Everything you need to know to make marriage counseling work — for better or worse.
What can you do to improve the chances of couples therapy being worth the time and money you put into it? In other words, what makes marriage counseling work? Of course, you need the help of a skilled marriage therapist but aside from that, there are several things you can do to help make your marriage counseling a success.
1. Have more goals for yourself than for your partner.
Yes, you want your partner to change or you wouldn't need therapy, but working on yourself while your partner is present is probably the most effective way to have a positive impact on your marriage. Focusing exclusively on what your partner needs to change, simply doesn't work. Ultimately, you don't get what you want.
And what is it that you want? Recalling your early expectations from the beginning of your relationship will help you visualize what it is you want — your ideal picture of the relationship. How do you behave as a partner in that perfect world? What are your characteristics? Looking now at the present, your real-life situation, what are your actual attitudes and behaviors? What hinders you from being that better person? Where are your weak points? When you're stressed, do you try to control, nag, or whine? Do you avoid and withdraw? The answers to these questions will make up your goals in therapy.
Don’t worry, a good marriage counselor will make sure that each of you is doing work — not just you!
2. Put yourself out there.
This tip actually might save you months and months of therapy time: try to get to the feelings behind the feelings. Often what we feel on an obvious level in a marriage is anger, annoyance, resentment, and judgment. Try to dig deeper and get in touch with what triggered those thoughts and feelings. Did you have an open heart and became disappointed? Do you feel helpless, embarrassed, or hopeless? Are you worried about being controlled? Are you afraid to trust because of past hurt?
Any resistance you feel toward cooperating could be an indication that you've been avoiding certain thoughts and feelings. Maybe there is some grudge or resentment you've never been able to admit to yourself, let alone openly express. Once you get the courage to let yourself feel more vulnerable showing what's beneath, in front of your partner, it will likely create empathy and compassion in them. Your therapist will help make sure that the session is a safe space to do this.
3. Put in the time.
Marriage therapy is time-intensive. The higher your level of conflict, the more regularly you may need to come to therapy. Couples therapy is seldom a quick fix. However, what happens in between the sessions is just as (if not more) important. You both have to make some time to spend with each other, without distraction, and create a reliable space in your life for each other that you or your partner don't have to beg for. But it's quality, not quantity that counts.
4. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
We tend to jump to conclusions, especially with people we know well. However, there's a good chance that you've made some assumptions about your partner's motives that aren't true, and vice versa. Be honest about your assumptions and willing to put them out there for a reality-check. Stay curious about what your partner thinks and feels, pick their brain, just like you would when listening to a famous author you admire.
5. Find your independence.
Marriage was never meant to fulfill all of our needs. Even in the best of relationships, there will be times when you're bored, lonely, have the blues, worry, or feel ashamed. Maybe you'll catch your partner at a good moment and they will be able to assure you, but maybe you won't. Rather than being a half person who is only complete by your partner, strive to find yourself and be your own full person. That might mean learning some things you can do for yourself, outside of your relationship.
6. Take divorce off the table — at least for now.
You might be feeling very little hope for your relationship right now. One or both of you may come to marriage counseling as the final attempt to save your relationship. Don't worry, that's very common. But, consider this: It is very difficult to instill hope for the relationship when the death of the relationship is constantly looming above it. The question isn't whether you're committed for life, but whether you both can commit right now to working hard on your relationship by taking permanent separation off the table for the time being.
There's always time to divorce, but there may not always be time to work on your marriage. If you make the effort of investing time and money, give it all you can.
This article was originally published at Good Therapy. Reprinted with permission from the author.