One Surprising Thing To Know Before Going to Marriage Counseling
Updated: Sep 16, 2021
When you come to couples therapy with your partner, you need help - now! I feel this urgency when I meet with partners for the first time. They’re in crisis. They want to end the nasty arguments, codependent patterns, triggering comments. Maybe they are literally on the verge of separation or divorce. But no matter how much of a mess your relationship is, I take the first three sessions of marriage counseling to assess your problems and collaborate with you to create a shared understanding of what is going on for the two of you.
You want solutions - but first we have to understand the problem
The truth is, without a deep understanding of your particular relationship dynamics, any perspective I offer will be imprecise and probably won’t help. Even worse, premature or nonspecific advice can even make things worse in your relationship.
Let’s imagine a couple who interrupt each other a lot, roll their eyes while the other person is speaking, and slam doors when they leave rooms. They’re having big, loud fights multiple times a week. This couple needs to learn better communication skills, right away! Right?
Well, maybe, maybe not. How does each partner feel in the moment, when they are rolling their eyes or saying “great, walk away like you always do”? When they slam a door, how does their partner react? Do the fights bother them, or do they blow off some steam and come back together easily?
We need to ask - what does the behavior mean?
Too often, couples (and therapists) try to change the moving parts of the conflict before actually understanding what is happening under the surface for each person. A slammed door can mean “this conversation is over” but it can also mean “I’ll show you how it feels when you get the last word.” Or it can mean, “I’m in too much pain to talk.” Or “I’m scared.” Or “I want to scare you.” The meaning of the slammed door matters, both in terms of intention and impact.
Plus, I could tell you to stop slamming the door, but if it was that easy, wouldn’t you have done that already? Most couples know that yelling, name-calling, and other intense conflict behaviors are not helpful. If they could just stop, they would. I take a functional approach to my work with couples, which means that I don’t assume any behavior is good or bad right off the bat. Instead, I consider how each sharp remark and sarcastic sigh functions - how it works.
By doing a thorough relationship assessment, I dive deep into the dynamics of your marriage. I’m interested in your behavior - what you’re doing - but I’m also interested in your internal experience - what you’re thinking and feeling.
Your assessment results shouldn’t be a secret
Now here’s the really important part. Not only do I take the time to explore and map your behavior, thoughts, and feelings, but I also take the time to collaborate with you and your partner so that you also have a new shared concept of what’s going on for you. This process is called feedback. Feedback ensures that I don’t assume I “get” you when maybe I’m missing the mark. We take a full session to break down what I found in the assessment process. I make sure the results resonate for both of you. When feedback goes well, it feels like putting on glasses after looking at a blurry view. Both partners get a sense of the reasons why their relationship has been going off the rails, without feeling blamed or attacked. We use this new lens as we move forward in therapy, looking at different conflicts and situations together through those glasses together.
You need marriage counseling that actually works
Too often, marriage counseling can feel unproductive or even leave partners feeling worse. When couples therapy often doesn't help, the therapist often has an insufficient understanding of what is going on for the partners, a too general explanation for why they are hurting, and a knee-jerk impulse to “just fix it” by offering quick remedies. Therapy without a nuanced grasp of your problems is a bit like reading a self-help book - potentially helpful to some extent, but probably limited, particularly if the tips don’t quite apply to you.
When you are looking for a marriage counselor, you can ask potential therapists what their assessment and feedback process looks like. This will get you a sense of whether they will be shooting from the hip, giving you advice that might work in theory but won’t work for you, or whether they will work to understand your unique dynamics, taking the extra time to create a custom plan to heal your relationship.