Marriage counseling (or therapy) is never an experience couples are likely to feel excited about.
Dealing with problems between yourself and someone you love is never easy, and for some the thought of going to counseling sessions with their spouse is terrifying.
But often what we are really afraid of is the unknown. Marriage therapy forces us to face our fears and actually communicate about what is happening in our relationship, with no solid guarantee of a particular outcome.
If you’re someone who thinks that your marriage could benefit from some outside help, but doesn’t know whether it is right for you, below are some important things you should consider.
Included in this advice is how to know when your marriage may be in need of help, what you can do if your spouse isn’t on board with the idea, the role of a marriage therapist, and some things you can (and can’t) expect from marriage counseling.
1. The sooner, the better.
The timing of when troubled spouses decide to go to marriage counseling is extremely important in determining the likely outcome.
Usually a couple will try everything within their power to fix what isn’t working in their relationship on their own – which is a vital first step.
But sometimes spouses may find that despite their best efforts, nothing is changing and the same negative patterns keep recurring.
This is the critical point at which couples need to decide if they want to get outside help; and if so, to do this as soon as possible.
Because the alternatives at this point are to continue to go on with the way things are and become more unhappy and resentful over time, or to make the decision to split.
Why? Because putting it off and waiting until you’re at breaking point can be very costly for your marriage. The more deep-set your problems are, the longer it will take to identify and resolve them.
Contrary to popular belief, marriage counseling and therapy are not just options for marriages that are at ‘crisis point’. Seeing a counselor early is actually going to produce much more positive results than after serious problems have already formed.
But the sad fact is that an average couple might be unhappy for SIX years before seeking counseling. And at this point, irreparable damage to the relationship may have already occurred.
The unfortunate reality is that often by this stage, one spouse has already decided that they want ‘out’ of the relationship, and the chances of them changing their mind during therapy is relatively low.
So I urge you to not wait until it’s too late. Do what you can to try to fix your marital problems on your own first, but look out for the signs that you may be in need of a third person to help.
Don’t let you and your spouse become one of the couples who lets resentment and dissatisfaction poison their marriage for years before seeking help, only to find that they wish they had tried counseling sooner.
Signs that your marriage is in need of outside help:
• You and your spouse are leading virtually separate lives.
• There is a major issue in your marriage which you and your spouse do not agree on or understand each other’s viewpoints about. This may be an issue such as sex, money, children or relations with the in-laws.
• You and your spouse are constantly arguing about the stupidest little things and these arguments quickly turn nasty.
• At least one spouse feels the need for professional help. Whether or not both of you are on board with the idea, if one spouse thinks it’s time to see a counselor or therapist, then it probably is. Obviously, it’s ideal if the other spouse agrees to the therapy idea, but as you will see in the next point there is always the option of one spouse going to counseling alone initially and seeing if the other will join them later.
2. You can go into marriage counseling alone.
Many people believe that marriage counseling will only be beneficial if both spouses want to do it - but this is not the case.
If your spouse is not ready for counselling when you are, taking action and seeing a marriage counselor alone is still going to be much more helpful to your relationship than letting a problem fester.
Why? Because individual therapy can provide valuable insights into your marriage and offer approaches that you may not have considered.
Individual therapy is not about gaining sympathy and passing the blame onto your spouse. It is about taking ownership of your own behavior and looking at ways that you can improve it, in order to positively affect the dynamics of your relationship.
While both spouses must eventually make changes in order for the problem to be completely resolved, it is possible that one spouse can greatly improve their marital relationship simply by changing their own behavior.
Another important thing to note is that even when in individual therapy, a good marriage counselor will always have the best interests of your relationship in mind and will therefore be constantly aware of the voice of your missing spouse.
As a result, they will not take sides or make judgments and the focus of the therapy will always be on what you can change about your OWN behavior, in order to change how you and your spouse relate to one another.
3. Your choice of therapist is important.
In order to gain the most out of marriage counseling, it’s essential that you find a therapist to suit your needs.
You and your spouse may each have an idea about what you are looking for in a counselor, so make sure you communicate these ideas to one another before you start looking so you can narrow your search criteria to suit.
Remember, both spouses need to feel comfortable working with the particular counselor you choose in order for counseling to be effective.
Don’t be afraid to ask potential counselors any questions before you agree to meeting with them, in order to get a sense of whether they will be a good fit for you.
For instance, you may ask them about their experience, credentials, success rate, expectations of clients, or even their own marital status.
If the counselor refuses to answer any of your questions, this is a good indication that you are better off looking for someone else.
And even once you have chosen a marriage counselor who seems like a good fit, be sure to still evaluate their methods during your first few sessions.
Keep in mind that a counselor's responsibility is to your relationship, and that they should be a neutral third party.
Therefore, it’s important to make sure that they give you and your spouse equal time and respect during your sessions, make each of you feel safe, and are able to keep the session under control (even when you may become emotional).
You may find that you go to a couple of sessions and realize that you don’t really gel with their style of therapy. And this is okay – you are completely free to end your sessions there and try another counselor.
Beware of any counselor that tries to get you to commit to working with them for a specific time period or a specific number of sessions at the start, because it’s unrealistic for them to expect this commitment before you’ve had any experience working with him or her.
4. Your therapist is there to guide you to fix your problems, not to fix them for you.
Couples sometimes go into marriage therapy hoping for a miracle cure – where the therapist does all of the work for them and all they have to do is attend.
Unfortunately, therapy is not a miracle cure for your problems and your therapist will not have magical powers either.
What your marriage counselor can do for you, however, is guide you to consider new ways of looking at your relationship, by taking your attention away from what your spouse is doing and turning the focus onto what you are doing and hoping for in your marriage.
Your therapist might offer tools or behavioral suggestions for you to try at home, or suggest possibilities that you and your spouse may not have previously considered.
Your job during the therapeutic process is to be as open, honest and actively engaged as possible as you begin to explore these new possibilities in your marriage.
It is only natural that this may at times make you feel vulnerable and scared, however keep in mind that these feelings are a key part of the healing process.
5. It is best to do some prep before your first appointment.
In your first counseling appointment, some of the first questions your counselor will ask you will be about why you have come to counseling, what is going on in your relationship and what your goals are for therapy.
The therapist will likely also ask a bit about your history and expect you to be willing to be reasonably open and honest about this.
With this in mind, it's worth taking the time alone or with your spouse beforehand to prepare how you’d like to answer some of these questions.
Think about the issues you want to talk about and the goals you want to accomplish during therapy. Be honest with yourself about what you really want to get out of this process, as keeping desires or issues hidden will only hinder the reconciliation process.
As you make a note of your intentions, bear in mind that it’s normal for some of your goals to shift or change as you go through the therapeutic process.
If this happens these goals can be adjusted and communicated to your counselor - you are by no means permanently locked into anything that you say in response to their initial questions.
6. Marriage counseling does not guarantee any particular end result.
The final piece of advice I want to leave you with today is to keep an open mind when going into marriage counseling.
Realize that although marriage therapy is designed to help you and your spouse to communicate and make sense of what’s going on in your marriage, there is no definite end result that it will produce.
And like all things, counseling may take time before any ‘results’ or start to show, so don’t give up if nothing much changes after the first few sessions.
Nobody ever knows exactly what's going to happen at the end of marriage counseling. You might work through the issues and strengthen your relationship, or you might decide the best course of action is to move on.
Regardless, the idea of counseling is to reach a point where you and your spouse each have an understanding and acceptance of your situation.