What makes couples therapy successful? I’ve see couples move from relationship nightmare to healthy and happy within six months of counseling. In many cases, by the time the couple ends up in the therapist’s office, they have been struggling for at least a year trying to fix issues on their own, or avoiding them. Therapy is often seen as a last resort.
Couples who are successful in this process have several things in common that help them fully benefit from therapy. Here are four ways you and your partner can set yourselves up for success:
1. Be All-In with the Process
Whether therapy is your first stop or a final attempt to salvage the relationship before giving up, in order to make it worthwhile, I ask that couples give it their best effort. This can be difficult if you’ve been to other therapists or tried different solutions without success. You may be feeling frustrated, resentful, or defeated.
John Gottman’s extensive research on what makes relationships successful shows the four most destructive forces in a relationship are defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling. From my experience, when any of these factors is present in the therapy room, it significantly impedes progress. All couples have conflict. It is how you manage that conflict that determines the outcome. Therapy works best if couples can set aside their resentments and come out from behind their emotional walls. In some cases, it takes time for couples to be able to do so because of ongoing conflicts, past hurts, and distrust. In these cases, it is important to focus on the trust and healing first, so that reconciliation can occur.
2. Come with an Open Mind
You may feel you’ve tried everything. You may have had countless conversations or arguments with your partner, researched the issue online, talked to friends, and tried different approaches. You may be skeptical of therapy, or simply skeptical as to whether your problems can be overcome in a way that satisfies both of you.
It is always possible your problems can’t or won’t be overcome. In some cases, a couple may determine their relationship is no longer healthy or compatible and decide to consciously uncouple. However, these are the minority of cases. In most situations, the problem is solvable. In therapy, you will be asked to suspend your disbelief and be open to the possible benefits from the techniques used in therapy. This may include communication exercises, intimacy homework, referral to medical providers, and considering new ways of framing your issue. Therapists use evidence-based methods that have a track record of success. When people are courageous by being open to the process, they can benefit from therapy interventions.
3. Prioritize Your Appointments
Therapy works best if couples can set aside their resentments and come out from behind their emotional walls.
It is important that couples commit to at least two therapy sessions per month for six months. This commitment serves two functions. First, it provides a chance for the therapy to work. We all wish there was a magic wand that would make our problems go away. Unfortunately, no one has one. However, we each have the ability to make positive changes, and therapy can help with that process—it just takes time. In my experience, it takes a minimum of 12 sessions for sustainable change to occur.
The second reason to prioritize your appointments: it communicates to yourself and your partner the relationship is worth it. Couples may be juggling work, school, family, and other responsibilities. Fitting therapy appointments into that can be a challenge, both logistically and financially. However, when couples find a way to make it work, they can benefit greatly.
4. Do the Homework!
The purpose of therapy is not to learn how to interact perfectly while in the therapist’s office; that is often the easiest part! The purpose of therapy is to learn how to interact in real time—to be able to navigate obstacles and conflict as they arise, in the midst of daily life.
I often assign couples the homework of having one to two intimacy dates per week. This is a planned time in which they set aside other demands and focus solely on each other. The couple uses this time to focus on applying what was learned in therapy. The homework will differ depending on your particular issue. However, what is true for all couples is practice makes “perfect.” Brain research shows the more we practice new ways of thinking and responding, the easier it becomes. Neural pathways in the brain are similar to muscles: the more you work them, the stronger they become. Neural memory develops, and with time, the new ways of relating to one another learned in therapy may become second nature.
Couples therapy is an excellent resource that helps many couples overcome challenges. Certain factors can help make therapy successful. Those factors include committing fully to the process, having an open mind, prioritizing appointments, and doing the homework. Seeing a therapist takes courage and dedication, and may prove life changing.
- Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.
- Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
- Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
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