Online Couples Counselling, relationships

Couples Counselling Online: What You Need to Know

Most couples would have never thought that they would only have online therapy as an option, or very limited options for in person couples therapy. 

We are in this global pandemic now for more than a year and I’ve come to see a pattern change in clients that are willing to meet online. 

Here is what I have come to notice about the transition to online therapy for couples:

When the pandemic first hit a significant amount of my couples decided to end their services for a variety of reasons; 

  • Not knowing if they would have income
  • Not knowing if they would be able to manage the kids
  • Logistics: Space for therapy, high speed internet 

Most surprisingly, couples were not comfortable or confident about the idea of online couples therapy working. Whereas a significantly higher amount of individual clients did not share the same sentiment.

Not only was there a decrease in couples I was already working with, but there was a substantial decrease in couples reaching out. 

I know what you’re thinking, this was likely due to the uncertainty that Covid brought…

While that is true to some extent, this logic didn’t apply for my clients seeking individual or trauma therapy.

It was weeks before I finally had a new couple reach out for couples counselling help. In fact, I didn’t hear from them again for weeks until they decided they really needed the help and couldn’t put it off any longer. 

I later found out that this extended time from their initial contact was because they were weary of the idea of online therapy.  

The transition to online couples therapy is the hardest part

I can appreciate how difficult it is for couples to make the leap to do couples therapy in general. 

With individual therapy you decide one day it’s time and you don’t have anyone to answer to except for yourself.  

  • You determine your own goals and your therapy continues as long as you want it to.  
  • You don’t have to worry about your partner bringing up your faults

Couples therapy on the other hand is different in that it requires two willing participants, and therapeutic goals have to be agreed upon. 

It’s not uncommon for one partner to be weary of the idea of couples therapy in general and if they decide they don’t want to continue, that’s it – the couples therapy cant move forward. 

Another common roadblock is for couples to be worried about issues they want to bring up and what their partner will say. 

Now imagine adding in the factor of trying to adjust to the idea of online couples therapy

I get it, it makes sense to me why so many couples wouldn’t continue and why a lot of couples want to wait until the pandemic is over to start counselling in-person. 

Whether you have previously experienced couples therapy or you and your partner are new to the process, the idea of adjusting to online couples counselling is likely new to everyone including myself.  We are all figuring it out together.

Here are some answers to the most common questions I continue to get from couples in the past year of conducting couples counselling online:

Myth: We will just be fighting more with online couples Counselling

FACT: The goal of couples therapy is never to let couples come in each session and fight about this week’s events or the events of the past years.  

If you have a therapist that allows for that kind of fighting to continue you may need to consider finding a different couples therapist.

Regardless of whether you are meeting with a therapist online or in person, the goal is to increase positive interactions and decrease the negative ones.  Virtual therapy does not impede that goal.

Can Couples Therapy Be Done Online?

Let’s get straight to it, yes couples therapy can be done online. There is research that suggests that online therapy is highly effective, additionally there is research to suggest that the quality and effectiveness of couples therapy is not impacted when it is done online.  

In fact, multiple studies into effectiveness of online relationship counselling consistently reflected favorable outcomes in the areas of: client satisfaction, efficacy as compared to face-to-face therapy, clinical measures and the therapeutic alliance

Additional research of online therapy for individuals has also been studied and found to be highly effective (Barack et. al, 2007).

Why Might It Be An Important Time To Continue Or Start couples counselling online?

The truth is that Covid puts a lot of stress on most couples.  Covid creates new challenges, but sometimes more importantly, highlights previously existing challenges.  Outside of a pandemic, couples would possibly be able to manage or ignore these with the business of day-to-day lives.

It is common for couples to struggle with communication, parenting, conflict, issues with intimacy, compromise, spending time together and distribution of work to name a few. 

Now imagine when these long standing issues are met with the increased stress of Covid and everything that came with it. 

There is speculation and rumor that there is an increase in divorces due to the pandemic. 

While I’m not a divorce lawyer, (in fact you could say I’m the exact opposite of a divorce lawyer), what i can tell you is that Covid could be the stress for many couples that brings them to their breaking point. 

It can put couples who aren’t currently seeing a therapist in the position of needing to address not only the current stress of Covid but the deeper pre-existing struggles of their relationship coming to the surface, while adapting to the idea of doing couples therapy online.  

