If you were asked to picture a scene from relationship counselling, you’d probably think of a couple sitting on a sofa in a therapy room talking through their difficulties with a counsellor.

But there’s also the option for couples to talk to a therapist without even leaving their home; sitting on their own sofa and with their counsellor on a laptop screen in front of them.

The coronavirus pandemic has meant an increasing number of couples who are going through relationship or marriage counselling are now having therapy online.

Armele Philpotts, a relationship counsellor who offers therapy in person, as well as via webcam, telephone and email, says that due to the pandemic, life has become very different for many couples.

“It may be that couples don’t have the support they normally have. They’re separated from the outside world, their friends and family.

“They’re having to work as a team and wear many hats: employee, partner, parent, lover. It can mean one partner doesn’t know what hat the other one is wearing. It’s a complicated situation and people are having to work out a new way of living. Some couples might need that extra bit of help.”

The first place to look for a relationship counsellor is our Therapist directory, where you can search for registered counsellors who specialise in relationships or marriage counselling and who also work online.

But how does having online relationship counselling differ from face to face therapy?

Getting set up

Once you’ve found a counsellor, they’ll go through an assessment with you, says Armele, and you can decide if you want to go ahead. That’s the same as in face to face counselling.

But then you need to figure out where your sessions will take place. Where in your house is it comfortable and confidential to have these conversations?

You need to find somewhere where you can’t be overheard, which might be hard if you have children or other family members around the house.

Most people use their laptop to speak to their counsellor, but you can use most smart phones as well. It’s worth making sure you have a set-up you feel comfortable with, and that your microphone, camera and headphones or speakers work properly.

“Have a think about the technology beforehand,” Armele suggests. “Check you can hear and be heard OK. Sit in front of the webcam. You might want to prop it up, adjust where you sit, perhaps a bit further back. Find out what position works best for you.”

Armele always explains to clients what will happen if there are any technology problems and has a telephone number as a back-up.

Before and after your session

If you’re not travelling to see your therapist, how do you make that distinction between your home life and your counselling appointment?

“Think about the space you’re in – and the transitions between your everyday life and the therapy session,” says Armele.

She recommends going for a walk before or after your session, or making a point of moving into a different room to speak to your therapist. If you’re using a laptop, switch it off when you finish and put it away to define the end of your session.

These little physical actions can help the separation between therapy and home, just like people try to separate working from home and their family life.

“In some ways it can be great for couples to have their counselling in the very space where they are also having the problems they need to talk about," she adds.

It doesn’t have to be both of you at the same time

Couples counselling doesn’t have to involve both of you together. You can always take turns and alternate sessions, especially if childcare makes it hard for you.

“A good therapist will hold the relationship in mind,” she says. "If the therapist speaks to one partner one week, they'll be thinking about what that partner has said when they talk to the other one maybe a week later."

Sometimes clients can feel uncomfortable or threatened if their partner speaks to the therapist on their own, while others may find it easier to talk one to one. You should always raise any concerns with your therapist.

Other options to face to face counselling

If you can’t see a counsellor in person, but don’t fancy speaking to them over a video-link, there are two other options you could try.

Some counsellors offer relationship therapy over the telephone. You can talk to them while your phone is on loudspeaker, or alternate sessions with your partner.

You can also try email counselling. Armele describes how couples will write an email to her outlining their situation and feelings. She arranges with them when she will respond, and her reply asks them questions and gives suggestions of what they can do. The emails are sent as secure documents and are password protected.

“This can be popular with couples who might find it hard to commit to a fixed time because of childcare or work. You can do this at your own pace,” she says.

How does online relationship counselling help?

Relationship counselling gives you a non-judgmental and supportive space where you can discuss problems and look at how you get through these difficulties. That’s the same whether it’s online, in person, by email or telephone.

Armele says: “When it really clicks for couples, they see how they can communicate better with each other.

“Sometimes people will say to me they’ve been having the same argument for 15 years. But now they’ve turned towards each other, they’ve worked out how to listen to each other.

“Communication is key. That’s what so much of a counsellor’s work is about – helping a couple find ways of communicating with each other."

She says it’s also important to make sure we know and understand ourselves. That’s vital to a successful relationship.

“It’s so rewarding to see the difference relationship or marriage counselling can make to couples,” she says.

If you have any comments or would like to share your story, please email us at engage@bacp.co.uk