I've been counseling couples for the past 30 years. My typical approach, although not etched in stone, is to see the couple together at the first appointment and then see them individually for two sessions before bringing them back together. During the two individual sessions I'm listening for what each person wants for their relationship. It is a free-for-all session whereby they can say whatever they want about where they are in their relational journey but it is not a bashing. Most couples have reported to me that it has been productive for them to come in alone and speak freely. During these sessions I'm also assessing communication and behavioral styles which help guide our sessions when they return as a couple. One entire session is dedicated to diagramming, what's referred to as, a Genogram. Genograms are a snap- shot schematic of a person's family system, including extended family. As a marriage and family therapist I know full-well that what's "family is familiar" and in many cases couples bring into their current relationship things which belong to the old familiar family context which is generally well hidden from them. When they come back together, I go over the genograms and further assess what is working for them and what is not. Simply put, how efficient is the current relationship. From there we move into the next phase.
Most couples I have worked with suffer greatly from communication issues. Generally what I hear is: "We can't communicate anymore." So the first order of business is to help each one to effectively listen and express their thoughts and feelings from an adult-to-adult position and not a parent-child position. Once that is accomplished through a set of action plans, I will begin to assist them in developing guiding principles that will help them navigate the typical transitional changes which naturally occur throughout the life of couples.
Being a couple is a journey in relationships. That journey can be comprised of wonder-filled surprises as well as random and unpredictable challenges. Couples counseling can be a good first line of defense that will help them meet and effectively mitigate life's challenges and restore them to a place of balance.