Six Tips to Make Marriage and Couples Counseling Work

A couple faces one another on a beach at sunset.What can you do to improve the chances that couples therapy is worth the time and money you put into it? In other words, what makes marriage counseling work?

With the help of a skilled marriage therapist, there are several things you can do to increase the possibility that your marriage counseling will be a success.

1. Have More Goals for Yourself

People who pursue marriage therapy usually want their partner to change things, but working on yourself in the presence of your partner is, in my opinion, the most effective way to have a positive impact on your relationship. Focusing on what your partner needs to change doesn’t usually work. Ultimately, you may not get what you want.

What do you want? Recalling your early expectations from the beginning of your relationship can help you visualize what you want—your ideal picture of the relationship. How do you behave as a partner in that perfect world? What are your characteristics?

Looking now at the present—your real-life situation—what are your attitudes and behaviors? What hinders you from being a better person? Where are your weak points? When you’re stressed, do you try to control, nag, or whine? Do you avoid and withdraw? The answers to these questions will help make up your goals in therapy. Don’t worry—a good marriage counselor will make sure each of you is doing work, not just you!

2. Put Yourself Out There

This tip actually might save you months of therapy time. Try to reach the “feelings behind the feelings.” What we feel on an obvious level in a relationship may be anger, annoyance, resentment, and judgment for the other. Try to dig deeper and get in touch with what triggered those thoughts and feelings.

Did you have an open heart, but you were disappointed? Do you feel helpless, embarrassed, or hopeless? Are you worried about being controlled? Are you afraid to trust because of past hurt? If you feel resistant to having a cooperative attitude, this might mean you’ve been avoiding certain thoughts and feelings. Maybe there is some grudge or resentment you’ve never been able to admit to yourself or express openly.

Once you get the courage to be more vulnerable in front of your partner, it will likely create empathy and compassion in them. Your therapist will help ensure the session is a safe space to do this.

3. Put In the Time

Marriage therapy can be time-intensive. The higher your level of conflict, the more regularly you may need to come to therapy. Couples therapy is seldom a quick fix. What happens in between the sessions may be even more important than what happened in session. You will both have to make some time to be with each other, without distraction. You will need to create a reliable space in your life for each other that neither you nor your partner have had to beg for. It’s about quality, not quantity.

4. Give the Benefit of the Doubt

People tend to jump to conclusions—especially with other people they know well. You may have made some assumptions about your partner’s motives that aren’t true, and vice versa. Be honest about your assumptions. Stay curious about what your partner thinks and feels. Pick his or her brain just like you might do when listening to a famous author you admire.

5. Learn to Be Independent

I don’t think marriage was ever meant to fulfill all of our needs. Even in the best of relationships, there may be times when you’re bored, lonely, worried, or ashamed. Maybe you’ll catch your partner at a good moment, and he or she will be able to assure you. Maybe you won’t. Rather than being a “half person” who is being “completed” by your partner, strive to be your own “full person.” That might mean learning some things you can do for yourself outside of your relationship.

6. Take Divorce Off the Table—At Least for Now

You might be feeling little hope for your relationship right now. One or both of you may come to marriage counseling as the final attempt to save your relationship. Don’t worry—that’s common. But consider this: It is very difficult to instill hope for the relationship when the death of the it is constantly looming.

The question isn’t whether you’re committed for life, but whether you can both commit to working hard right now. Can you commit to working hard on your relationship by taking permanent separation off the table for the time being? There’s always time to divorce, but there may not always be time to work on your marriage. If you make the effort of investing time and money, give it all you can.

© Copyright 2010 by Julia Flood, LCSW, New Start Therapy, therapist in San Francisco, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • CATHY

    July 23rd, 2010 at 3:01 PM

    Its true dat a lot of ppl who want a perfect partner, someone who is so flawless in every aspect, do nothing about the same to themselves! They want the perfect partner but refuse to try and improve even a lil bit themselves. This is the height of hypocrisy and most often it is the men who want their partners to be perfect!