While working through relationship issues online can be odd or difficult, the reality is that not addressing issues can push your relationship to a boiling point.  It might be a difficult transition to online therapy but your therapist is there to guide you.

Conflicts around unaddressed stress, difficulty with communication, loneliness, distribution of housework, parenting or spending time together don’t go away on their own and will likely reach a peak with the lack of social outlets or family support. 

How Is Online Couples Counselling Different From In-Person Therapy?

Feedback  from couples that transitioned from in-office to online relationship counselling has been mainly positive.

Continuing couples did express at a later point that they believed online therapy wasn’t going to be effective and was going to be weird.  

They expressed that while there was an adjustment period, they were still able to walk away from the session feeling that they gained just as much as they would have from in person. 

For couples who are new to online couples therapy the process remains the same with some minor changes. 

  1. The first session is still a joint couples session to review the couples’ history. 
  2. The second session remains as the two individual back to back sessions.  
  3. Between the second and third session, the online assessment tool is sent to your email to complete in time for your third session where feedback and therapeutic framework is developed.

If you are seeking couples therapy and have a partner that is abusive online couples therapy might not be as important as seeking individual online therapy. 

The challenge with having online couples sessions, or couples therapy at all, when your partner is abusive is the chance they could use the session as fuel to continue their abuse at home.  

Womens Crisis Services for Waterloo Region and Waterloo regional police are great resources for both safety tips and support shelters if you are experiencing abuse at home.  You can also call the assaulted women’s helpline 24/7 in Ontario 1-866-863-0511.

Some couples that transitioned online during the pandemic needed a session or two to reassess goals and to build their comfort with meeting online.  Once couples become familiar with online therapy they are able to pick up right from where we left off.

Some Considerations For Couples Counselling Online

A therapist’s office environment is set up in a way that creates a sense of safety, comfort, calmness and confidentiality. When you are adjusting to therapy at home there are some things you want to consider in terms of your environment.

  • Can you find a space where you can speak uninterrupted by kids? 
  • Are you restricted to common areas that have a lot of noise? 
  • Do you feel like you can speak safely without worrying about someone overhearing what you are saying or working on, in your session? 
  • Do you have a webcam on your device? 
  • Will you at some point have access to a computer instead of just a phone or ipad? 
  • Do you have a space where you can both sit comfortably? 

Helpful tip: Consider having an extra monitor available if you have one so that you can have one screen for the therapist and potentially a screen for a handout.

How Does Couples Therapy Work if I’m Not In The Office?

As mentioned above, there are very little things that need to change when it comes to the therapy itself, in fact the most adapting that likely needs to be done occurs on the end of the therapist and not as much on the couples.

The therapist might want to send along a sheet or a script to follow and this is typically given as a handout sheet in session but instead it’s something you might get an electronic version online.

What Happens When There Is an Internet Interruption?

Okay, here is the area where online couples therapy can become more of a challenge than in person, BAD INTERNET CONNECTION! 

While minor connection issues can be inconvenient, a consistently bad internet connection can be incredibly frustrating for everyone involved. 

Imagine how annoying it is to repeat yourself three times to someone.  Now imagine instead of it being what one person said, make it two people and happening continuously throughout the session. 

In my experience this presents as more of a challenge than with individual therapy because you are speaking more directly with the therapist and someone catches that there is a lag pretty quickly. 

However, if a couple is having an intense intimate conversation they might not notice if I’m frozen or tell them that I can’t hear them.  There is nothing worse in a couples session than to interrupt a beautifully intimate moment between a couple because I can’t hear them. 

Oftentimes I just had to use body language and let the conversation happen because I know my interrupting would only take them off course.  As a therapist I would put the pieces I could hear together and continue to encourage the process.

The good news is that as long as you don’t live in a rural area, or in area that has poor internet connection this is something you can discuss with your internet provider. 

Couples can be asked to move closer to their wifi, or to plug directly into their internet to get better signal, which can improve the situation significantly.

Trillium Counselling uses high speed fibre optic internet to ensure no connection issues from our end.  Our video conference domain also allows for audio connection via phone call-in.  This means that even if the video gets choppy or lost that audio will always remain stable.  This is a good alternative for those with consistently poor internet connection or those who can’t upgrade their internet service. 

You and your therapist will have a plan in place for the situation where the internet connection cuts out. Typically it is established beforehand that if the internet cuts out that the person who still has internet connection remains until the other person rejoins. 

