If you’ve never done marriage counseling before--or even if you have--you might be wondering, 'What will marriage counseling be like?' Marriage counseling is more than just telling your problems to someone or having a third party to referee your fights. Each therapist might have a slightly different approach and that approach may change a little depending on the needs and personality of the couple sitting in front of them. In this article, I will explain what marriage counseling will be like with me, Rebecca Williams. At the end, I’ll give some thoughts on what to look for or expect if you’re considering doing marriage counseling with someone else.
Confidentiality and secrets
Have you heard of doctor-patient confidentiality or lawyer-client privilege? It exists for licensed therapists too. I can’t reveal anything about you, not even that I know you, without your permission. (There are a few exceptions that have to do with safety: I’m required by law to report child or elder abuse, for example.) When you come for marriage counseling, your relationship is the client. This means that if you want to share information about your sessions with a lawyer or doctor or another therapist in the future, both parties have to give permission.
Saying ‘your relationship is the client’ also means that I don’t promise to help you keep secrets from each other. That’s not good for your relationship. And it also means I don’t take sides. I’m looking for what is best for your relationship, not just what is best for you or best for your spouse.
Assessment or Figuring out what is going on
Before I can help you, I need to know what I’m helping you with. The first 3 sessions (give or take) will focus on assessment or figuring out what is going on. We meet together, and I spend some time with each of you individually. I want to get to know your relationship and you as individuals. I work with the assumption that there are always two perspectives and that they are both right. So, I want to hear from you both and won’t take sides that one of you is “right” and the other “wrong.” I will also have you take some relationship quizzes at home. No, the quizzes aren’t the kind you’ll find in magazines. They are based on scientific research about what makes strong relationships and will give us a good picture of what the strengths are in your marriage.
After we’ve met together and individually and you’ve done the quizzes, we sit down to talk about the findings. We will take an honest look at what’s working in your relationship and what isn’t. That might sound scary, but it’s really not so bad. I’m straightforward but gentle. Many people find it kind of refreshing to finally have the problems out in the open. Even if you decide to go no further with therapy, the few sessions spent getting a professional and thorough assessment of your relationship may well be worth your time and money.
Treatment planning or Deciding what to work on
Now that we know where things stand, you get to decide what to work on. At this point you might look at the weaknesses and decide you don’t want to continue the relationship. Or you might look at the strengths and realize you’re doing better than you thought! I won’t tell you whether you should stay together or split up; that’s not my decision to make. I will help you have a realistic view of the strengths and weaknesses in your relationship, and then you decide if tackling those challenges is something you’re up for.
If you’re up for it, you get to tell me what problems bother you the most and where you’d like to focus your energy. Mostly, I follow your lead. Every so often, I will suggest that we work on problems or skills in a different order. This is always because, in my professional opinion, the order I’m suggesting is what will get you where you want to go fastest or because, based on my training and experience with other couples, I know we need to do some things in a particular order. Deciding what to work on doesn’t usually take long (just a small part of one session) but it is an important step so that when we move into the work, we all know what we’re working on.
The work of marriage counseling requires a willingness to be vulnerable, to try new things, and to talk about old conversations or issues in new ways. As we work to strengthen the weaknesses in your marriage, I help you practice new skills, guiding you to stay on track. I might stop a conversation that’s about to go bad and help move you in a direction that brings you closer instead of further apart. I will support you to push through or work around the blocks that usually keep you stuck.
Sometimes the work of marriage counseling is pretty quick and simple and often it’s complicated and slow going. And that’s okay. I’m like a caring teacher or coach. The coach of a sports team might teach new skills, have you practice, guide you until you get it just right, celebrate your wins, and help you bounce back from the losses. I’m the coach for your marriage. I get to know you pretty well during the first sessions, so I’ll know which skills we need to focus on and if there’s an old injury we need to treat carefully so it can heal properly. I’m always on your side, cheering you when you have a win and helping you come back from a temporary loss.
And then when you feel ready--when you have the skills you need and are having more wins than losses--we finish. We look back at the progress you’ve made, we talk about what you each will need to do to keep going in a good direction, and we say goodbye. The goodbye part is bittersweet. I care deeply about the couples I work with and am sad to see them go; at the same time I am thrilled they are doing so well they no longer need my help! Marriage counseling has an end, and I like to leave it an open end. You can come back in the future for a few more sessions if you find yourselves starting to slip or facing a new challenge you’re not sure how to face. (See post about when to seek marriage counseling for more information.)
In this article I’ve answered in general terms the question “What will marriage counseling be like?” My answers are specific to what marriage counseling will be like with me, but you should find similarities in other competent, skilled, and experienced marriage therapists. Any licensed therapist should maintain your confidentiality. They should conduct some type of assessment and treatment planning. A good marriage therapist should help you specifically with your problems. A one-size-fits-all type approach is fine for a class or workshop, but if you’re paying for individual sessions you should get individualized treatment. And that is exactly what you will get from me.