When I tell people that I really love doing couples, premarital, and marriage counseling, I typically receive one of two responses:
“Wow, good for you! I can’t imagine doing that.”
“That’s tough. I went through/knew of someone who got divorced after marriage counseling.”
I get it. There is something about working within the most important relationships in our lives that gets people a little on edge. Sure, there are other important relationships, like with our children and our friends. But none with stakes quite as high as our partners. Our partners are in our everyday lives. As important as children are to us, they eventually grow up and live on their own. Our partners, on the other hand, we’re with day in and day out until one of us dies. There’s a reason we call them our significant other. If they weren’t so significant, we’d just call them our other. Or, that person over there. Let’s face it, how we relate to them matters.
It can be scary to not only recognize that such a significant portion of your life is struggling, but that it also needs more help than you can do alone. Reaching out for individual therapy can be vulnerable, so reaching out for two people, doubly so. There are a lot of fears and frustrations people have, and I’d like to share a few things to help you both know my approach, but also to relieve some of the pressure in case you need a little boost to reach out to someone for help.
I’ve gathered these fears and frustrations from people I’ve spoken to over the years.
Three common fears about the outcome of couples therapy:
- We’ll get divorced/split up. This must be the number one fear, from my experience. There is truth to it, too, which I think really lights people up. There is a risk of separation or divorce when you come to marriage counseling. Just like there is if you don’t. I think what made couples counseling get such a tough reputation is that people often wait until they are ready to divorce to reach out for help. At this point, the odds of a breakup are high. It’s not impossible, as I’ve seen couples come back from the brink. That happens, though, because they choose for it to. When a relationship is truly over in the heart of one or both partners, there is little a therapist can do to change that. We aren’t in the business of changing hearts. We’re here to help you align your life and mind with your heart and values.
- Nothing will change. Also high up there, the fear that once therapy completes, they’ll return to the status quo. This is also possible and is a fear for a reason. Humans are creatures of habit, and they’ll eventually revert to what feels natural if they aren’t putting in constant effort toward new behavior for at least two years. You read that right, folks. It takes at least two years of constant effort to create a new, more connected, more positive status quo. So no, a few months of therapy will not undo fifteen years of discord in a relationship. But a few months of therapy combined with constant effort, openness, and willingness… that can change things.
- Everything will change. Isn’t that the trick, though? We want change so badly, but then we often end up deeply fearing the actual process or experience. What if everything changes and I no longer recognize my partner? What if they no longer love me, or I no longer love them? What if our new normal isn’t the normal I thought I signed up for? Can’t they just go back to who they were when we met? Well, can you? You are an imperfect human trying to create a life with another imperfect human. Change can be scary, unknown, and sometimes a little painful. But if you’re really committed- if you really want to spend your days with your partner, then you’ll love whoever they are today and you’ll make efforts to adjust your sails together as you each grow. They’ll need to do the same. I can’t promise you can go back to how it was when you fell in love – in fact, I can near-promise it won’t. If you’re really in this for life, together, I do believe you can create a new relationship, despite the fear.
Three common frustrations, sometimes born out of fear and unfortunately others, out of an experience, about the couples counselor or process:
- The counselor will take sides. They’ll believe everything my partner is saying, I’ll be the bad guy, and “couples counseling” will really be just about trying to fix me. Sometimes people actually want a therapist to take sides, but in that case, they want the side taken to be theirs, not that of their partner. Nobody wants to be the “wrong one.” And frankly, I don’t believe relationships can ever be just one person’s problem. Even if one person has done the primary betrayal, the other person has participated in the relationship getting to the place it was. It may not always be 50-50, but it is typically pretty close. The approach I take is to not be on either party’s side but on the side of the relationship. Sometimes that means I’m a little harsher on Person A for a session or two, but then it typically switches and the heat is on for Person B. It’s not about who is right. The moment that is the focus, the relationship suffers. It’s more important to be on the lookout for what is best for the relationship as a whole. Find a therapist who will fight for your relationship, you can search for them on the website Marriage Friendly Therapists.
- It will be one way in the office, and another way at home. I often hear this, that one person will misrepresent themselves or their partner in therapy. Maybe at therapy, they’re understanding, open, and honest, but at home, they’re closed emotionally and dig in their heels. This happens sometimes- that’s okay. Try and remember that therapy is a practice ground, with the hope that eventually what is practiced will come home with you. Unfortunately, yes, that means both people have to be conscientious about bringing the good home. If you find yourself stuck, find words that are both kind and honest to share in counseling that you’re seeing a pattern. Not only is that good practice for you, but also that way your counselor can help you break down barriers and come up with solutions.
- It’ll just be a waste of time. Some couples express this as their frustration. They go to therapy, argue it out, then go home angrier than they came. Nothing gets accomplished, nothing changes. This certainly can happen, and sometimes hashing out an argument can help clarify the pattern you’re stuck in and encourage you to listen differently. Let’s talk about a few things that will keep your therapy focused:
- Spend some time in advance thinking about what you think the problem is. Hint: it’s not your partner. If you think it is, okay. Also, come up with what is your responsibility. Do so before each session, with the goal of looking for patterns between you that need mending. This way once you’re in the room, you can express a few hopes you have for that day.
- Seek out skills to use at home. Marriage counseling is a combination of processing hurts and increasing skills to change patterns, like improving communication, friendship, and fair fighting. Most of the skills I recommend come from Mindfulness and The Gottman Institute. It may be worth looking around at the different modalities therapists use, and finding someone who aligns closely with what you think would work best for you. There are so many books out there- ask for some recommendations that will support your work and read through them as a team effort with your partner.
- Plan on doing homework every. single. day. One hour once per week in therapy will not undo the many hours of interactions between. You must take what you learn in counseling home and put it to practice, then come back and discuss what worked and what didn’t so your counselor can make adjustments to the plan. Remember that you’ll need to put some effort forth every day for the next several years as a start, then for the rest of time, thereafter. This is a commitment to the health and happiness of you, your partner, your relationship, and anyone else involved (like kids, furr babies, etc). It will be tough, but it can also be worth it.
Relationships require that you each take care of yourselves, one another, and the relationship itself. You can do this. Reach out for help when you need it (preferably, long before you contemplate divorce!).