Why the first suggestions from your marriage counselor sound dumb

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The idea for this post came from a conversation with a couple as they were graduating therapy. (See our post about why we love it when our clients graduate therapy here.) We were discussing how far they’d come and what they had done to make all these dramatic changes in their relationship. As we looked together at the list of changes they’d made, each one seemed small in itself but together they added up to a big difference.

I asked them, “If I’d told you at the beginning of couples counseling that having regular date nights, talking every day, making sure you understand before you react, asking for help, and taking time outs would bring about these kind of changes, how would you have reacted?” “Oh! We would have thought you were crazy,” they responded emphatically.

And yet, those are exactly the things that made huge changes for this couple.

A big, messy knot

Humans are complicated beings. And human relationships are messy. It’s just how things are. We’re not simple, logical, and linear. Our relationships are an intricate net of intertwined threads. Usually by the time a couple comes to marriage counseling, their intertwined threads are less of a beautiful tapestry and more of a big, messy knot. Think of a pile of fishing line or the tangle of necklaces and laces at the bottom of your kid’s dress-up bin.

When you’ve got a big, messy knot of problems to work through, you can’t just grab at one thread a pull. This inevitably makes the whole situation worse. What you’ve got to do is gently loosen one portion, then move over to another area and loosen there, then move back to the first part and work on that again. You may get some clarity as one of the threads comes out. Eventually, with enough unwinding and gentle tugging in a variety of areas, the whole mess gives way and you can start to make sense of it. You really feel like you’re getting somewhere.

The “dumb” suggestions

Okay, so your marriage counselor isn’t giving you dumb suggestions, maybe just things that seem overly simplistic or inadequate. It’s pretty normal for you to be skeptical at the beginning of therapy. Your therapist might talk to you about date nights, self-care, your interaction patterns, your family history and you might be thinking “this is so simplistic! There’s no way this one thing is going to help! What about all these other problems?”

If you’ve read some of the other articles in our blog or talked briefly with a therapist before, you might have thought the same things, and you’re right. Any one of those suggestions isn’t going to solve everything. All the little tools, the questions we ask are how we start untangling that messy knot.

Be patient with the process

When we try to talk about all the problems in the relationship at once, we don’t make progress on any one issue, and you end up frustrated, feeling like you’re spinning your wheels. It can seem artificial and simplistic, but we’ve got to pick a place to start, one area to work on first. When you start to see change in that area, we can work on another or look at how that area impacts the other challenges you face.

Part of our job as your marriage counselor is to help you prioritize issues and stay focused. We use our education and professional experience to help you understand how all those messy threads interact. We can help you sort it out. We can help you see how you keep creating the same knots and give you the skills you need to untangle them.

As we get near the end of couples counseling, we’ll be talking about maintenance skills. What do you need to do on an ongoing basis to prevent these giant knots from forming in the first place? It takes a while to get there, and we ask you to be patient with the process. But once you get to that magical place where your threads aren’t a mess anymore and you can start weaving a tapestry, you’ll feel excited and empowered. Your happiness and your relationship are worth it!

Not sure where to start?

Check out our FAQs or contact us today to schedule a free 15 minute phone consultation with one of our therapists.

Why you don't want a "neutral third party" to help your relationship

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“We need a neutral third party” Do you, though?

We talk to a lot of people. We talk to our clients, we talk to people looking for therapy, and in our personal lives, we talk to people about what we do as marriage counselors at Inland Empire Couples Counseling. Every so often someone will say something like “we need a neutral third party to help us with our problems” or “I bet it’s hard to be a neutral third party when working with couples.” 

Getting a truly neutral third party would be like asking a stranger at the mall or grocery store to weigh in on your relationship problems, someone completely uninvested in your relationship or the outcome. 

We’re not neutral!

Our marriage counselors are pro-you! We care about what happens to you. We are invested in your happiness and success. We are not neutral. 

We’re not referees

The idea of having a neutral third party to fix your relationship presumes that all that’s needed is for someone to say definitively who is right and who is wrong. The thinking goes something like this, “If I could just have someone tell my spouse that I’m right, they will see things my way and change.” If the solution were that simple, you would have fixed your problems already. Certainly you’ve both been trying to tell each other why you’re each right, and it’s not enough. 

Sometimes a frustrated person will describe how awful their partner is, and then say to us “Don’t you agree?” While it might feel great to have that ‘neutral’ person side with you and agree that you’re right and your partner is the worst; it’s not usually what’s best for your relationship. The reality is most often that you’re both right and both wrong and that very little of that matters. What matters is that you love each other, you miss feeling connected to each other, you want to be in a relationship that works for both of you.

We are professional relationship experts

The couples therapists at Inland Empire Couples Counseling are not neutral; and we’re not referees. We are experienced, licensed professionals who specialize in relationship issues and relationship health. 

