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?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.
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.
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