7 Ways to Succeed at Couples Therapy

Hikers help each other up mountain under setting sunAre you feeling hopeless about your relationship? Has your marriage devolved into a manipulative game of tit for tat? Or perhaps you’ve both withdrawn and haven’t had a meaningful exchange in years. In any case, if you’re reading this, you probably wish you could get back that lovin’ feeling.

You’re tired of marital frustration. You’ve suffered long enough. You could probably benefit from couples counseling.

Divorces sometimes happen when a couple hits a rough patch. Some are healthy, good, appropriate divorces. But many are unnecessary responses to temporary, treatable problems. Marriages go through different phases. If a couple splits too quickly or easily, they miss the growth opportunity that is built into conflict.

Marital distress can be excruciatingly painful. So can cranking up your old eHarmony subscription. And living separately from your children. And starting over with someone new only to find old patterns showing up.

An honest conversation is key to rebuilding your relationship. A qualified couples counselor can help you to have that conversation. You can maximize the benefits of therapy by being a wise consumer. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Search inside yourself first. Are you willing to do this work? Look at your motives. Do you want to make things better or do you want to check off the box that says, “We tried therapy and it didn’t work”? Make a conscious decision to be rigorously honest as you do the challenging work of relationship rebuilding.
  2. Tell your spouse that you want to work on your marriage. Show your own hand first. Share your vulnerability. Disclose your wish for your intimate connection to be stronger. Then ask your partner how they feel about the issue and if they are willing to participate in the therapy.
  3. Work collaboratively with your spouse regarding the selection of a therapist. I suggest you agree beforehand on a process of selecting a therapist. Do some research. Ask questions. One of you will make the phone calls, but it is important that you both agree that the person you work with is the right person. One “no” vote wins and you keep looking.
  4. Choose a well-trained couples therapy specialist with whom you both feel comfortable. Interview at least two or three. A competent couples therapist (1) is trained in specific interventions that will interrupt destructive patterns; (2) is directive, a strong leader who will intervene rather than watch you argue; and (3) won’t sugarcoat the truth, but will guide you to a new way of being relational.
  5. Be aware of the pitfalls of individual therapy for couples issues. When calling around, ask if the therapist is “marriage friendly” or if they are neutral about the institution. An individual therapist only hears one side; they need to understand the bigger picture of your relationship. Make sure your counselor’s biases line up with your own.
  6. Set limits with friends. In some situations, it is appropriate and necessary to work on boundaries with friends and family members. Ask them to support you in ways that are truly supportive. Tell them that you want to fight for your marriage. Teach them how they can help you at this difficult time. Tell them it’s not helpful to predict that your life will be better without your spouse. If you’ve badmouthed your spouse to friends and family, apologize to them for the inappropriate disclosures.
  7. Be honest. If you are certain you will end the relationship, tell your therapist. You will redefine successful therapy as ending the relationship well. Understand that if you are 99% sure that you wish to divorce, it is still valid to go to couples therapy. It is worth trying. Enter therapy with your heart soft and mind open.

There will be plenty of time to end things if divorce becomes inevitable. But as long as there is a tiny spark, you may be able to make your marriage healthy again.

Why should you fight for your marriage? Research shows happily married people are emotionally and physically healthier than their single counterparts. Married people are wealthier, less anxiety-prone, and less depressed. They have fewer suicides. Furthermore, people in a connected and cherishing partnership tend to have a stronger immune system, live longer, and have more sex. The mental and physical health benefits of being lovingly attached are well documented.

There will be plenty of time to end things if divorce becomes inevitable. But as long as there is a tiny spark, you may be able to make your marriage healthy again. If that’s difficult to imagine, give it a try. Find a therapist who can help you develop and hold a vision of how things could be. Remain open to the experience for at least 12 to 16 weeks.

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Think of it like this: Marriage is a little like climbing Mount Everest. You have to work hard for it. You have to prepare extensively for the experience of ascending the mountain. You’ll have trials throughout the endeavor. There will be legitimate reasons for some to end the climb before it’s over. But if you want to be among the finishers, you must find a way to stay with it even when it isn’t fun. If you want to stand triumphantly at the top, keep putting one foot in front of the other. Couples counseling might give you the courage to keep climbing.


Waite, L., & Gallagher, M. (2000). The case for marriage: Why married people are happier, healthier, and better off financiallyNew York, NY: Broadway Books.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Bonnie Ray Kennan, PsyD, MFT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

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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  • Shelly

    May 3rd, 2018 at 12:38 PM

    What if your husband refuses to go to counseling? I can’t fight for our marriage alone.

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