4 Ways to Get the Most Out of Couples Therapy

Happy couple looks at each other, leaning in close to kiss in front of open laptopWhat 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.

Conclusion

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.

References:

  1. Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.
  2. Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
  3. Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rachel Keller, LCSW-C, therapist in Odenton, Maryland

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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  • Andrea

    Andrea

    May 31st, 2017 at 10:58 AM

    If a couple does not have an open mind when they go into the therapy room then chances are pretty high that they will never get as much or really anything out of it like they could if they are open to the possibilities of what it could do for them. I am always amazed that someone would go through all of the time and effort that going to therapy takes but then they don’t do the at home work or even the work in the session that would help them change their lives in a more positive and meaningful way. It is like they think that just being there should do all the hard work for them, but they forget that there has to be effort and intent to improve on their part as well.

  • Rachel Keller, LGSW

    Rachel Keller, LGSW

    May 31st, 2017 at 12:17 PM

    I feel the same way Andrea. Which is why I spend time at the start of therapy to get the couple on board with the process, to prevent them from wasting their time. There are so many barriers to change, or reasons why someone would intentionally or unintentionally resist or possibly sabotage the process. Motivational interviewing techniques have been helpful for me in working through those aspects at the start.

  • Cole

    Cole

    June 3rd, 2017 at 7:05 AM

    Just like with anything that you wish to get the most out of it has to be something that the two of you commit to together and you get engaged with the process. This will never be a time when you can sit back and let the other person do all of the heavy lifting.

  • Rachel Keller, LGSW

    Rachel Keller, LGSW

    June 3rd, 2017 at 1:02 PM

    Very true. This process of committing fully to therapy can be a turning point that helps a passive couple or partner wake up and realize it’s time for a change!

  • Lillian S.

    Lillian S.

    January 30th, 2019 at 7:59 AM

    Thanks for letting me know that you should go to couples therapy with an open mind. My husband and I are having some communication problems. Maybe we should visit a couples therapist with an open mind.

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