(As written by a marriage counselor.)
What the heck do I know about it?
For the past nearly 30 years of helping couples manage their relationships, I've seen it all. Fortunately, I now understand, as a result of all those years what makes the difference in counseling working, or not.
Verifiably, and without any doubt, there are simple things you can choose to do to make it work, and if you don’t… well you are on your own.
What I've discovered is that our brains work in a particular way when we are under stress, or have a sense of threat and it evokes bad behavior in all of us in certain circumstances.
We find ourselves doing and saying things we don’t mean, and lying to try to keep situations under control. We find ourselves feeling like a victim or our anger becomes out of control.
Unless we figure out what is going on inside of us to cause these triggers to get control of our behavior, we are at a loss in our personal relationships — especially in a marriage.
Marriage counseling works, but not if you ignore the most important components and choose to do otherwise. So, I don’t make a lot of guarantees, but can guarantee that marriage counseling with NOT work if you don’t do them.
Every couple has something in common.
To begin with, every couple comes in expecting the counselor to help their partner see the error in their ways. They (almost) always blame the other person and fail to see how they could possibly be doing anything that is causing the problems between them.
It's our nature to look at everything from an egocentric (self-centered) position and expect that if our partner only knew how to please us, how to keep their cool, how to talk properly… then everything would be great between you.
Unfortunately, that's not the case. Except in cases where one partner has a severe mental illness or is sociopathic (no empathy), both partners are equally responsible for the outcome of their marriage. I found this to be true in many cases where there is physical violence.
With one couple I worked with, the husband had been brought up on charges of physical assault, when it was the wife who was the instigator. She had a history of pushing, shoving, poking, and breaking things that he cared about until he would lose his temper and try to constrain her.
He finally lost it entirely and slapped her… that’s when the police were called and he was charged with domestic violence.
Among the couples I worked with, those who did the following manage to get through therapy is a VERY short amount of time. Sometime, in only four sessions, you can manage to turn your marriage completely around, but ONLY if you do these 10 things:
1. Come in with an open mind.
Assume that you don’t really know what the problem is all about. As Albert Einstein said, "You can’t solve a problem from inside the problem."
2. Assume you are as much a part of the problem as your partner.
Do this even if you have no idea what your part of the problem entails.
3. Do what your counselor suggests you do.
Can you imagine going to a physician and getting a prescription, not taking it, and then coming in and telling the doctor "your treatment didn't work"?
The therapy only works if you do the work. The time in session is only a fraction of the work required.
4. Keep your problems between the two of you.
Many people have a habit of pouring their hearts out to friends, family members, even co workers about all the problems between them and their spouse.
The problem is that this leaks energy out of the relationship, encourages a victim mentality, and keeps you locked in negative patters.
5. Don't drink excessively.
One of the sure fire ways to incite a real problem is to drink more than a couple of drinks and then try to talk to your partner about issues.
Our brains just don’t work to solve problems when we are intoxicated. In fact, we are much more prone to defensive reactivity when drinking and it can even escalate to a dangerous level.
6. Don't threaten to leave or file for divorce while you are in the process of counseling.
This only triggers more stress and defensiveness from your spouse and makes it difficult to stay on topic in discussions
7. Don't start looking around at your options.
Developing a wandering eye or a wandering heart when things are stressful between you is common for many couples, but it prevents you from being able to return to seeing your spouse in that same light.
Yes, another person may treat you better, look sexier, right now. But you don’t know them, you don’t have any history with them, and trust me on this one, you will develop the same set of problems with them as you have in this current relationship anyway.
As a twice divorced, now wife of 17 years, I know.
8. Be sensitive to how scared you and your partner may be at the prospect of a breakup.
Relationships are a BIG deal. They are the thing that matters to us the most (why do you think there are so many love songs?) and we are most vulnerable to depression and suicide when we are struggling in our relationship then we are at any other time.
9. Learn to be empathetic with each other.
The biggest problem couples have when they come to counseling is a lack of real empathy for how each other feels. Learn to put yourself in your partners shoes, imagine how they might be feeling inside their angry, defensive tone.
Remember that under all anger is fear and hurt and your partner, in spite of how they sound, is hurting if they are screaming at you.
10. Keep coming to sessions as long as your therapist thinks it is a benefit.
Come regularly, not once a month, or whenever a problem comes up. Counseling is preventative medicine, it only works if you keep practicing it.
Using it as a band-aid doesn’t work. Come once a week or at the very least every other week, on a regular basis until you learn how to be together in a new way.
Nearly 30 years as a therapist and the couples I have worked with who do these ten things have marriages that work, and continue to work to this day.
But the most frustrating thing for me as a professional is to have people pay me good money, come in week after week, and fail to do the above, because counseling WILL fail if you don’t do them.
You are the medicine. Your behavior is the medicine.
If you choose to continue to do what you have always done you will not get a different result. Trite, I know, but its emphatically true in this case.