Relationships have been under extra stress since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with couples finding themselves either quarantined apart or living together in very close quarters. Relationships are always hard work, but the pandemic brings with it a new wave of challenges, ranging from financial stress and personal loss to juggling working from home with unprecedented levels of parenting burnout. It's no wonder that on Zencare, we’ve seen couples counseling rise to become the second most requested therapy specialty.
Even before a relationship reaches its crisis point, seeking professional guidance in the form of online couples counseling can help. If you’re among the many considering counseling now, here’s what to know before starting online sessions.
Online Couples Counseling Guide
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When to look for an online couples counselor
As with any type of therapy, clinicians agree that the best time to seek online couples counseling is before you feel you need it. Taking this proactive approach to tackling obstacles can save you a lot of heartache and conflict down the line. "Many couples have communicated they wished they had begun therapy long before they reached out to me,” says Babita Spinelli, a psychoanalyst in New York City.
If you're experiencing any of the following challenges with your partner, it may be a good time to try online couples counseling:
- Difficulty communicating and/or having the same argument time and again
- Making decisions about the future of the relationship and/or navigating major life transitions that impact it
- Experiencing differing expectations of the relationship
- Infidelity, including both emotional and physical affairs
- Parenting and/or family-related issues
- Challenges related to intimacy and sex
- Money stress or financial concerns
Spinelli encourages couples to not let the inability to go to in-person sessions get in the way of working on and strengthening their relationship. Delaying the start date therapy can have a negative impact on the relationship, she says – and may lead to anger, resentment, depression or anxiety down the line.
“Now may be as good a time as ever to begin virtual couples therapy," says New York-based therapist Anna Zelig. After all, she adds, "If not now, when?”
What to address in online couples counseling
Any topic that you would want to discuss during in-person couples counseling can also be addressed in virtual sessions, says Kendra Capalbo, a couples counselor in Rhode Island.
Michele Conklin, a therapist in Los Angeles, agrees, adding that if a topic feels important to you and your relationship, it’s important to address in couples counseling:“I don’t have an agenda, and no topics are off limits."
In addition to the all of the relationship stressors that pre-existed the pandemic and continue to impact couples, providers are seeing some new concerns emerge in couples, including:
- Heightened anxiety about the future
- Changes in partner compatibility during the pandemic
- Increased sense, or occurrence, of conflict
- Financial stress in the face of furloughs and layoffs
- Differences in parenting style, placed under a microscope with homeschooling
- Decrease in intimacy due to prolonged separation or togetherness
- Difficulty healing from past hurt that was not fully resolved
- One or both partners experiencing a mental health challenge that is impacting the relationship
Many couples are also finding that challenges that may have existed in their relationship pre-pandemic feel heightened or newly exposed. According to Dr. Marissa Tunis, a psychologist in Los Angeles, this phenomenon is related to increased family stress, financial constraints, and existential fears – all coupled with fewer distractions, thanks to the ongoing social distancing requirements. If this resonates with you, know that an online couples counselor can help you unpack and navigate these heightened pressures.
How to prepare for online couples counseling
Unlike in-person couples counseling, online counseling offers a unique advantage in that couples have total control over their space. That makes it all the more important to set up for session in a way that feels comfortable to you, and also allows your counselor a full view of what’s happening in the room. Make sure you're physically and mentally prepared for sessions by considering the following:
1. Double-check your wifi speed
Internet with a bandwidth of at least 10 mbps is recommended for highest quality and to prevent connection issues. Check your connection by searching “internet speed test,” and clicking on the blue button that says “Run Speed Test.”
If it shows your wifi is under 10mbps, you may want to restart your router or use your phone's hotspot.
2. Show as much of your body in the camera as possible
Lauren Consul, a therapist in Los Angeles, recommends that couples use a computer (rather than phones) for sessions because it makes it easier to see both of them on the screen.
Place the computer several feet away, so that the therapist can see as much of your body as possible.
"It's helpful for me as a therapist to be able to get a sense of what you are communicating with your body as well as your words and being able to visually see you helps with that,” adds Consul.
