I'm A Couples Therapist — These Are The 9 Most Effective Changes People Can Make In Counseling

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Couple speaking with therapist being open

My biggest nightmare is finding myself saying, “Why bother?” to a couple who has come to me for therapy. Though there have been times when I am incredibly tempted to state the cold truth.

Like when they yell and everyone walks on eggshells with tense shoulders, perked ears, and their stomachs in knots. Or, when I see her shudder at his touch, and immerse herself into work and friends while looking for an escape hatch.

“Come on, what’s the point, folks? Who are we kidding”? I want to say, but I stifle the thought.

The couple on my couch are looking for therapeutic magic, relationship rose dust, and I am not sure I can deliver.

Today though, I have swallowed a truth serum, and I ask your permission to tell it like it is, so you can find the love you need. 

I say “the love you need” because there is a very real chance you could move through multiple relationships and become increasingly disappointed and unhappy with each, simply searching for what you think you want. What you need goes deeper and lasts longer.

Why couples therapy doesn't work for some people

Not every couple who comes to therapy leaves with a healthier mindset, achieved goals, or a better relationship. The foremost reason therapy can fail is unrealistic expectations. The couple hopes for therapeutic magic to solve their problem with little effort on their part.

Unfortunately, therapeutic magic does not exist, but the following nine practices will help you make the most of your investment in couple's therapy.

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Here are nine honest ways to make couples therapy work for you 

1. Accept the fact that therapy works

Whether plagued by fights, disconnection, loneliness or broken trust, your therapist can help. They help because they have training, experience, and they care. You are unlikely to meet another individual who is strategizing and cheerleading for your success the way they are. The neutral face your therapist wears is not a lack of emotion, it is practiced and purposeful to create a safe space where you can open up without fear of judgment.

Your therapist’s role is to guide and evaluate, so they wouldn't be effective if they allowed judgements and opinions in the room. Don’t worry, when necessary, they will find ways to help you make better choices and protect your integrity without disregarding your self-esteem or silencing you.

2. Trust your therapist

Maybe you have been wounded by relationships that did not put your best interests first, but a therapist has a vested interest that extends beyond the therapy hour, and your credit card balance. As early as 1931, Carl Rogers understood the alliance between you and your therapist is even more important than the therapy itself. This belief has continued to gain traction as multiple research projects confirm what therapists already knew. So, make the best use of your time in therapy by getting to know your therapist, building trust, and being vulnerable and honest.

3. Be honest but never hurtful

If your arrival at the therapy office is an arrival at rock bottom, your distress predicts you are ready to hunker down and reach some goals. You are at the end of the politeness rope, and the beginning of honest conversations. If those conversations don’t happen at home, I hope they do in my office where many couples have heard the truth and faced the reality of their relationship for the first time.

You may be thinking honesty is a given, but two researchers, Matt Blanchard and Barry Farber of Columbia University say that of the 547 therapy clients in their study, 93 percent admitted they have lied to their therapist. Having spent money and time on therapy, why not move in a direct line to your goals?

Your therapist knows you will omit and downplay the things you are ashamed of, conceal the depths of your fear and sadness (even to yourself) and pretend therapy is more beneficial than it is. However, telling the truth releases inner tension, frees up energy for health and wellness and is a shortcut to shared understanding.

Your honest experience, told in your own words will make the difference in achieving your goals.

RELATED: 7 Ways To Cope When You Decide To Stay Together — But Still Have Emotional Wounds

4. Commit to your significant other

Not every couple has a strong and equal desire for the relationship to succeed, and there is nothing your therapist can do to change it. If you are the one feeling more disappointed, more doubtful, and you have lost who you were before, these facts show between your words and in body language. This means your therapist pivots from goals to question marks to refocus in another direction, and your goals as a couple have taken a back seat to exploring your individual needs, wondering about the why and how of the relationship, or enquiring about children's needs.

You can save time and money by soul-searching before your appointment and journaling about the pros and cons of your relationship. Most people will experience some ambivalence in their relationship, especially at the ten-year mark according to a study at Brigham Young University that surveyed 2000 women. If it is possible in your relationship dynamic, commit to working on the goals and ask your therapist to help. If you go this route, do so with confidence because the couples in the BYU study who stayed together reported being significantly happier as time went on.

Try experimenting with a healing strategy where you lead a therapy session with all that you like and love about your significant other before asking for changes and setting goals.

5. Take personal responsibility

Your therapist knows you have both played a part in the relationship being off track, so be sure to mention your failures as well as your partner's. Tell the therapist about your yelling, distraction, and neglect without making excuses and defending yourself. This encourages your partner to admit their share in the breakdown, and you can both benefit from the therapist’s guidance on how to get back on track. Your trusted therapist is not interested in blame or fault.

6. Practice acceptance

Your therapist sees the red flag of non-acceptance when you list the other person’s failings, impediments, and challenges. Your body language and words demand change at any cost. When you ask your partner for weight loss, career change, or the end of friendships, it is insulting and not likely to create the warm atmosphere needed for a shared vision and goal setting.

The only thing your partner feels and hears is the unhealthy sting of “You are not good enough”. Learn the rules of asking for change and send the following message:

:I love you just the way you are. You have something valuable to say. You have weaknesses as I do, and I accept your inadequacies as I do mine."

RELATED: What To Do The Moment You Realize You’re Not So Special To Your Partner

7. Practice sobriety

I have known partners who have successfully turned from addiction to sobriety, and the change in their relationships and family life were miraculous. They have become dependable, responsible, and trustworthy with commitments and goals. Without the steps to sobriety, an addict will usually fail in their relationship goals. Start with a dry January and extend as long as you can into December.

If you bring the above qualities to therapy, you are off to a running start. But no matter how open, honest, committed, personally responsible, accepting and sober you are, there are two qualities that will be the end of your relationship.

8. Don't disrespect

Disrespect is the ultimate breakdown and harms both the couple's relationship, and the individual's self-esteem. It may be contempt, sarcasm, or criticism but the feeling of being dismissed, shamed, and despised is so hurtful it predicts the breaking of relationship bonds. John Gottman, known for his life’s work on marital stability and divorce prediction, watched thousands of couples argue in his lab. He said that disrespect predicts divorce with over 90% accuracy.

9. Avoid the trap of inaction

Too often, I have ended a session with a list of solutions and an action plan. Yet, the following week, I would hear the usual excuses; busy at work, kid’s activities, or the flu.

I know the demands of family life: the never-ending to-do’s, the exhaustion of a career with commute, making time for a daily 20-minute conversation of “How are you," and "Tell me more”, the endless background of listen, listen and listen, It is a lot to ask.

Or perhaps, it’s the littleness of the request that makes it easy to miss.

In my best-loved community, the family of people who occupy much of my waking thoughts, it is the absence of small pieces that leads to big problems. So, choose to be active today and make action the first towards your goal from the therapist's couch and back to your happy life.

RELATED: 8 Sad Reasons Couples Therapy Failed (According To A Licensed Therapist)

Reta Faye Walker is a therapist who specializes in healing relationships. She offers one-on-one sessions, couples retreats, and courses to help couples get back on track.