In the case where the therapist’s internet cuts out, the couples postpone their discussion and wait to resume until the therapist comes back. This is important as it’s the therapist’s job is to help couples learn how to increase positive interaction and avoid interactions that could bring tension or negativity into the conversation.  It is not helpful if the conversation continues while the therapist tries to get back online and in that time a fight has taken place. 

There are other conversations you can have with your therapist about what to do if someone interrupts, dogs want to be let out, doorbell rings or cats want to join. There are some things you can plan ahead for and others that you adapt to as they happen.

How Do You Prepare Before a Session of Online Couples Counselling?

There is not a whole lot that needs to be done prior to a couples session, other than checking you have good internet connection and freeing yourself from other distractions. 

For parents with young kids this really can be the most difficult part of their session, and while i don’t mind the distractions from kids they tend to be very frustrating for the parents. 

Depending on the situation your kids might be busy with school activities or in bed.  When you have children that need more attention or aren’t easily distracted, parents have asked family members or friends to watch the kids. 

I’ve seen some parents become very creative with finding ways to distract them. Some couples even make the day of their couples session something the kids look forward to because they associate it with a new coloring book, a new movie, uninterrupted screen time or a special pizza dinner if they behave well and resist the urge to interrupt. 

Some parents promise more quality time together with the prospect of a family walk or playing a board game together.

A lot of couples I have worked with make it very rewarding to resist the urge to distract.  Covid can make it very challenging to have the supports in place we use to have.  Don’t be too hard on yourself if you spoiled the kids a little to get some uninterrupted time to work on your relationship.

How Does a Couples Therapy Session End Online?

A lot of couples believe that couples therapy is a place where couples go to fight, again if all you do is fight in your sessions your therapist might not be the right fit. 

It should be the goal of the couples therapist to make sure that the last 10 minutes of the session is for processing what came up in the session and provide reflection for personal or couple takeaways. 

The end of the session also addresses agreed upon homework relevant to the session. 

When I end a session I get couples to finish on a note of fondness and admiration. This is where each person is asked to state something that they appreciate about their partner over the past week as well as something they appreciate or admire that the partner did in the session. 

This is done intentionally to help couples slowly learn how to express their fondness and admiration if they weren’t used to doing it.  It is important to understand that they can have a challenging conversation and still have fondness and admiration for one another.  

This also gets the couple to pay attention to the things their partner is doing well in their day to day lives and in the couples therapy. This ends the session on a really positive note. 

Couples are also reminded to avoid the big challenging conversations that usually lead to a fight, and address them in couples therapy only if possible. 

Couples are also encouraged to give themselves some extra time to transition out of their session by immediately going for a walk around the block and coming back home.  This functions as a reset after a session. 

If this needs to be alone that is totally fine as well, one person can go for a walk while the other takes a bath.

CONCLUSION: The Good News Is You Don’t Need To Postpone Addressing Your Challenges!

Yes, trying out couples therapy for the first time can be difficult for some to adjust to, and adjusting to couples therapy online can initially be a challenge for both newcomers and those who have already been to couples therapy. 

While there is still on-going research about online and online couples therapy, a year later the pandemic has still taken hold.  Meanwhile time continues to pass and the stress of adjusting to this new way of life is not getting any easier for couples. 

The pandemic relationship unfortunately does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon and neither are relationship challenges.  Consider making the leap and working through your challenges with a therapist online. It might take just a few sessions for you to become accustomed to the online therapy world and your new therapist. 

By all means, if you can tell that a therapist just isn’t a good fit for you in the first session, or they had said or done something that wasn’t conducive to the therapeutic process, don’t feel like you need to continue. 

I was so pleased to hear so many of my couples say that they are glad that they made the leap and tried online couples counselling.  So many clients said that while they didn’t love the idea at first they have really warmed up to online therapy.  One of my couples even said they would only do online couples therapy moving forward because they felt no difference in quality compared to in-person and that it was more convenient to be at home. 

My advice is the same for in-person therapy as it is for virtual therapy, consider trying it out for 3-4 sessions. Three sessions are suggested as a minimum to encompass the introductory session, therapeutic assessment and one post session to see what a session working on an issue would feel like. 

The truth is you will be adjusting to both online therapy and likely a new therapist – and that needs to be given a little bit of time.  

Trillium Counselling provides online counselling services and couples counselling in the Kitchener Waterloo area. Contact us today for a consultation or to book an appointment!