3. Mitigate distractions
It’s crucial you both have a plan to mitigate distractions, both inside and outside of the room.
If you have kids who are old enough to spend time alone, counselor Liliya George recommends setting clear expectations for privacy by using a room with a closed door. "Set them up with an activity in a separate room and set up a timer for them, so they know when their parents will be done," she suggests.
Make sure all external technological distractions are eliminated, too! Consul recommends putting your phone away and turning notifications off from your computer, as both can be distracting during sessions.
4. Get creative with scheduling
Consul also stresses the importance of creative scheduling, and relying on your quarantine “village” if possible. If your kids are too young to occupy themselves while you're in session, having someone to babysit or doing sessions during nap-time or after bedtime could work, says Consul.
5. Consider joining from separate rooms!
Even though you’re addressing the relationship together, note that it’s not required that couples occupy the same physical space to benefit from online couples counseling.
For couples who are long-distance or currently separated, joining individually may be the default option; but according to George, it’s also an option for folks who live together. “Some couples prefer to join from different rooms in the house, depending on what the presenting issues are, as sometimes if there is an intense situation being discussed, partners prefer to have some physical space during this particular session."
If you're opting to join separately, make sure both devices are tested and ready before the session.
What happens in the first online couples counseling session
Each therapist has their own unique intake process, but many follow a three-step system in which they meet with the couple together first, and then meet one time with each partner individually.
The first joint meeting allows the provider to learn about your history as a couple and reasons for seeking therapy now. As Conklin explains, “I want to keep the focus on what has brought the couple into therapy. In a first session, my objective is to get a clear understanding of who they are, how they see their relationship, and what they want to work on.” Consul agrees, adding that her goal is to "get a good initial picture of what is happening in the relationship, from both partner's perspectives."
To better understand your relationship and dynamic, counselors might ask questions at the initial session like:
- What is bringing you to therapy now?
- What has or hasn't worked for your relationship?
- How did you meet? What attracted you to each other?
- What significant events have you faced in your time together?
- What small conflict has arisen in your daily life recently?
In addition to using this first meeting to get a lay of the land, says Conklin, it's "also an opportunity for the couple to assess whether I am a good fit for them before they get too deep into treatment."
The two individual sessions that follow allow your therapist to obtain background on your personal childhood, family, and life issues – all of which might contribute to the couple’s current struggles, says counselor Cathryn Biga.
When beginning online couples counseling, you can also expect some paperwork. Therapists may electronically send required documents, such as a consent to treat virtually and practice scheduling and confidentiality policies.
And as treatment progresses, you might be given other questionnaires, or as with Biga, relationship inventory worksheets designed to help devise strengths and deficits.
How to get the most out of an online couples counseling session
If you’ve had in-person couples counseling previously and are now transitioning to online sessions, you might notice that they feel different, and that’s okay! As psychologist Dr. Sally Chung explains, “It may be more challenging to feel emotionally connected to the therapist, and you may have more content issues to bring up in session due to being in lockdown or working from home for a long period of time."
Acknowledging this feeling of disconnect can ultimately serve as a powerful therapeutic tool, Conklin believes. “There are aspects of having to do therapy online that might surface feelings that come up elsewhere in the relationship, such as fear of not being understood or challenges around connection.”
You can also use the home-field advantage to “work through challenges within the very context that these challenges arise,” says Zelig. Allow having sessions from home to “provide a sense of familiarity as you dive into something that is unfamiliar and unknown,” Consul suggests, and look for the good: “Clients have shared that they feel more intimate more quickly because I am getting a perspective of their life I would have missed had they come into session.”
Here are more therapist-recommended tips to get the most out of online couples counseling sessions:
- Have a post session wind-down plan: If you’re able, buffer a bit of extra time after session before diving back into work or childcare. According to Consul, “It's helpful to have a transition plan after sessions since you are at home, and there is no commute that can be used as processing or decompressing time before jumping back into ’real life.’ Depending on your schedules, taking a walk together or sharing a meal or glass of wine can be great ways to process the session together.
