How Does Marriage Counseling Work? Three Effective Approaches
Many couples find themselves in need of a tune up from time to time. Whether you have been together 6 months or 60 years, fights and growing pains are perfectly normal and natural to experience as you both grow together.
Sometimes that growth occurs in perfect harmony and unison, while at other times you might look around and realize that that “growth” is headed in opposite directions, pulling at and straining the relationship in different ways.Perhaps the relationship received an injury in the form of a particularly nasty fight, a hidden secret, or infidelity. Sometimes injuries don’t occur in one sudden instance, instead forming around a long-term, low-level stress that was never resolved.
No matter what has occurred, relationships can always benefit from marriage or couples counseling.
How Does Marriage Counseling Work?
Now you might be wondering, How does marriage counseling work? Many people feel intimidated by coming in for marriage counseling, especially if they have never been in any sort of marriage or individual counseling or therapy before.
Well, from here on out I will attempt to outline what you might expect when coming into marriage counseling with me or any other therapist. I will outline some of my own approach, which is largely rooted in a style of marriage and family therapy known as Emotionally Focused Therapy, and then briefly go into what other types of marriage counseling might look like and how they work!
Where are you coming from?
When I sit down with any new couple, often there is a period of time where we will go over what the problem is and there might be some allocation of blame happening. While it is important to understand what is going on, it is equally important to understand where you have come from.
I find couples tend to be able to recall rather fondly how they met and the things they used to do when they were first dating. It’s interesting to me to see what about the other person first attracted each individual. Often, couples might pinpoint to activities they did together or the friend group that finally got them to start dating in the first place.
Every couple has their own story and just recalling it often brings back fond memories which can help soften some of the blaming going on. Further, many couples feel like if they could only do some of those things that bonded them in the first place they might get through the current issue, but things like work, kids, or health issues have gotten in the way.
What is your goal?
After and during the process of getting to know you both as couple, we will begin to tease out your goal. Are you here to work on communication issues? Do you want to connect again? Do you want to learn how to forgive? Do you need to navigate a difference in sexual desire? Any of these are great goals to come into counseling with! However, often couples will come but not really agree on why they are both there.
Further, one individual might lean more toward the “D” word — divorce — and is just there to go through the motions and justify having “done it all” before filing for divorce. If this is you, I encourage you to go into this with a goal of improving your relationship and truly giving it a shot!
Just the process of working with your partner to come up with a goal for therapy is a big step towards improving your relationship again. What is of utmost importance is for you two to come up with a common goal, so that everyone is on the same page.
When coming up with goals, I like to incorporate strengths that you already have. If you know you have certain patterns of behavior and interactions that work better than others, then keep doing more of that!
A further element to your goals are the measurable objectives — how will we know when your goals are met? What will be different? What will there be more or less of? By tying these in with your existing strengths, it can help provide a measure of what is often an amorphous process.
What are your cycles?
Once we get into the meat of the therapy, I will want to work with you to define your interactions in terms of a problematic cycle. When he comes home late from work, what do you do? And when she does that, how do you respond?
Most couples can easily begin to map out cycles of behavior that lead to arguments or heated discussions. Quite often, these will end up back in an argument you’ve had time and time again. Rather than “all roads lead to Rome,” it becomes “all roads lead to fighting about that time he fell asleep on Thanksgiving and didn’t help your mother do the dishes” or “all roads lead to fighting about saving money or taking a trip to Europe this summer.”
These cycles occur because we learn how to interact with one another and tend to stick to it, even if it’s not helpful. Further, quite often couples don’t do the best job of letting their partners know that they have heard the other.
When you don’t think you’ve been heard, you reiterate your same point. Then they respond, but if you don’t know they heard you, you might restate it again. Then the other person might get frustrated because they feel like you’re hammering on the same point again and again, causing them to get annoyed.
Simultaneously this process is probably happening in reverse to the other person as well! Since you’re both trying to be heard, you probably aren’t conveying (and now this is the keyword here so pay attention) effectively that you heard the other person. So the cycles continue.
