Assessment in couples therapy
When I work with couples, we spend the first three sessions doing something called “assessment.” This is because before we start working on your goals, we need to know what the strength and challenge areas are in your relationship, and what goals you want to work towards. Sometimes couples have questions about what assessment is like, so I’m going to fill you in in this post. If you have any other questions, you can always email me or schedule a free consult to chat more.
Why is assessment important?
If you’re having surgery, you don’t want your surgeon going in with a scalpel before they’ve done an MRI and know what they’re trying to heal! In couples therapy, we need to have a thorough understanding of the strength and challenge areas in your relationship so that therapy isn’t just throwing spaghetti up onto the wall to see what sticks. Doing a thorough assessment can give us a path forward and clarify what issues are there that you want to work through. Often, couples find the assessment time to be validating and normalizing, too. When you’ve spent a lot of time ruminating about your problems, it can be meaningful to step back and notice what’s going well and what your strengths are. Most relationships have both strengths and challenge areas to explore.
One other benefit of the assessment process is that we can get to know each other. Assessment sessions give me and you the opportunity to make sure that we are a good fit to work together. If for some reason we’re not a fit, I’m happy to provide you with a referral to someone who can help you better.
What does the assessment process look like?
Following the Gottman Method, which is based on 40 years of research by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, we spend the first 3 sessions on assessment. (Some clinicians using the Gottman Method spend more sessions on assessment; and depending on how much history there is to explore, assessment can sometimes take longer than just 3 sessions).
The first session:
I will interview you about your relationship, the history of your relationship and what you’re both hoping for. There are lots of specific areas and questions to explore, such as how you first met, what drew you to each other, and when you first started noticing whatever issues that you’re having trouble with now. This session is a chance for you to explore the story of your relationship together and talk about both the good and bad times, the highs and the lows, as well as what your hopes and fears are for couples therapy.
The second session:
I will meet with both of you individually to get to know you, your own background and ask you some more questions about how you’re seeing the relationship, and your level of commitment. I don’t keep secrets, and I do ask about any past or current affairs. For couples therapy to be successful, both people need to be transparent about any infidelities that have occurred. If there is an active affair that one partner is not willing to give up, couples therapy isn’t recommended.
I will send you an online assessment through the Gottman Institute for you both to fill out. The assessment asks many questions about all different areas of your relationship, from substance use to conflict management to how much you both support each other’s dreams. You will be provided with the results of this assessment, which we will talk about in the third session together.
The third session:
In the end, you are the experts in your relationship! Based on what I’ve heard from you and what you reported in the assessment, I will share what seem like strength and challenge areas for your relationship, and you can let me know if this sounds right or inaccurate to you. Your goals are up to you. Neither one of you is the reason for the problems in the relationship; rather, we explore what’s happening between you, what could be going better, and how to start working towards that vision.
What happens next?
I usually work with couples weekly for 55 minute sessions at a specified time. I recommend meeting weekly for at least 8-12 weeks so that you can dive into the work. Some couples reach their goals in that amount of time and feel confident about moving on. Other couples enjoy the process of therapy and want to meet for a long time to keep exploring their dynamics and get to know and accept each other better.
Sometimes clients ask if I can see them individually as well as the couple.
The answer is: it depends. If your relationship is very solid and you’re both very committed, then this can go well. Not all individual therapists are “on the side of” the relationship, so it can be helpful to work with your couples therapist for your individual work as they won’t be tempted to only take your side because they have the benefit of your partner’s perspective in mind.
If your relationship is in more of a rocky place, I will usually refer out for individual therapy since the dynamics can get complicated. As in all therapy, it’s important to talk about these dynamics, explore thoughts and feelings about them, and then determine what’s best for you, the client.
Do you have more questions about assessment in couples therapy? Feel free to reach out and schedule a free consult.