Marriage counseling is so much more than “you’re right, and you’re wrong.” It’s understanding who you are as individuals, what your goals and dreams are as a couple, and where you’re getting stuck. We get into the messy details with you and help you sort it out. We will help you create strategies that work for you and get you connected to other helping professionals when needed. We create a plan for success that’s just for you, not what generally works for some people, but something that really meets your needs.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows

As awesome as all this expert help sounds, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Many people hold on to the irrational hope that if our partner can see things from our point of view, they will change and everything will be fine. You may have been desperately trying to get your partner to wake up, to see how bad you’re hurting or how lonely you are and to change. The early work of couples therapy frequently involves helping you and your partner understand each other. And then, it’s not uncommon for couples to experience a drop in motivation, for some discouragement to set in. You realize, through experience, that understanding alone isn’t enough to help you feel more connected and more in love.

When your partner really sees how hurt you’ve been and how lonely you are and tries to change to meet your needs, you have some hard work to do too. You have to accept the changes. You might have some grief or forgiveness work to do. You might have some resentment to let go of. This is much harder than most people expect. And you might also have to hear things about yourself that are hard to hear. You will probably see how you’ve been contributing to your relationship problems or be presented with work you have to do to make solutions happen. Relationship work is hard!

We’re here for you

We don’t want to discourage you; we want to be realistic. Working on your relationship is hard and it’s also so rewarding! If you’re ready to take those first brave steps toward having the relationship you always wanted, contact us today. We can give you so much more than a “neutral third party”!

Why we love when our clients graduate therapy

We love it when couples or individuals we’ve been working with finish therapy. Sometimes it’s a bittersweet experience. We’ve invested a lot into your relationship and your progress. We’ve seen you through some ups and downs and have no guarantee that we’ll see you again or get to know what happens in your future.

How far you’ve come

At the final session (at least when we know it’s the final session, sometimes people just stop coming to their appointments but that’s a story for another day), we reflect on where you were when you started therapy and how things have changed since then. Sometimes when you’re living your own life day-to-day, you don’t realize how much has changed. 

We review the goals we set for our work together. If it’s a final session, we’ve likely accomplished the goals and sometimes more. And this is something to celebrate! As therapists, it is so fun for us to see the amazement in people’s eyes when they realize things really have gotten better. 

How hard you worked

Next we talk about what happened that made the amazing changes you’ve seen and helped you reach your goals. I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s you. It’s always you that makes the changes and does the hard work. There’s nothing magical about being in therapy. Therapists aren’t mythical creatures, where simply being in our presence makes your dreams come true. 

Always, always, always when we talk with our clients about how the changes in your lives and relationships happened, it was you that made the changes. These amazing results happened because you worked hard, you changed, you apologized, you forgave, you fought for what you wanted. It’s your commitment, love, and dedication to each other that pulls you through. Therapists can’t do that for you; we support you, coach you, help you identify and overcome road-blocks, but it’s your work that makes the difference.

At this stage, we love seeing our clients’ proud smiles as you realize how hard you’ve worked. We love witnessing couples look into each others’ eyes with gratitude and love for the sacrifices and dedication you’ve put into your relationship. We often see you reach for each other, squeeze hands, or scoot closer on the couch. 

More work

What? More work? Yes! You don’t get to just ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. That’s a fantasy. Graduating from therapy doesn’t mean that your life or relationship problems are solved forever. You’ve done some great work and built some awesome momentum up to this point. We don’t want you to backslide. Part of how we help ensure your continued success is to help you identify new goals for the future. What are the next 6 months of your life going to look like? What are the red flags you should watch out for? We’ll help you make a plan for how to handle it when you fall back into old patterns. We want you to finish on a high and keep going. Finishing therapy is launching further growth, not a time to relax back into old ways.

We’re always here for you

We know you’ve come to rely on the support of your therapist. We understand. And we also know that, as much as we like you, keeping you in therapy forever isn’t going to be good for you. We honor and respect the trust you’ve put in us. If a few weeks, months, or even years in the future you need to come back for a booster session, we’ll be here for you. After successful graduation from therapy, sometimes just one session is enough to get you back on track when you slip. Or maybe you face something new and would like to schedule a group of weekly session to deal with the challenges you’re facing. As long as we’re in business, we’ll be here for you and will do our best to find time for you in our schedules even if we’re “full.” 

Why are you talking about ending therapy? We haven’t even started!

Most people browse around our website before starting therapy, so why are we talking about ending it? We want you to have a vision of what’s possible. We’ve celebrated with couples graduating therapy who were so discouraged at the start of therapy that they were afraid to even dream that they’d work out. We’ve seen people at the final session making retirement plans together who started out living separately with divorce papers ready to file. And we’ve seen other couples end therapy with a decision to dissolve their relationship, sad but with the peace of knowing they each did all they could and that this decision is what’s best. 

If you read any of the above and felt a little tickling of hope, maybe it’s time to start couples counseling. If you read the description of a final session and felt a little jealous, wishing you could sit with your spouse, snuggling close, feeling full of love, and celebrating your hard work together, give us a call today. We’ll explore whether working together is the right fit for you and get you started on your journey.