What can you do to improve the chances that couples therapy is 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 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
Of course you want your partner to change things, or you wouldn’t be looking into marriage therapy, but working on yourself in the presence of your partner is probably the most effective way to have a positive impact on your relationship. Focusing 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 in 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 relationship is anger, annoyance, resentment, and judgment for the other. 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? If you notice that you feel resistant to having a cooperative attitude, this might be a hint 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 express openly. Once you get the courage to be more vulnerable about “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 can be 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 may be as or even more important. You both will have to make some time to be 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.
4. Give the benefit of the doubt
We tend to jump to conclusions, especially with people we know well. There’s a good chance however 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. Learn to be independent
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, are worried, 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 being “completed” by your partner, strive to 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 in therapy 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.