Remember the kid in college who waited until the semester was almost over before hiring a tutor? They were making that last-minute Hail Mary pass because they didn’t put work in on the front end. Well, my friends… going to a couple’s counselor is sort of like hiring a tutor. It works best if you start early, take it seriously, and do the homework.
Imagine my shock when my grad school professor in couples counseling class discussed the effectiveness of marital therapy. My whole goal was making marriage effective. He should be instructing us on how to make it work. Yet he said – the reality of positive outcome results was very LOW. Which begs the question, why do it?
The number one reason it isn’t more effective is because people wait too long. Plain and simple. According to relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before getting help. Think about this statistic for a minute. Couples have six years to build up resentment before they begin the important work of learning to resolve differences in effective ways. Throughout my practice as a marriage therapist, I see it over and over again. Instead of putting a Band-Aid and ointment on a small cut they wait until it is an infected wound.
First Thing’s First… Timing is Everything!
Couples’ therapy works best when you are ready to seek help. A motivated couple can begin to explore their problems through a different lens and have the ability to recognize and resolve conflict. It is important to build trust and communication that may have deteriorated over time. A skilled therapist will provide a neutral territory and allow the couple to work through difficult issues.
Motivation is KEY.
Couples counseling can be hard work. The benefits come when everybody, including the therapist, invests time and energy in working through issues and discovering solutions. Every relationship has highs and lows, and conflict is a natural component. When couples avoid conflict as a method for keeping the marriage in tact it backfires. The avoidance leads to keeping in negative thoughts and feelings which in turn doesn’t allow your partner the opportunity to change their behavior. The secret isn’t to avoid conflict but rather to choose the battles wisely.
If you are wondering “does marriage counseling work?”, the answer may depend on whether your partner is a willing and proactive participant in the therapy. If your partner refuses to attend, you may be able to change the dynamic of your relationship just by going to individual therapy. However, statistics show that couples or family therapy is usually faster and more effective than individual therapy alone. When a couple or a family goes to therapy together, they have the opportunity to work on their group dynamic and interactions. It allows the therapist to see multiple perspective. In my practice I have the greatest level of success when I see the couple together first and then each person individually and then back together for the fourth session. Typically, it takes about a third fewer sessions to accomplish a goal in family or couples’ therapy than it does in individual therapy. That translates to fewer dollars spent and a marriage that is fulfilling happening sooner!
Therapist Fit. The Hidden Factor.
One of the biggest factors in the success of marriage counseling is the counselor. Almost every counselor in the world says that they do marriage counseling, but most never received any training. Often, they got a degree in psychology or therapy and feel that they can do it. Marriage counseling isn’t just one person and his or her issues. It’s two people, their issues, and interaction and dynamics of those issues. Marriage counseling isn’t just counseling – it’s a learned skill that requires a specialist.
According to William Doherty, in an article in Psychotherapy Networker, “Surveys indicate that about eighty percent of therapists in private practice do couples therapy.” The reality is they have not taken courses specifically about couples counseling and have not been trained under the supervision of someone who is a specialist in that area. He states, “From a consumer’s point of view going in for couples’ therapy is like having your broken leg set by a doctor who skipped orthopedics in medical school.”
It is also important to look at a therapist’s style. In my opinion, being a passive therapist doesn’t work. A recent New York Times article points out the challenges for couples’ therapists as well as patients. These therapists agree that being a passive voice during session doesn’t work and the therapist needs to be willing to get in and “be a ninja.” The old school style of sitting there and nodding and telling them to take turns talking won’t work. The therapist needs to be in there as a part of the solution, invested in the process, and willing to get involved with the messy dance. A good therapist has to be willing to get in the fray in order to understand what the fray is all about. Tough love from the therapist creates change, progress, and more movement.
Is the Goal Actually Staying Together?
Marriage counseling can turn into divorce counseling when you have already cried uncle. At times, one or both partners have decided to divorce and use marriage counseling as a vehicle to deliver the message. Sometimes, the issues have gone on for so long and the patterns are so ingrained that no amount of marriage counseling will revive the relationship. In some cases, marriage counseling works by convincing a couple that they are not in a healthy relationship and giving them the encouragement needed to end their connection. According to research, up to 38 percent of couples who receive marriage therapy get divorced within four years of completing therapy.
Tips for Success
- Develop time and space to spend with your partner on a regular basis so you have the opportunity to communicate about your wishes and goals.
- Maintain your individual interests and pursuits. Resentment boils over when you give up things you love. Plus having diverse experiences allows you to have more interesting things to share with your partner.
- Be supportive of one another’s interests. Allow each other space.
- Listen with genuine interest to each other. Ask how Thursday night poker went because you know it matters to them.
- Generate fluid dialogue. Find out what your partner wants and proactively ask for clarifications. Skip comments that sound threatening because you will regret it later.
- Learn skills to resolve conflict calmly. Avoiding conflict is a great way to increase your risk of divorce down the road.
- Take responsibility for your part in the problems and accept that all human beings are flawed in some way.
- Be realistic about a time-line for change. It takes more than a few sessions to shed light on the dynamics and to begin the process of change.
- Talk to the therapist on the phone. Ask how active they are in working with the couple. It is a team with all three people who have to collaborate and work together.
Spread the Word.
If your marriage is in a bad place, or if it has already ended, do your friends and family a solid by encouraging them to get counseling now. Premarital counseling greatly increases the chance for a happy and fulfilling marriage. Couples shouldn’t wait until their relationship is falling apart before going to a therapist. Please invest the time to go to their primary care physician for yearly check-ups and our mental health and relationships deserve the same care. So, does marriage counseling work? Yes. And it works the best when you go before you need it.