The usual questions that people ask in a counseling session “can my marriage be saved?” or “Can you help us decide if we should stay together?” While these are complicated questions, the answer is usually something like: “Marriage counseling is hard work and there are no guarantees. But you are wise to invest the time to find out if your marriage can be improved.”
Truth be told, the effectiveness of marriage counseling is directly related to the motivation level of both partners and timing. For some couples, marriage counseling is really divorce counseling because they’ve already thrown in the towel. For instance, one or both partners may have already decided to end the marriage and he/she uses the counseling as a way to announce this to their partner. Sometimes, the problems in a marriage can be too ingrained and longstanding for the counseling to be effective. For others, they don’t honestly share their concerns with the therapist.
Further, it’s important to choose a therapist who has experience working with couples and who is a good fit for both you and your partner. If both partners don’t feel comfortable with the therapist, this can negatively impact progress; or one person may prematurely drop out.
Timing is an essential element in whether marriage counseling works. Unfortunately, most couples wait much too long to reach out for help repairing their marriage. According to relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before getting help. Think about this statistic for a few minutes. Couples have six years to build up resentment before they begin the important work of learning to resolve differences in effective ways. What’s important is to get into counseling before years of unhappiness.
It’s critical that couples see conflict as an inevitable part of a romantic relationship. After all, every relationship has its ups and downs, and conflict does happen. Yet couples might avoid conflict because it may have signified the end of their parents’ marriage or led to bitter disputes.
7 tips to help deal with differences between you and your partner:
- Create a relaxed atmosphere and spend time with your partner on a regular basis so you can communicate about your desires and feelings.
- Don’t give up personal goals and the things you love to do such as hobbies or interests. This will only breed resentment.
- Support one another’s passions. Accept that you won’t always share the same interests. Respect your partner’s need for space.
- Establish an open-ended dialogue. Listen to your partner’s requests and ask for clarification on points that are unclear. Avoid threats and saying things you’ll regret later.
- Avoid the “blame game.” Take responsibility for your part in the problems and accept that all human beings are flawed in some way. The next time you feel upset with your partner, check out what’s going on inside yourself and pause and reflect before you place the blame on them.
How can marriage counseling help couples?
- If toxic relationship patterns can be identified early and agreed upon, the process of reestablishing the relationship can begin.
- A motivated couple can begin to explore their problems from a new perspective and learn new ways to recognize and resolve conflicts as a result of the help provided by the therapist.
- Partners can begin to build trust and improve communication that may have eroded the quality of their interactions.
- A couple’s counselor can provide “neutral territory” to help couples agree upon and work through tough issues with support.
- Couples can decide to rebuild their marriage and make a renewed commitment, or clarify the reasons why they need to separate or end the marriage.
- If you can get over the hump of entering relationship therapy, the rewards are often much greater than those of individual counseling. In many cases, couples get an immediate short-term boost. This is partly down to a sense of relief that something is finally being done, but mainly because our partner agreeing to this ordeal is concrete proof that she or he cares.
- Next, it soon becomes clear that a couple counselor’s responsibility is to the relationship and both of you will get equal time, attention and understanding. On a deeper level, couple work avoids the victim or “poor me” attitude that can be a by-product of individual therapy, which encourages people to dig deeper into their own world view.
- If couples have been able to cooperate enough to set up a home together and raise a family, they soon begin to support each other through the necessary changes to their relationship. For this reason, couple counseling often needs fewer sessions than one-to-one work.
Inside a counseling session
So once you have found your therapist, where does he or she start? Personally, I’m always interested in what makes a couple seek help right now, as opposed to in the months or years during which the problems have been building. I also like to hear each partner’s individual perspective.
Next, they may like to put the couple’s “presenting” problems – what they have come to me specifically to discuss – into the context of the whole relationship. So they can ask clients to tell the story of how they met – it helps relax people and remember the good elements of their relationship, and then slowly work up to the present.
In the second or third session, they will draw up the couple’s joint family tree. This reveals important life events – the death of a parent, any divorces, and the ages of any children – and shows up similarities and differences in the partners’ backgrounds. All too often people try to avoid this pain by denying, ignoring or rationalizing it away and diverting themselves with something else. However once all the hidden issues are openly acknowledged – and the fear removed that something worse is lurking in the shadows – even unnoticed problems are surprisingly soluble.
After two or three months, the therapist melts into the background. Couples discover they can do this work on their own, that their communication has improved and it’s time to end counseling. Most people leave having not only learned a lot about their partner and their relationship, but about themselves, too. The counseling ends with new found respect and love for each other.
The first session
When couples are in strife, feeling disconnected and even at the end of their rope, they may know marriage counseling is an option, but still avoid it because they might be scared of it, unsure about what happens in a marital and relationship counseling office, or anxious about the process of involving a third party in their intimate lives, as broken or desperate as it may be.
1. Both of you don’t need to attend
While relationship or marriage counseling is most effective when both partners attend, it’s not absolutely necessary. Something is better than nothing and there is still progress that can be made even if only one of you goes.
A counselor can give one of you advice that helps you cope, ease the pressure in the relationship and spells out strategies for reducing friction and help negotiate a plan forward.
2. The goal doesn’t have to be saving your marriage
Some relationship therapists and marriage counselors will serve in a role to help mediate you both through the grieving process of the end of your relationship and improve your communication skills, particularly if you have to co-parent for years to come.
Therapists are no invested either way in your relationship; the decision to stay together or split is something they facilitate, not recommend one way or another.
3. The end result is determined by you
You’ll be guided, but in the end you’re in control and what happens is determined by you. There is no transfer of power when you go to a counselor. They aren’t your boss, a judge or a special expert who will tell you what to and not to do. Mostly they will ask you a lot of questions to get you to figure out what you want and how you feel.
They won’t press you to make decisions or influence you to do anything you don’t want to or aren’t ready for. You are in the driver’s seat of your life, outside the counseling office and inside it too.
4. They may ask about your childhood
You’ll talk about things that may not seem related to your difficulties. Some assume that, with razor focus, they will analyze their specific issues with a therapist until they are figured out and helped. However this isn’t always the case. A counselor may ask about your childhood, your communication styles, your past relationships, your relationship aside from the areas of friction, examples of when things were good between you and potentially many other things.
The more you work with your counselor, the more likely you will be to connect the dots of patterns that if changed, can help improve your relationship, or allow you to better understand yourself.
5. You will need to reflect, communicate and take responsibility
A counselor doesn’t do all the work, you do. A counselor will ask you to think and reflect, not just react. A counselor will ask you to share your thoughts and feelings. Even if you’re not a good communicator generally, your counselor will help you open up – but you need to be willing.
6. You will have homework
There will be times when your counselor will give you exercises or couple activities to complete or other tasks to learn from which are designed to enhance the effectiveness of the sessions.
In the end you will come out as a happy and better person.
Whether you decide to stay together or split up, the more you invest yourselves into the process of counseling, the more you will benefit from it. If you attend but don’t engage, you’ll simply be marking time and it won’t make any difference.
If you stay together then it worked but if it doesn’t the couple should probably split because it is a waste to stay in a toxic relationship.