People often ask me how a couple can tell if they would benefit from relationship therapy; how they can recognise that their problems can no longer be dealt with at home, together. There’s no simple answer, but often we get a sense that things are reaching stalemate. Perhaps you and your partner are arguing about the stupidest things and these rows quickly escalate into something nasty. Or your relationship feels stale, and if the two of you were not so busy leading separate lives you feel you would die of boredom. Sometimes there is a big issue – such as money, sex, infidelity, in-laws or children – about which you cannot get your partner to understand your viewpoint. Beginning any form of counselling is daunting. Exposing your inner-most hopes and fears to a supportive stranger, your partner will be in the seat opposite ready to disagree, and possibly to rubbish your opinions. He or she already knows so much about you from your day-to-day life together that laying bare your soul or secrets can leave you feeling particularly naked. There is the added fear that the truth will upset or hurt your partner and make a bad situation even worse. When I finish counselling and ask couples to look back over their therapy, most admit that, although they knew I was trained to be impartial, they feared I would side with their partner. In many cases, couples get an immediate short-term boost. This is partly down to a sense of relief that something is finally being done, but mainly because our partner agreeing to this ordeal is concrete proof that she or he cares. Next, it soon becomes clear that a couple counsellor’s responsibility is to the relationship and both of you will get equal time, attention and understanding. If couples have been able to cooperate enough to set up a home together and raise a family, they soon begin to support each other through the necessary changes to their relationship. For this reason, couple counselling often needs fewer sessions than one-to-one work. Couple counselling tends to work with the immediate problems, although the past is used to illuminate the present. Couple psychotherapy, however, starts with the deep-seated problems and by resolving these aims to alleviate any curr , I have a bigger agenda: to help each partner to be emotionally honest, understand each other’s feelings and to engage with the difficult bitsent issues. Inside a counselling session So once you have found your therapist, where does he or she start? Personally, I’m always interested in what makes a couple seek help right now, as opposed to in the months or years during which the problems have been building. I also like to hear each partner’s individual perspective. I like to put the couple’s “presenting” problems – what they have come to me specifically to discuss – into the context of the whole relationship. So I ask my clients to tell the story of how they met – it helps relax people and remember the good elements of their relationship, and then slowly work up to the present. In subsequent session, I may draw up the couple’s joint family tree. This reveals important life events – the death of a parent, any divorces, and the ages of any children – and shows up similarities and differences in the partners’ backgrounds. Although we will generally concentrate on issues arising during the week between sessions. All too often people try to avoid this pain by denying, ignoring or rationalising it away and diverting themselves with something else. However once all the hidden issues are openly acknowledged – and the fear removed that something worse is lurking in the shadows – even ingrained problems are surprisingly soluble. After two or three months, I melt into the background. Couples discover they can do this work on their own, that their communication has improved and it’s time to end counselling. Most people leave having not only learned a lot about their partner and their relationship, but about themselves, too.