  • joanie

    July 24th, 2010 at 11:09 AM

    I nearly cried when I read what you said about recalling your early expectations of the relationship. I can hardly even think about that. When I look at my marriage now, and compare that with what I thought it would be, the two are poles apart. It’s so depressing…

  • Carla

    August 21st, 2016 at 1:53 PM

    I can really relate with your post. It is also very depressing.

  • Donald

    July 24th, 2010 at 1:41 PM

    I am very controlling at home when I’m stressed and overworked at work. I know I am but I can’t help it. It’s like I need to feel that I have control of one area of my life and my whole world isn’t ruled by chaos. My wife hates it when our busiest season hits because she knows I’ll be very hard to live with, working 18 hour days for weeks. Family won’t come visit because I’m not nice to be around. It’s when the big bucks come in though that carry us through the remainder of the year. If we want the lifestyle we have, we haven’t a choice.

  • Paige

    July 24th, 2010 at 3:59 PM

    Julia, I think your point #1: Have more goals for yourself than for your partner, is the most important of all. That reminds of the saying about when you point your finger at someone, remember there are more pointing back at you. It’s incredibly easy to think you’re blameless when you’re not.

  • Erin

    July 24th, 2010 at 7:17 PM

    Please don’t take this the wrong way. How can you be sure that marriage counseling won’t speed up the breakup instead of preventing it? That’s my fear about therapy. Raising all these issues may be okay with a counselor present. What about when you get home? Wouldn’t it just turn into a fight? My husband is very good at putting on one face to the world, saying all the right things and hiding his anger until he gets home.

    I guess I’d be too leary of that to be completely honest in therapy. And then what good would it have done if I held back? I wouldn’t have got out of it what I could have and neither would my marriage. Hope this makes sense.

  • Carl

    July 24th, 2010 at 7:59 PM

    You need to learn how to separate work and home, Donald. It’s unfair on your family that they bear the brunt of your workload pressures. If you can’t find a way to do that, and your wife is your first priority, you should be seeking another job. I learned too late that lesson. My work drove my wife and I apart and for what? I still have the work and I’m still stressed as hell, only more so because she’s gone.

    Money isn’t everything and neither is lifestyle. I tried that argument too with mine. My wife told me she would have lived in a tiny apartment in a heartbeat if we would have been happy together. That that would have been preferable to wandering around our big country house alone while I worked crazy hours. She was miserable when she was alone, looked forward to me coming home and within five minutes of that, was even more miserable because I’d be in a bad mood. Maybe the lifestyle isn’t as important to your wife as you think or maybe it’s you that needs it more than she does. For the sake of your marriage, try asking her.

  • Olivia

    July 25th, 2010 at 5:47 AM

    having a partner who is as committed to going as you are makes a world of difference- if there is any hesitation then things probably won’t work out so well

  • Wanderer

    July 25th, 2010 at 9:09 PM

    “Remember to build each other up, to strengthen and sustain, to keep companionship lovely and alive. Remember dignity and respect; understanding; not expecting perfection; a sense of humor and a sense of what is sacred and serious; common purposes, common convictions, and the character to stay with a bargain, to keep a covenant – in these are the making of a good and solid marriage.” – Richard L. Evans

  • Bethany

    July 25th, 2010 at 10:00 PM

    If it wasn’t for marriage counseling my husband and I would have split up long ago. It is frightening to take that leap into the unknown. Remember though you have a professional therapist right there to guide you both as you explore your relationship on a deep level.

    I’ll be honest: there were days I felt I didn’t know him at all when I heard what he had to say and vice versa. It’s not a bed of roses but it’s not all thorns either. We both gained a deeper appreciation of who we were in essence and of each other. When love is holding you both together, you can get through it because of your joint desire to stay that way.

