What you need to know before you go
While most of us can agree that we are more fearful today than in the past, few things can evoke as much fear as hearing your partner say, “Honey, I think we need couples counseling.” The therapeutic process can be terrifying to both men and women. While there have been some interesting depictions of therapy on television in the last few years, (The Soprano’s, In Treatment, and the dysfunctional Frazer), some stigma still remains.
Often, one person in a couple is more comfortable communicating and expressing their feelings. This is the partner that will often bring up counseling as an option. Their willingness and excitement can often be confusing to their partner who is turned off by the idea of opening up and exploring the relationship. Spending 50 minutes in a room with a stranger, each week talking about personal information, can feel like heaven to one partner, hell to the other.
If you are leading the march to therapy, be kind about it. If you talk about it in terms of fixing what is broken in your partner you’ll understandably hit a brick wall. Instead, talk about counseling in terms of how it will benefit both of you. Mention the ways in which you want to learn to be a better partner. It’s important to realize that no matter what is happening in the relationship, both of you have things to learn and ways to grow.
Bottom line is, couples counseling works when both parties are fully committed and the counselor is well trained. I’ve seen couples counseling transform the most toxic of relationships. What you need to know is that the sooner you go to therapy, the easier it will be to redirect the behavior that isn’t working. Most couples wait a full 7 years after they begin to experience issues before going to therapy. Seven years! That is longer than most of us want to drive the same car yet we often live in untenable marriages because we fear the unknown of the therapist’s office.
There are a lot of reasons why going sooner is better. To begin with, couples have more desire to work on their relationship early in the game. The chemical soup that love creates in our brain is still strong. Even though conflict exists, your desire to work things out is at it’s highest. Another reason is that the behaviors that tend to damage relationships aren’t set in stone so they are easier to change.
Once a couple has been fighting it out for a few years, often about the same issue, they get tired, worn down, less motivated. They understandably prefer distractions to the challenges of communication. Zoning out in front of the television or having a few glasses of wine every night is easier than trying to figure things out. Couples start to think that maybe this is as good as it gets and find ways to accept the pain as normal and expected.
WAKE UP…life is not supposed to be painful! Will you go through difficult and painful times with your spouse? Yes. Can you recover from those difficult times? Yes! But you’re going to need help doing so. When you are in need, find an expert who can educate you and help you see things that the two of you are just not able to see. Relationships are very emotionally complex and the average person has not learned how to navigate these complexities. Let’s face it, most of us receive more training on how to safely drive a car than how to be successful in relationships.
Start by finding a well trained couples counselor. Don’t assume that all licensed professionals are trained to work with couples. Couples counseling is a highly specific specialty so ask a potential counselor what type of training they have received and what percentage of their practice relates to couples counseling. Most therapists are like Primary Care Physicians in that they have received some training on a wide variety of topics. You want a specialist. If a therapist gets defensive when you ask about their experience working with couples, they probably don’t have enough to feel confident about their skills so keep looking. If they promise quick results, that is a bad sign as well because counseling, of any kind, takes time.
If you’ve tried couples counseling in the past and had a negative experience, tell your new counselor about it so it doesn’t get in the way. You want to find someone that you both click with because unless you feel emotionally safe, you won’t open up. The truth is, you’ll have to open up in order for your counselor to know how to help you.
Accept vulnerability as a normal part of the process. You are talking to a virtual stranger about very intimate details of your marriage. Plus, you are opening up to your spouse in ways that may have been difficult in the past. It’s going to feel uncomfortable. Be honest and talk about feeling uncomfortable. You need to know that your therapist can help you deal with the discomfort.
If you are concerned that being honest will create more conflict, set up some guidelines about that. When I am working with a couples, I suggest a ‘no foul’ rule. That means that neither you nor your partner can’t get in trouble for telling the truth. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to give feedback respectfully but it does mean that you have the freedom to be honest. Being honest also means that you be willing to tell the counselor what’s really going on in your relationship.
Finally, it’s important to pace yourself and be realistic about your expectations. It can take many years for a marriage to falter, it is going to take time to repair. Sometimes you may leave a counseling session feeling worse than when you got there. This is normal. You are going to learn new things, try new things, find relationship muscles you never knew you had, You can do it and if you stick with it and do the work, your marriage will improve in ways you can’t yet imagine.
Kanya is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a Private Practice in Paoli, Pennsylvania. She is a highly sought after Relationship Expert and author whose work has been syndicated by the Huffington Post and Fox News Magazine. Kanya specializes in coaching single women who are ready to create meaningful relationships and helping couples deepen their levels of intimacy and closeness. Find out more about Kanya and download her new e-book for women.