There are few if any couples who have been together any amount of time who have managed to successfully avoid any of the many pitfalls that that are inherent in committed partnerships. We know (personally and professionally) many couples who were convinced that theirs was a relationship that was the exception to this rule only to find after the first major disappointment, or the first child, or the first serious disagreement, or the last straw, that they were wrong. And while there are some couples who do experience deep marital fulfillment with little if any serious conflict along the way, for the vast majority of couples, not just those who are mismatched or emotionally unbalanced, stuff happens. Sometimes it’s bad stuff that doesn’t just go away over time, or when you ignore it, or when one partner intimidates the other into backing down or shutting up.
The noted marriage researcher, John Gottman claims that the average couple that enters marriage counseling has been in a troubled relationship for over six years. That could be one of the reasons that marriage counseling has gotten a lot of bad press and has the lowest rating of satisfaction of all the different types of psychotherapy. As in cancer diagnosis, early detection is a big plus.
While past generations of couples have taken the attitude of “grin and bear it” when difficulties have arisen in their relationship, these days most couples are less willing to tolerate an unhappy marriage for very long without trying something, such as books, DVD’s, workshops, or couples’ retreats. If none of these resources prove sufficiently helpful, there is finally the option of marriage counseling. If you are ever in a position in which you are considering that possibility, here are a few things that you might want to think about before (and after) you make that decision.
It’s not a good idea to wait until both partners are completely on board with the idea of getting professional help. If one person is clear that they feel the need for another set of eyes and ears, it’s probably time. One way to minimize any potential conflict around this decision is to make an agreement that either partner has the authority to unilaterally exercise the couples’ therapy option if she or he feels it’s necessary. The best time to create this agreement is before, rather that after the relationship has begun to deteriorate.
*Timing is everything. The question of when you choose to go is, as we suggested earlier, an important one. Waiting too long can be very costly, in more ways than one. The more entrenched the problems, the longer it takes to resolve them, and in some cases irreparable damage can occur if the situation undergoes extreme deterioration. By all means make your best effort to improve your relationship and repair what is broken on your own. But also, be mindful of recurring negative patterns that don’t respond to your best efforts. That could mean that you might need to call in the cavalry.
Choose a person that you both feel that you can work with. There is no generic answer to the question of how you know whether you have the right counselor, but it is important that you are both in agreement that this is someone that you can at least begin the process with. It’s unrealistic for a counselor to expect that you can commit to doing extensive work before having even had any experience working with him or her. Beware of therapists who try to extract a commitment from you to a specific time period or number of sessions before you’ve had any experience getting to know their work. And on a related note, be willing to ask your counselor any questions that you feel might be relevant to your ability to accurately assess their competence and fit for you, such as their experience, degrees, success rate, education, or even marital status and history. If the counselor refuses to answer or turns your request into a question about your trust issues, you might want to think about seeking help elsewhere.
Get clear about what you really want to get out of this process. Couples come into counseling with a wide range of intentions, some conscious, and some unconscious, some shared, and some unshared. Some are content to simply deal with the situation that brought them there and get back to their ‘normal’ level of relatedness. Others may be looking for a transcendent experience, one that will transform their relationship into a source of spiritual realization. It’s likely that very early on your counselor will ask you about your goals. Giving some thought to this question beforehand will expedite the process considerably. And try to keep in mind that it’s normal for even the clearest intentions to shift, change, or (hopefully) be fulfilled in the process. If that happens you can extend or adjust the goals that you have for counseling. You are not permanently locked into anything that you say in response to the “purpose question”. But it’s a very good place to begin.
Your counselor is a consultant, not a fixer. Although couples may strongly disagree on many points, one thing that they usually do agree on is that it is the therapist’s responsibility to fix the marriage. After all, why else would we be paying him all that money? Going to the dentist may not be a particularly pleasant experience for most of us, but one thing that we can count on from the dentist is that he will take responsibility for handling our dental concerns without expecting any more from us than to follow a few pretty simple instructions, like open, close, rinse, spit, grind. Not so in couples counseling, which is a more dynamic process that involves interactions between three people and requires each partner to take an active role in the process and to be willing to be an involved agent in influencing its outcome.
The marriage counselor is there to assist and guide you to consider new ways of looking at things, to redirect the focus of your attention from your partner’s behavior and more towards yourself and the relationship. We can’t control other people but we can influence our own behavior which in doing so will change the dynamics of the relationship.
Your therapist might offer you tools or behavioral suggestions to try, or suggest options that you may not have previously considered. Your job is to be as honest and engaged as you can be, and to explore new possibilities. Vulnerability and risk are two things that many of us try to minimize in our lives, particularly when we have been scarred (and scared) by emotional wounding. They are usually, however, key factors in the repair process.
*The real “work” of marriage counseling occurs between sessions. The marriage counselor’s office isn’t the only place where the work of therapy gets done, but it is the place where many of the lessons are learned. As most of us know from experience, knowing what you need to do generally isn’t enough to bring about real change. What’s required is to engage the practices that will promote the development of the qualities that we need to embody, in order to bring about the changes in our relationship that we desire. These qualities include (but are not limited to) responsibility, compassion, integrity, authenticity, commitment, courage, and emotional honesty.
Life outside of the office is the place where we get to practice and ultimately integrate new styles of relating and communicating that invite openness and trust, and discourage avoidance and defensiveness. If you feel that it’s much easier to implement those changes in the therapy office than it is at home, that’s probably because your counselor’s added support has created a safety net that has enabled you to risk more emotional vulnerability. Your counselor’s job is to help you to internalize that support so that you will be able to do outside of the office what you learn to do inside of it. There’s no generic answer to the question: “How long will that take?” We can however, assure you that with time, practice and good help, improvement will occur.
The art of co-creating mutually fulfilling relationships requires more of us than we may have originally bargained for. Fortunately, we are not alone. Help is available, not just in the form of marriage counseling, but through the wisdom, support, and shared life experiences of others who have walked this path before us and learned valuable lessons. Jack Kornfield, the author and gifted spiritual teacher is one of those people. He reminds us that loving relationships require a cup of understanding, a barrel of love, and an ocean of patience. Given what’s at stake, we can all use all the help we can get!