    We’re more in love now than we ever were because we communicate better. We express ourselves more openly and sooner. We talk, and talk, and talk some more. We make time to be a couple, not parents or caregivers. Marriage counseling comes highly recommended from me.

  • Eric

    July 25th, 2010 at 10:19 PM

    As a divorce attorney, I see that all too often, people rush into divorce without exploring alternatives first. The bottom line is that people need to realize that family and children are too important to leap into divorce. Of course, if divorce is the only option then people have to do what they have to do. But looking into ways to make marriage counseling work is solid advice.

  • Celeste

    July 26th, 2010 at 12:40 AM

    What’s wonderful about having the therapist there is they are a fresh pair of eyes and ears on the marriage. We become so blinded to what’s really going on underneath. Do not think they are judgmental because they are not. In my experience, therapists are warm, compassionate people with keen analytical minds and open hearts. I wish I’d thought about the “feelings behind the feelings” from the beginning. That’s a wonderful tip from Julia.

  • Georgia

    July 26th, 2010 at 4:24 AM

    For me and maing marriage counseling work or really any kind of counsling at all to be beneficial it has to be about the changes that you can personally make and not projecting what you want to happen onto others. I think that there are generally people who want to go into counseling to complain about other people and the things that they are doing wrong that screws over their lives. That is not what counseling should be about. It should be about finding yourself, the person that you want to be and discovering the path to lead you there. The path is sure to be littered with good and bad things and going to a good counselor gives you the methods for dealing with whatever it is that you will encounter and embracing the things that are good in life and letting go of the issues that are harmful and bad. marriage counseling is just like this too, and if both partners will look at it from this poijt of view then the chances for doing well in counseling are excellent!

  • Keith

    July 26th, 2010 at 8:22 PM

    I had to smile at “give the benefit of the doubt”. When my ex and I sought counseling, whenever I expressed an opinion in the first session she didn’t agree with, she would say “he doesn’t really think that”. Seriously! The therapist soon put a stop to that. Our biggest issue was her controlling behavior and for once I was glad and not embarrassed to see her behave like that.

  • Candy

    July 26th, 2010 at 9:58 PM

    When I was in my first relationship, I became so co-dependent on my partner that I couldn’t even choose a jar of jelly at the store without him there to ask what kind to get. I look back on that now and see how sad my situation was that I perceived as normal. I literally couldn’t pick one because I didn’t know what I liked best without him reinforcing my choice. That was the day that shook me enough to find a way out of it. My independence had vanished in a space of months because he wanted me not to work after I moved in with him. I thought it was sweet and old fashioned. It took me a while to realize that meant I had no money in my own bank account and I had to ask him for everything. That was not a good thing. I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything on my own without cash in my pocket and he knew it. He wouldn’t give me an allowance and I had to explain every penny. Not that he was poor! He earned plenty.

    Cling to your independence: financial, mental, physical and emotional. It’s priceless.

  • Len

    July 28th, 2010 at 10:03 PM

    Marriage is work. If you don’t treat it with the same respect and dedication to success that you would your job, you’re headed into rough seas. Be smart about it!

  • Claire

    July 28th, 2010 at 11:13 PM

    Kahlil Gibran summed up what a marriage needs most IMHO in The Prophet : independence entwined with togetherness. “Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

    Excellent article, Julia. Bravo!

  • Michael

    March 3rd, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    Thank you for your article. I wish many of my clients would go through your process prior to coming to visit me and not need my services.

  • Sandra

    October 5th, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    This is really good information for people thinking of trying couples counseling. I appreciated the comments from people who have been in counseling and the attorneys who work with divorcing couples.

  • Kita

    May 26th, 2013 at 9:05 AM

    Part of the problem in my marriage is that we don’t know how to communicate with each other about what’s going on with us.

  • Julia Flood

    Julia Flood

    May 26th, 2013 at 10:37 AM

    Kita – I know, most people don’t! That’s why getting coaching from a therapist is so crucial.

    -Julia Flood (author of article)

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