Maybe that cycle sounds very familiar, or maybe you feel like you keep pursuing your partner, trying to get them to open up to no avail. It feels like they are pulling away again and again. Why is that? You ask them, but they pull away further.
In my work with couples, I often find that these cycles tend to inevitably play out in the room as well. That’s where I can come in and really help you to slow down, map out, and respond to your cycles. This is one of the biggest reasons why marriage counseling works — you can take a pause from your fight, step back, and see what is going on.
Now, underlying all these cycles there is a sea of emotion. Given enough questioning, we can always uncover the emotions being experienced while behaviors are occurring. Do you feel angry? Confused? And what is under that anger? Is it sadness? Fear?
Often couples are asking for their partner to respond to that most basic underlying emotion, but it has gone through a filter of past experiences, culture, and family values and come out as a behavior that did not effectively convey how you felt. By slowing down in session we can figure out what some of those underlying emotions are and bring them to light.
How do we map this anew?
So how, then, do you move forward? Once we’ve established what isn’t working and brought out what each person is feeling, then I move toward having you talk to each other and truly acknowledge what you are each feeling.
This process requires great vulnerability, but in that space couples have a way of finding that connection they once had again. Being heard and feeling understood fosters that love connection once again. Further, once you’re feeling safe and connected, it gives space for you to begin to map new cycles out — ones that create security, happiness, and joy instead of sadness, anger, and fear.
Other Ways: Behavioral and Solution-focused
What I mapped out above is my general approach to counseling for couples, and as stated earlier is rooted in Emotionally Focused Therapy. This is an approach popularized by Sue Johnson, who has a wonderful book written for couples called Hold Me Tight, which walks through some of these processes and helps you to navigate what conversations might need to be had between you and your partner.
However, there are as many approaches to marriage counseling as there are marriage counselors. And many of them work! Depending on the circumstances, different approaches might work better and I tailor my approach accordingly.
Notice in everything I outlined, I never did much in the way of giving specific directions or instruction of what to do. Also, most of the work I mentioned was in session. For some therapists, they might provide more homework — “Go home this week and do x, y, and z.” Sometimes I might prescribe homework, but only when I am working through a very specific pattern.
This would be a more behavioral approach — changing the behaviors of the relationship to alter its course directly and head on. John Gottman, a Seattle area but internationally renowned couple’s researcher, has published and popularized specific behaviors that “doom” a relationship, and specific things to do instead of those behaviors.
His book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail is often a great resource for couples. For some, this can be a very effective approach if they are already on a stable emotional connection with each other. Another approach, called solution-focused, is used to figure out what is already working and doing more of that.
This approach avoids the use of a lot of language around what isn’t working in lieu of talking about solutions and successes. This can be good for a couple that is entrenched in a blame game or focusing on all the negativity that has arisen in their lives.
Marriage Counseling Works
Regardless of the approach of the therapist, it is all about finding a therapist that fits with you and your spouse. In traditional counseling, there is one relationship being navigated, between the therapist and the client, but in marriage counseling you could say there are as many as six!
Relationships exist between each person in the room (three), as well as each person and the relationship between the other two (another three). As such, there are many dynamics at play all the time!
Finding a counselor that fits with you as a couple is so important to navigating all the factors at play. However daunting it is, though, it is a fantastic way for you and your partner to grow your relationship and work through the differences causing trouble for you now.
In general, I find that couples come in about two years “too late” — not that it’s too late for counseling, but rather if they had worked on some little things years ago, the cycles of behavior never would have gotten so bad. So don’t hesitate to come into marriage counseling, because it does work! Come in and get the relationship you once had back — or one even better than before.
“Married Fight,” courtesy of Gratisography, pexels.com, CC0 License; “Together,” courtesy of Josh Willink, pexels.com, CC0 License; “Spiral,” courtesy of tookapic, pexels.com, CC0 License; “Chillin’,” courtesy of pic jumbo.com, pexels.com, CC0 License