Before developing a specialty in working with couples, I had heard a lot of rumors saying that couples counseling was a waste of time. It didn’t work in most cases, particularly with high-conflict couples. I didn’t pay much attention to these rumors at first, because in the beginning of my career I did not have an interest in couples therapy.
But now, after years of counseling couples and working through challenges in my own marriage to eventually create a strong relationship and happy family, I understand why marriage counseling has gotten a bad rap. The reasons some couples don’t succeed in marriage counseling are the exact same reasons they don’t succeed in marriage!
What Counselors Can Offer Couples
Counselors and therapists have a plethora of training and tools to offer. In couples therapy, clients can learn conflict resolution skills, effective communication skills, empathy, problem solving, parenting techniques, how to get their needs met, how to speak their spouse’s love language. I could keep going and name 25 more things you can learn and achieve in therapy.
Plus, counselors offer their clients understanding, compassion, and a safe place to talk openly about problems. They can also give concrete advice and solutions. We even offer homework assignments, so you can do more learning and growing to improve your relationship between sessions!
Yet, for many couples, marriage counseling doesn’t seem to lead to significant and lasting change. And some people who have tried couples counseling tell me it didn’t work for them at all!
What’s going on? If therapists have so many tools and solutions to offer couples, why isn’t marriage counseling always (or even mostly) effective?
Client Factors in Therapy
Research tells us that the most important factors in therapy success (that is, the factors that account for the largest portion of variance) are client factors. What does this mean exactly? It means that the things clients bring to therapy—their attitudes, their beliefs, their fears—are a key factor in how successful the therapy will be.
This brings me back to my opening comment: the reasons some couples don’t succeed in therapy are the exact same reasons they don’t succeed in marriage!
How to Get the Most Out of Couples Counseling
There are three things that couples can do to almost guarantee success in couples counseling and in marriage.
- Don’t throw in the towel. Marriage takes work, and persistence pays off (in any endeavor). I can’t count how many times a couple comes in for two or three sessions and then at least one of them tells me, “I don’t think this is working.” I’m constantly reminding people that problems unresolved for ten years won’t be magically fixed in three 45-minute sessions. For some people, when things get difficult, when they don’t get immediate gratification, they become fearful that “it’ll never work anyway.” So they just want to quit early to avoid disappointment. If you give up too soon, your therapy won’t work, and it’s likely that neither will your marriage!
- Focus on your growth. Couples who don’t succeed in marriage or in counseling are often focused on trying to fix their partner or on what they are not getting from their partner. This focus does not work. Instead, you must focus on your own growth. How can you become more patient or more assertive? How can you be less controlling or begin taking more initiative? How can you rein in your strong emotions or express what you feel more openly? You see, it doesn’t matter which side of the fence you’re on (over-emotional, distant, controlling, or passive); either way, there’s an opportunity for you to grow and improve. You are only responsible for your half. Your partner’s half is his or her business. I read a comment in a book a few years ago that said most people see marriage as the opportunity to experience the best in another person, but marriage is really the opportunity to experience the best in yourself. It is simply a different context for personal growth—your growth.
- Have realistic expectations. Just like many couples have unrealistic expectations about marriage, they also have unrealistic expectations of therapy. People expect their spouses to make them happy and meet most of their needs. People expect their therapist to be the one to fix their marriage.
This may surprise you, but it is not the job of your marriage counselor to fix your marriage. It is the job of your marriage counselor to teach you how you can fix your own marriage. Just like it isn’t your spouse’s job to make you happy and meet your needs. Of course, in a well-functioning marriage, your spouse will bring you joy (in part because you will choose to delight in the good qualities they possess), but you are the one responsible for creating happiness for yourself.
Plus, it’s normal for marriages to go through tough times. It’s unrealistic to think you can live with someone for 40 years and not have a few rough years in between. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be difficult forever.
Both marriage and therapy can be amazingly wonderful and life-transforming experiences. They both provide the opportunity to grow and become a more loving, patient, insightful, and forgiving person, which automatically leads to more happiness, satisfaction with life, and inner peace. Both marriage and therapy are opportunities. It’s completely up to you whether or not to take advantage of them.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Chantal Marie Gagnon, PhD, LMHC, CAP, SAP, therapist in Plantation, Florida
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