they will typically come in focusing on all the problems that are troubling them. Those same issues have become the focal point of their relationship and their conversations at home.

Love and Berlander note that life (and each problem) has many sides to it and that if you just focus on your clients’ problems, they will typically grow and your clients will get stuck in those problems.

However, by focusing on what is and has gone well for your clients, you can start to help them connect and improve their relationships.

Love and Berlander read the following passage from their book, “You’re tearing us apart: Twenty ways we wreck our relationships and strategies to repair them” (2015):

“If you only knew how hurtful it is when you criticize me. No matter what I do, nothing ever seems good enough. Every day I work as hard as I can to contribute to our relationship, but instead of a welcome smile or a little appreciation, what I get is your displeasure and ultimately more complaints. Truthfully, when you are around I have to brace myself because somehow you have the ability to turn the most positive conversation into a criticism. It’s discouraging when other people recognize all the good things I do, but you—the one I love most and the reason behind everything I do—can recall only those things I didn’t do. I try and try to please you, never getting a “thank you” or praise for what I do right. As soon as I do something wrong in your eyes, I hear about it, not just once, but time and time again. I feel like you never see what I do, only what I don’t do. It’s so difficult for me to keep trying when you continually point out how I have failed. It saddens me that what I do isn’t good enough in your eyes. I think we have a good life full of positives, but what I hear most from you is negatives. This burden grows heavier the longer we are together. “

This excerpt touched many of those in the audience because so many of us are able to identify with the painful feelings expressed with respect to someone important in our lives, and these hurt. We are naturally wired for both connection and protection.

When we, or our clients experience this type of pain from our partners, we employ defensive mechanisms to avoid hurting so much the next time we get criticized. This situation leads us to the necessity of a receiving place, the third critical element for successful couple client work.

Create a Receiving Place

Research indicates three primary ways for individuals to move from having an insecure to secure attachment. They may:

  • Have a partner who is secure and stays with them for at least five years
  • Have friends
  • Be in therapy

Your relationship with your clients (and not a specific modality) is the key to the success of any treatment. You help them by acknowledging and seeing their inner strengths, core values and most precious parts.

To be present for your clients, you need to create within yourself a receiving place inside that is open and available. The challenge lies in the fact that your brain will read or interpret future sequence of events based upon prior sequence of events.

In other words, it is critical to be aware of how your past experience has impacted your view of relationships and your [potentially skewed] expectations of how you expect to be treated, respected and loved.

Berlander gave an example of how she did not know the meaning of relationship safety based upon her experiences growing up. This background meant that she was conveying a sense of fear to her clients. She subsequently went on a journey to learn what safety looks like, in order to integrate this experience within herself and be able to transmit a sense of relationship safety to her clients.

With clients, creating a receiving place for communication is also critical. Pain typically shuts their brains down and makes them emotionally unavailable.

To help your clients’ brains feel open, safe and available to connect, educate them about the science of how our brains work; how we all get stuck in our own problems. This information will help them feel more compassionate toward themselves and take away their shame about getting stuck.

Lastly, highlight the positive, that is, the things that are working between them. This step will help rewire their brains to feel safe and open to reconnecting. Neurons that fire together wire together.


Couples Counseling Tips


3 Tips for Successful Couples Counseling

Dorlee Michaeli, MBA, LCSW

Dorlee Michaeli, MBA, LCSW, a therapist in private practice, is psychoanalytically trained and certified in EMDR. She is passionate about helping individuals heal and thrive. She works as a consultant and is editor of SocialWork.Career. Visit her at


APA Reference
Michaeli, D. (2016). 3 Tips for Successful Couples Counseling. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 8 Aug 2016
Published on All rights reserved.