A marriage therapist ― even one who’s worked in the field for years ― can’t know a couple’s full story by the first therapy session. They can tell quite a bit, though. (A spouse’s tendency to avoid eye contact, for instance, reveals more than words could ever say.)
Below, marriage therapists who have been working with couples for years share nine things they can glean about a couple after the first therapy session.
1. They know when you’re lying.
“What people report in a therapy session has to make sense. If it doesn’t, I know one or both are leaving out important information. Part of the challenge is some people cover things up, some are worried about what I’ll think of them and others lie or have a distorted sense of reality.” ― Becky Whetstone, a marriage family therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas
2. They can tell when third parties are more than “just friends.”
“We can tell when spouses are already in love with other people. The tell-tale sign? When they adamantly defend ‘friendships’ that their partners say have been intrusive and or harmful to their relationships. When you love your spouse and want to keep your relationship from splintering, you acknowledge their desperate requests over the other person.” ― Laurel Steinberg, a New York-based sexologist and adjunct professor of psychology at Columbia University
3. They read your body language and recognize if it’s telling an entirely different story.
“Experienced marriage therapists can read code. That means we can look beyond what is being said and learn about the underlying issues by observing the body language of the couple sitting in front of us. When I notice one partner leaning in, reaching across to touch the other, nodding and gesturing in the direction of the other and the other partner leaning away and avoiding eye contact and physical touch, I know we’ve got a problem. No matter what is being said verbally, the body language is speaking volumes and it’s important for me to listen.” ― Vikki Stark, a psychotherapist and the director of the Sedona Counselling Center of Montreal
4. They recognize when someone in the relationship is a bully.
“This one is pretty easy because usually the partner tries to bully me. The difference is, I haven’t lived with the client for years and had my self-esteem torn to shreds so the bully doesn’t scare me. The thing about bullies is that they really will back down if you call their bluff and let them know where the door to the office is if they don’t really want to get help.” ― Stephanie Buehler, a Southern California-based psychologist
5. They can sense if you’re willing to own up to your mistakes.
“Right off the bat, I ask each half of the couple to describe for me and for each other why they reached out and how I can be helpful. The answer often involves excellent insights about what they wish their partner could do differently. Then I ask each person if they can describe what they are contributing to the problem. If both people can provide even a modest answer to this question, the couple is well positioned to develop a more fulfilling relationship. I want to see a spark of ownership and awareness. The moment one spouse begins describing their contribution to the problem, a look of warmth and relief often spreads over the other partner’s face that transforms the energy in the room.” ― Elisabeth J. LaMotte, a psychotherapist and founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center
6. They can tell if one spouse is an enabler.
“You know one partner is an enabler because that person answers questions for the other and defends behavior. When I ask something like, ‘Do you drink every night?’ and a partner rushes to answer, ‘She drinks as much as anyone else,’ then it makes me feel that maybe this person makes excuses for their spouse’s behavior in other realms as well. This often gives rise to a parent-child dynamic where one partner acts in a caretaker role for the other, to a less than functional degree.” ― Samantha Rodman, a psychologist in Takoma Park, Maryland
7. They know that you should have pursued therapy a lot sooner.
“Research suggests that most couples wait six years after trouble emerges before they ask for help. We also know that most couples who divorce do so within the first seven years. So therapists know when you’re coming in later than you should have. The average couple lives with unhappiness for far too long.” ― Zach Brittle, a therapist and founder of the online couples therapy series forBetter
8. They can tell if the couple had a solid foundation to begin with.
“As a marriage therapist I reach to see if there was a time in the relationship when the two people were truly connected and had an intimate bond that we can hopefully restore. Usually, the tension softens as couples tell me about their courtship and the qualities that drew them to each other. When a couple is so entrenched in a negative space that they have difficulty recalling a special time in their relationship, resolution is less likely.” ― Linda Lipshutz, a marriage and family therapist in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
9. They know if one partner is already out the door.
“Any indication of leaving the marriage can be significant and a difficult hurdle in therapy. Sometimes the couple has consulted a divorce attorney or one partner simply made a statement about moving on with their lives. It’s not so much that they’ve considered the legal process of dissolving a marriage ― it’s that they’ve envisioned a future without their partner. It’s the mindset. Instead of focusing on protecting and saving their marriage, a spouse begins to focus on protecting themselves and their language starts to become more individually oriented. Couples therapy can’t be successful without both partners buying into the relationship for at least for the foreseeable future.” ― Alicia H. Clark, a psychologist based in Washington, D.C.