Couple sat on sofa talking to therapist

Many relationships experience periods of difficulty which have nothing to do with either partner being abusive. If you are experiencing any kind of abuse in your relationship, you might find it helpful to learn about staying as safe as you possibly can. If you’re in immediate danger, call 999.

If you’re struggling with issues in your relationship and feel that you’ve exhausted all avenues to resolve them on your own, you might benefit from external advice and support. You may also consider a more structured approach such as couples counselling. Couples of all ages, sexual orientations and relationship statuses attend counselling to explore their problems and strengthen their bond.

Why do relationships run into difficulties?

There are as many reasons a relationship falters as there are relationships. On the whole, some of the more common reasons couples find themselves struggling include:

  • Incompatible values and goals
  • Lack of communication
  • Major lifestyle differences
  • Having the same arguments repeatedly without any resolution
  • Demands on time leading to a lack of connection
  • Disagreements in approaches to childrearing or blending families
  • Money problems
  • Infidelity
  • Major life stressors such as unemployment, bereavement or serious illness
  • Conflicting expectations of each partner’s role in the relationship
  • Addiction issues
  • Trust issues
  • Sexual issues
  • Fertility problems
  • Abusive behaviour
  • Unwanted involvement of in-laws or other third parties.

It’s rare for a couple to be struggling with just one issue. It’s often a case where problems accumulate over time until one or both people find themselves unhappy and unsure as to whether they want to continue with the relationship.

Self-help for relationships 

Before deciding on engaging in couples counselling, you might want to try a range of self-help materials that are readily available to help you deal with the challenges you are experiencing in your relationship. Organisations such as Relate offers self-help tools including books and online quizzes, as well as workshops, videos, and an online chat facility.

You might also like to consider the following tips to help you improve communication with your partner.

1. Be present and in the moment

One of the reasons we lose connection with others – not just our partner – is that we become so involved in the many demands on our time that we find it difficult to focus on what really matters. We might ‘sleepwalk’ through discussions or neglect to pick up on signs that someone is struggling. A healthy relationship demands time and effort so agree to have a certain amount of time together daily to reconnect and catch up.

2. Above all, be kind

We often treat strangers with more kindness than we do those closest to us. Do you consistently thank your partner when he or she does something for you? Do you go out of your way when your partner needs something? Kindness is too often forgotten when we have too much to do but it can bring people closer together with little effort.

And if you’re having a disagreement, it’s important to try and put yourself in your partner’s shoes and be willing (even if it’s hard) to appreciate their perspective and suggestions. Psychologists Dr. John and Dr. Julie Gottman’s extensive research into relationships indicates that in any healthy relationship, each person will feel that they are valued and respected for who they are. Therefore, when communicating, it can helpful to identify what you appreciate about the other person and state those things. The research indicates that those in successful relationships make five times as many positive statements as negative ones when discussing problems.


3. Take personal responsibility in your relationship

When we rely on other people to make us happy, we’re asking a lot of them. It’s reasonable to expect that our partner will help us talk through our problems and be a support when we need them to, but we can’t rely on anyone 100%. Maintaining your own friendships, hobbies and interests is crucial in any healthy partnership. Couples also need to share their lives so balance is key.

4. Keep getting to know each other

When you first met your partner, you spent time getting to know each other. Conversations would last for hours with no detail too small not to be of interest. If you were to overhear a couple talk in the early days of their relationships, you’d notice a lot of open-ended questions and requests for as much detail as possible. Whether you’ve been with your partner for a short time or many years, keep getting to know them. No one remains the same and you’ll be amazed at what you learn when you just ask.

5. Use ‘I’ statements

It’s important to own your own feelings and attitudes and using ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements when communicating can help couples to avoid common misunderstandings. For example, if you feel that your partner could help more around the house, try saying “I’d really appreciate your help with X when you get the chance” versus “You never help around the house”. If you’re upset, own the feelings by expressing disappointment in a different way. Instead of saying “You’re making me really angry”, saying “I’m feeling angry right now because Y” can be much more productive.

What is relationship counselling?

Ultimately, if you and your partner have tried to resolve your relationship issues but are still struggling, you may consider engaging with a counsellor. Relationship counselling is a form of talking therapy where a couple explores their issues with the help of an experienced and trained professional. Some couples seek relationship counselling to strengthen their partnership and gain a better understanding of each other after many years together, while others may go when they first encounter problems.

Of course, some couples only engage in counselling when they’re seriously considering ending their partnership but want to see if their relationship is salvageable. Whatever the reason, relationship counselling can offer a couple insight into patterns in their relationship and ways to improve communication and reduce conflict.

Relationship counselling can be helpful for couples of all kinds, whether married, civilly partnered, living together or planning to, engaged or dating. You can also go to relationship counselling if you’re single and wanting to explore patterns in past relationships that you want to move away from in favour of healthier ways of being with a partner.

It’s best if both parties attend counselling sessions although couples counselling can still be beneficial even if only one partner attends. Relationship counselling is often short-term and isn’t a replacement for one-to-one counselling for people who have complex issues they need to work on themselves as might be the case with addiction issues, childhood trauma, or a mental health problem.

Limitations to the effectiveness of couples counselling

When one of the parties has decided that he or she no longer wants to work on the relationship, couples counselling is unlikely to be of benefit. Although, it can help to mediate the practicalities of the ending. Even the most experienced counsellor in the world can’t force someone to stay in a relationship they no longer want to be in. It’s important that a couple agrees in advance what outcomes they hope to achieve by engaging in counselling. A counsellor will help both parties to explore their aims and goals of the sessions and help them work towards a resolution.

In some cases, one of the partners might also have individual issues such as anger issues, addiction, or a mental health problem which need to be addressed on a one-to-one basis with a professional. In these cases, couples counselling can still be helpful but it’s important to let the counsellor know if one or both of the partners are attending their own counselling sessions.

How to access support

  • Relate are the UK’s specialists in relationships and support couples at all stages of their relationship as well as single people.
  • If you’re a member of a faith community, you may wish to speak with your spiritual leader and see if they can be of assistance.