- Practice patience, in and out of session: Like any therapy, it can take time to see results in couples counseling, and things may even feel worse before they get better. Biga cautions, “Remember that couples counseling is a process that may take time before some valuable and helpful change takes place.” To get the most out of the process, Spinelli recommends couples use the time outside of session to practice changes: “Do the homework in between sessions. Apply and utilize the tools and techniques the therapist is suggesting. Take notes during the session and review them together.”
- Maintain a committed counseling schedule: Much about life in a pandemic is unpredictable, and knowing when, where, and how you’ll engage in sessions can provide a helpful anchor point for the relationship. If possible, Dr. Chung recommends, “Try to keep the same cadence in session frequency and time to have continuity in your therapy.”
- Put in the work: Zelig explains, “Everything worth it in life takes work. When you wanted to learn piano, you sought a piano teacher. When you wanted to get a higher SAT or ACT score, you worked with a tutor. When you wanted to get in better shape, you may have enlisted a personal trainer. Relationships, especially long-term ones, are no different. The fact that you and your partner are beginning couples therapy, doesn't mean that you or your relationship is a failure. Give yourself permission to show up authentically and let your partner do the same. It's a huge sign of strength that you're seeking support.”
Pros and cons of online couples counseling
Social distancing requirements have necessitated that many formerly in-person activities go virtual, and couples counseling is no different. As with other activities that have made this transition, there are both pros and cons to consider:
Potential cons of online couples counseling
- Technical glitches
- Difficulty finding a private space (note that some counselors suggest joining from your car, if in-home is not possible!)
- Challenges feeling connected to your counselor
Possible pros of online couples counseling
- Less transition time after session may mean greater impact on the relationship. According to Zelig, “Countless couples have shared that video sessions have allowed them to put into practice tools immediately after sessions and that there's a deeper sense of vulnerability as they share their stories while sharing a glimpse into their homes.”
- Fewer logistical barriers to care may be reduced, says George. “Virtual therapy offers more flexibility to the couple, and less stress of having to juggle work and kids schedules, babysitters, and driving to the therapist's office.” This may actually help make the couples’ commitment to therapy stronger – which can lead to better results.
What to look for in an online couples counselor
There’s a vast range of approaches to couples counseling, for which counselors may have varied levels of training and comfort working virtually. Like any therapy, the relationship you have with your couples counselor is crucially important to the success of the treatment, so it’s important that you find someone you feel connected to. Luckily, online couples counseling only increases the pool of possible therapists.
The best online couples counselor for your relationship should have:
Training in couples counseling
“Training, training, training," says Capalbo.
"Therapists are not required to have specific training in couples therapy to offer it. Make sure that the online couples counselor you select has sought it out by doing your homework and asking questions. If a clinician does not have the proper training, they may unintentionally do more harm than good.”
Good chemistry with you and your partner
“Many therapists offer free consultation calls, which provide an opportunity to get a feel for their style and you and your partner's comfort level with them," says Zelig. "Are you looking for someone who provides more direct feedback? Or someone who has a gentler approach focused on more active listening and validation?"
It can be hard to know what you both need or want – so speak to your partner about what style you think would suit you both.
A logistically feasible and convenient practice setup
Even though you may be starting sessions virtually, there are still practical limitations to consider.
Dr. Chung advises you consider the following:
- Location: If you plan on eventually transitioning into in-person care, the therapist’s location may be something to consider.
- Health insurance: Couples counseling isn’t typically covered by insurance, but if you do want to use yours or your partner’s plan to cover the sessions, check whether the provider is in-network.
- Licensures: Look for a provider licensed in your state!
Still have first-session jitters? That’s to be completely expected, assures Zelig. “It takes a lot of courage to begin couples therapy, and it's normal to feel nervous for the first session. Focus on the fact that you and your partner are open to working on the relationship, and trust that your therapist will help create a safe and non-judgmental environment where you can both express yourselves openly.”
And remember, says Spinelli, regardless of the therapy being online, you should feel connected, seen, and heard by the therapist.