Coaching Versus Therapy for Relationships?

Both life coaching (though I prefer just coaching) and therapy have some negative connotations attached, and deciding between the two may feel like picking the lesser of two evils. I’ve even had one partner tell me they scheduled coaching because their partner was unwilling to consider therapy or vice versa. As a trained therapist, I have the professional knowledge and expertise to offer both services or a combination of the two, but if you’re curious about what the most beneficial solution for your relationship is, keep reading this blog or reach out to me, Dr. Michael Stokes, at Rhode Island Sex Therapy to get started.

What is Relationship Coaching?

Coaching, as the name suggests, is about receiving guidance, motivation, and training in order to achieve a specific goal. Consider the way an sports coach supports athletes. He has the skill and knowledge to help them understand how to run faster, swim farther, jump higher, work together as a team, and otherwise perform to the best of their abilities. The goals of an athlete and coach are usually specific and limited to the sports field. Relationship coaching is similar in that it’s all about setting and achieving goals. It’s usually specific, focused, and short-term.

What is Couples Therapy?

While relationship coaching is all about setting and achieving goals, couples therapy focuses more on understanding the “why” of struggles or challenges within a relationship. Why am I feeling this way? Why do certain behaviors keep happening? Why does my partner treat me this way? You may still work with your therapist to set and achieve specific goals, but the main focus of therapy is diving deep into your emotions and thought processes to better understand yourself and/or your partner. This knowledge can then be applied to a range of situations and obstacle that arise rather than just being specifically applicable to a current challenge you’re working through, which is the ideal use of coaching.

Which One is Right for Us?

Determining whether to schedule coaching or traditional talk therapy is complicated. Every couple is different, and your relationship needs will be too. To get a better idea of the various factors that impact this decision, consider the following examples.

Example 1 – Jenny & Abby Want to Open Their Marriage

Deciding to open a marriage is a big step. While more people have chosen modern partnerships (read open marriage), it can still be a scary prospect. With generations of cultural norms to contend with, people who want to explore open partnerships have a lot of doubts, worries, and challenges. However, making the decision to open a marriage can be rewarding and help partners build and maintain love and trust. So, would you need a relationship coach or a therapist to support you in making this decision? Consider the following scenarios:


Jenny and Abby have discussed threesomes and other types of ethical non-monogamy, but they are struggling with the logistics of an open marriage. They’ve tried writing a fidelity agreement, but they’re struggling to develop a plan that fits the image of an open marriage that works for both of them. Apart from preparing for the level of communication and trust needed to open their marriage, Jenny and Abby are both enthusiastic about the prospect, and their relationship is healthy and stable. They’re looking for an objective third party to help them through the planning and preparation process. In this situation, coaching is likely the right option.


If Jenny or Abby are struggling with deeper conflict about ethical non-monogamy that is impacting their ability to open the marriage in a way that feels safe and satisfying, therapy may be a better option. Couples counseling gives them a safe space to discuss their concerns with an objective third party present who can help to allay some of the innate fears anyone engaging in a “nontraditional” modern marriage may feel. Many people struggle with the voice of doubt in their head that says, “I’m not enough for her. She’ll want someone else instead. People will judge us.” This voice can be very loud, and the inner turmoil can often drown out your partner’s words of support and reassurance. However, having an objective party to reiterate this positivity can make a big difference to help one or both parties overcome years of societal programming that tells us how we should exist in relationship to other people.

Example 2 – Lewis & Alice are Recovering After Infidelity

Infidelity creates a serious wound in a relationship, but it is possible to heal and move forward. Again, the need for coaching or therapy is dependent upon the individuals involved. Consider these potential situations:


Lewis and Alice have been married for decades. They have a seemingly strong relationship, but Alice confessed she has had a short-term affair. After attempting to work through the situation together, Lewis and Alice feel they want to rebuild their partnership, but they need help working through this conflict to repair their relationship. Coaching may be a good fit for them because they have an existing, long-term relationship that has been stable and loving and both partners want to restore the marriage.


Lewis and Alice have been unhappily married for decades. Alice confesses she has had multiple affairs over the course of the marriage because she isn’t satisfied with their relationship. After discussing the situation, Alice isn’t sure she wants to continue the marriage, and Lewis was completely unaware and feels hurt and betrayed. They may want to consider couples and/or individual therapy to work through the more complex, underlying issues within their partnership to answer some of the “why” questions. Why is Alice feeling unsatisfied in the relationship? Why is Lewis seemingly unaware of her dissatisfaction?

Example 3 – James & Steve Struggle with Conflicting Attachment Styles

Attachment styles are typically developed when we’re very young based on the examples of attachment we see as children. If your family has good examples of healthy, secure attachment, you’re much more likely to enter adulthood with the necessary tools to maintain secure and stable relationships. If you had less than ideal relationship examples in your childhood, you’re more likely to struggle with insecure attachment. When it comes to attachment styles, self-awareness is key. You may have developed a specific attachment style, but you don’t need to just accept it and neither does your partner. When conflicts arise around differing attachment styles, coaching or therapy can both be good options. Consider the following situations:


James and Steve grew up in loving families, but James’ parents divorced when he was young. Steve’s parents stayed together but often fought. James tends to get clingy during conflict because he’s fearful that he and Steve will divorce like his own parents. Steve tends to shut down or become distant during conflict because he listened to his parents fight too often as a child. Their attachment styles conflict and often leave them feeling frustrated and unnecessarily prolong fights. Even though they’re aware of the reasons for these disagreements and struggles, they just can’t seem to bridge the gap when conflicts arise. Coaching can help James and Steve work on their communication and more effectively work through conflict together.


James and Steve had poor examples of attachment in their childhoods, but neither of the men recognizes that this has impacted their own behavior in relationships. Instead, James thinks that working together and talking through problems right away is the only way to fix things, but Steve needs time to process his emotions before he feels ready to talk. When Steven pulls away during a fight, James feels hurt, and their fights go on longer than they should or never get resolved at all because they don’t recognize the conflict stems from their differing attachment styles. Therapy is a better option for James and Steve in this situation since they need to recognize the sources of their relationship patterns.

Ready to Just Get Started & Figure it Out As You Go?

If you still feel like you just have no idea what’s right for you and your relationship, I’d still love to hear from you. I offer both options for my clients, so we can discuss your specific goals and determine which approach makes sense for you. Sometimes, the answer is a little bit of both, but whatever your situation, I’m here to help. Take a few minutes to get in touch today, and we can discuss your options and move forward with the best option for your relationship.

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