Some people rave about their marriage counseling experiences and other seem to shudder with dread at the memory of it. Why the difference? If some people have great experiences and some have terrible, what makes marriage counseling work?
The short answer is, you do! You spend an hour or maybe an hour an a half per week with your therapist. There is a whole lot of life that happens outside of that one hour per week. As a marriage counselor, I’m less like a fairy godmother who will magically make everything better and more like a coach who will teach you some skills that you have to practice and implement at home.
Your willingness to change.
If you are unwilling to change, marriage counseling isn’t likely to work well for you. (Yes, I’m talking to you. You, right there. It doesn’t work for you to come to marriage counseling only wanting your partner to change. You have to be willing to work too. You both do.) A question I like is “Do you want to be right or do you want to be married?” If you are stubbornly insistent on being right, on getting your partner to admit that they are wrong, on not changing your behavior until your partner changes first, you are on track for marital misery. If you are willing to change, even if you don’t know what to change or how to do it, marriage counseling can work for you.
Your willingness to take responsibility
Taking responsibility for your own actions is different from accepting blame. Taking responsibility means owning your actions, not denying what you did or said. It’s apologizing when you were wrong, when what you said hurt your spouse, or when you were out of line. It isn’t agreeing that it’s all your fault or that you are a horrible person. Taking responsibility is saying “Yes, I did that. It was wrong. I want to do better.”
How much you like your therapist
Part of what makes marriage counseling work is whether you like your therapist, feel like s/he understands you, and believe s/he can help you. When you like your therapist and believe they can help you, you are more likely to relax and allow yourself to be seen. The more the therapist sees and understands you as you are, the better we are able to help you. I wrote more about this topic here.
The therapist’s skills
The therapist's skill and approach are also important. The more experience and training a therapist has in working with a specific problem, the more effective they are likely to be. A therapist who has spent their entire career helping people with eating disorders might be really good at eating disorders but completely inexperienced with marriage problems. Choosing a marriage counselor with training and experience is part of what makes marriage counseling work.
If you want to dig deeper than that, even among marriage counselors there are different approaches and methods. In the past, counselors and therapists worked off of ideas that made sense to them. Entire treatment approaches were developed on an idea that seemed to make sense. Later research has shown that some of these ideas were just plain wrong and some were even harmful. A marriage counselor who uses methods that are based on research and accepted among other counselors is better that someone who is just going on what seems to make sense to them.
Getting help early
Sometimes people just wait too long to ask for help. While you are waiting, not sure if you should ask for help, not willing to go because it was your partner’s suggestion, or not wanting to share your problems with a stranger, resentment and distance are building up. If you wait until one of you says “That’s it! I’m out. I want a divorce” it may already be too late. (Whether it’s too late or not will depend on you, see numbers 1, 2, and 3 of this list.) I’ve talked to too many people who have said “My spouse asked me years ago to go to counseling with them. I didn’t want to go then. I should have gone. Now they’re asking for a divorce! Can you help us?”
If you get help early, before you have years of problems built up, you are likely to get the happy result that you want faster. A few months worth of problems is much easier to work through than years or decades of them. And when you have years or decades of problems to work through, the work is slow. Even when people are making progress, they sometimes get frustrated with the slow pace and give up.
So what makes marriage counseling work? You do, you, your spouse, and your therapist together.
If you are in or near Riverside, California and think you would like to do the work of marriage counseling with me, call me for a free consultation at 951-430-3011.