Marriage Counseling: How To Succeed At Therapy

Why Couples Fail At Marriage Counseling

By Dr. Bonnie Ray Kennan for

Another relationship bites the dust. It's an occupational hazard for a couples counselor, but still, it's always sad. Despite my best efforts to help people negotiate the choppy waters of relationship distress, many of them simply don't make it.

It goes something like this: A distressed husband or wife pleads on the phone, "I am calling for couples counseling. We have a problem with communication." So, we set an appointment and begin the process. The specific problems are wide-ranging and many of them have gone unresolved for months, even years. So why can't they make it work?

Therapy can save your marriage, but you have to be prepared. Here are my tips for couples to come out of counseling sessions successfully.

  1. Do some in-depth soul-searching before you begin. Do you want to fight for this relationship even when it is painful, challenges you and is profoundly uncomfortable? Know that it will be difficult.

  • Don't wait too long. Most couples come to therapy six years later than is ideal, so the clean-up effort is difficult. Even still, it is worth a serious try. So go for it! Jump right in and give it all you have.
  • Find a counselor with whom you feel comfortable. Interview three or four before you make a decision. (Specifically, read FAQ in the blog section at my website.) You are going to be taking a journey together. Choose someone you trust and then listen to them.
  • Find out if your counselor has bias towards or against marriage. You will ultimately make the decision to stay in or leave your relationship, but you are going to be influenced by the biases of this person. So make sure you are choosing biases that fit with yours. Your counselor may have a big impact on this major life choice.
  • Set boundaries with your friends. Ask them to support you in a way that is truly supportive and sometimes, that means respecting your privacy. Tell them that it is not helpful for them to give you a list of reasons why you are better off without him. They will not be there to warm the bed at night when this is all over.
  • Tell your counselor whether you want to stay together or break up. If you want to end the relationship as you start therapy, tell your counselor. This will redefine "successful therapy" and improve your chances of being successful. Then, you will work to end a relationship well, rather than to repair and continue the relationship. You can still tell your friends and family you tried couples counseling, but you will avoid a great deal of frustration for you, your partner and the counselor.
  • Know that it is valid to go to therapy if you are 99 percent sure you want to end your relationship. This means that a tiny part of you is open to the possibility of changes that might come as a result of good intervention. There will be plenty of time for divorce and all it entails if you shift to 100 percent certainty. For now, you need to stay open to the process and new possibilities.
  • If you are calling a couples counselor, chances are pretty good that you have lived for some time without the deeply satisfying comfort of a secure, respectful, attached relationship. In good therapy, you will have glimpses of that experience very early on. You'll be taken aback by the unexpected emotions, but remember this: Intimacy is what you say you want. Intimacy is good for your soul. It is a noble desire to want to love and be loved deeply.

    Romantic relationships are a bit like sky-diving. You have to do the work and prepare yourself for the moment of free-fall. Then you have to jump out of the plane, pull the ripcord and trust. You can't have the joy and the rush if you aren't willing to have that moment when you are not absolutely certain your parachute will open.

    In sum, ask yourself: Do I really want to fly? If the answer is "yes," do the work earnestly and wholeheartedly. Then, take breath and jump out of the plane!

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