Whether you call it marriage counseling, couple’s therapy or something different altogether, joining your partner for counseling sessions with a trained therapist can be challenging. None of us likes to admit that we are struggling. Few of us enjoy facing our problems head-on and conquering them. But with help, perseverance, and the right attitude, problems can be overcome. Relationships can be restored.
It is vital to understand that marriage counseling is not magic. All by itself, counseling will not heal a broken relationship. Rather, it is just a tool that couples and their therapists work with to address relationship difficulties and find solutions. It takes everyone working together to figure things out. It takes a team effort to chart a path forward.
With that in mind, there are specific strategies that couples can utilize to maximize the benefits of counseling. These are things we talk about at Relationships & More, a clinic where I offer marriage counseling to Westchester, NY couples.
1. Establish Goals Early On
It is easy to go into marriage counseling with a generic goal of improving your relationship. But a better relationship is a given. It helps to get beyond that generic goal to establish something more concrete. Where do you and your partner want to be six months from now? What kind of life do you want to build together?
We establish goals so that we have something to work toward. Let’s say you and your partner decide on three goals you want to achieve. We start working toward one. When we achieve it, two things are accomplished: you position yourselves to start working on the second goal, and you and your partner enjoy a sense of accomplishment that motivates you to keep moving forward.
2. Prepare for Tough Choices and Compromises
Going into marriage counseling, you and your partner should be prepared to make tough choices. You should be prepared to have to compromise. No relationship is perfect. No two people ever think exactly the same way on every single topic. Therefore, tough choices and compromises are part of the deal.
This goes back to the goals you and your partner have for your relationship. You may have some common goals and some different ones. That’s okay. A goal that is important to you may be important to your spouse. Because you are willing to compromise, you join your spouse in working to achieve that goal.
3. Prepare for Each Session
So many couples attend marriage counseling sessions with no plan. They walk in, sit down, and then look at each other with blank expressions, each one expecting the other to start the conversation. A trained therapist can get things going easily enough, but it’s not the best way to do things. It is better if you and your partner prepare for each session by sitting down and figuring out what you want to talk about.
It’s good to choose topics that are in some way related to your goals. This is not to say that there is no room for talking about problems or expressing frustrations. Rather, it’s simply to say that you and your spouse put some forethought into preparation so that you attend each session with your mind already on the goals you want to achieve.
4. Avoid Topics of the Moment
No matter how much preparation you do prior to each session, you are going to come to counseling with additional thoughts on your mind. Maybe you and your spouse had a pretty big disagreement earlier in the day. While it’s certainly okay to talk about that disagreement, don’t make it the central topic for that session. It is better to avoid topics of the moment and stick to your prepared topics.
Sticking to your preparations means sticking to your plans. This is the best way to work through your marriage challenges in an orderly fashion. Otherwise, focusing only on the topics of the moment ends up fostering a hit-or-miss approach that doesn’t yield the best results.
Planning and preparation allows us to connect the dots, so to speak. We are able to sequentially work through those things that are difficult for you and your spouse, in the same way one might learn a new skill. It is a building block approach that leads to a better understanding of why you and your spouse are struggling, along with better solutions for those struggles.
5. Work on You, Not Your Spouse
A major pitfall of marriage counseling is the blame game. One might blame the other for all their problems and vice-versa. When couples play the blame game, they also assume that marriage counseling is intended to ‘fix’ the other person. This is a destructive attitude that can ultimately doom a marriage to failure.
A better way to approach counseling is to commit to working on yourself rather than your partner. You work on becoming a better spouse and allow your partner the freedom to do the same. This sort of attitude ultimately eliminates the blame game altogether. That is always good.
6. Always Maintain an Open Mind
Marriage counseling is designed to be so much more than just a therapist offering pat answers to common complaints. It’s designed to be interactive and adaptive. To that end, we encourage couples to maintain an open mind in every session.
The therapist may ask questions you do not expect. They are also likely to ask leading questions, questions that are designed to help you and your spouse think things through and reach your own conclusions. For this to work well, couples need to maintain an open mind and be willing to explore topics from multiple angles.
An open mind is also important when the therapist assigns homework. A particular assignment might not make sense in the moment, but it will later. Maintaining an open mind is all about doing assignments whether you understand them or not.
7. Be Patient and Determined
Finally, it is so important that couples be patient and determined. Marriage counseling is unlikely to produce the desired results after just one or two sessions. Think of it this way: it took a long time for your marriage to reach the point of needing counseling. It is going to take some time to get to where you want to be.
Marriage counseling isn’t a magic pill you can take for one week to fix a relationship. It is a tool for helping couples figure out why they are struggling and come up with solutions to address those struggles. If you and your spouse are willing to put in the effort and maintain a healthy attitude, you should be able to get a lot out of marriage counseling.