Interestingly enough, couples seem to be more reluctant to seek psychological assistance than individuals. Many therapists, who specialize in working with couples, believe that often couples come to the conclusion that they need professional help when it’s too late to repair many hurts and damages their relationships have suffered over the years.
It is generally recommended to seek help before conflicts get escalated and turn into a mutually hurtful relational pattern, but even when the destructive patterns have already been established and even if the relationship is on the brink of a collapse, seeing someone, who can evaluate the situation objectively can still be helpful. There are several things to keep in mind when considering couple’s therapy:
1. Make sure you are doing it for the right reason
Couple’s counseling can help only if your intention as a couple is to learn how to be honest and real with each other, how to communicate your needs honestly, but respectfully and how to mitigate conflicts and negotiate needs effectively, so in the future you two would be able to tackle challenges as they come without a further professional assistance. If candid, mature and respectful interactions is not what you want to achieve as a result of your couple’s work, then, please, save your time and money, because any other agenda would have something to do with an attempt to control your relationship and your partner, and that kind of agenda has never made anyone happy yet.
2. Couple’s counseling should not take long
That’s right. As someone, who has done and been in couple’s therapy, it is my belief that, in most cases, 5-10 sessions are a sufficient enough time to address any couple’s issues. Often couples get the clarity they need in 3-4 sessions.
A couple’s counseling format doesn’t allow a deeper individual exploration of each partner’s emotional process. Not everything can be discussed in front of one’s partner, nor should it be. No matter how close you are with somebody, some things may need to remain undisclosed to them, or else some important part of your personal space that makes you intact as a human being would be invaded.
There are different circles of personal space, and not everything that belongs to each partner’s individual circle belongs to the mutual space the partners share. In a couple’s therapy format, both yours and your partner’s individual emotional processes can only be looked at as deeply as it’s necessary to understand how they impact your relationship. If your couple’s therapist believes that your relational problems can be better resolved if one of you or both of you do some individual work, then he or she should suggest you to see individual therapist(s) instead of digging deeply into your individual material during couple’s sessions.
All a couple’s counseling is meant to achieve is to give partners the insight and the skills to tackle their relational challenges better than they did before, not to remove the challenges themselves. Achieving this goal doesn’t require a long time. If you and your partner have been seeing your marriage/couple’s counselor longer than three months on a weekly basis, the chances are that something in your couple’s therapy is inconsistent with its purpose and, as such, may be potentially destructive.
3. Make sure the desire to get help is mutual
If your partner refuses to go to counseling, don’t agonize over it and don’t waste time and energy trying to convince him or her that your relationship needs help. You won’t be able to force someone to do the emotional work the same way you can force them to take the trash out or to buy groceries. Emotions don’t work this way. If the desire and the will to do the work isn’t there, the work won’t be done even if you manage to drag the person to the therapist’s office. When the relationship needs help, it takes two to tango, and so if one doesn’t want to dance, the dance won’t happen. In this case, you will make a better use of your time and money getting some individual help for yourself and discussing this situation in your individual therapy.
4. Know what you need before coming to the first session
It is yours and your partner’s responsibility to explain to the therapist what kind of help you are looking for. When you walk into a store, you don’t expect those who work there to decide for you what you need to buy. You either just take the stuff you need or ask the store’s employees to help you find what you need if you can’t find it yourself. The same goes for every service you receive. Therapy, in this sense, is no different, and yet it’s amazing how many people come into a therapist’s office not knowing what they want.
5. Beware of the therapist’s agenda
Sadly, I have to include this one too. Unfortunately, some therapists try to push their own personal agendas when working with couples. They might have a strong pro- or anti- divorce/break up agenda or side with one partner against the other. If the therapist seems to have an interest in influencing your decisions or, worse, if he or she explicitly suggests what you should and shouldn’t do as a couple, do yourself a favor and see somebody else, somebody who can separate their personal issues from their work. One of the things to keep in mind is that in many states the ethical code prohibits marriage and family counselors from advising couples on the status of their relationships (check this with your state’s licensing board). And ALWAYS remember that only you and your partner are in a position to make decisions regarding your relationship status and anything else that concerns only the two of you and no one else.
All of the above is just a general sketch of what a couple’s therapy is and what to keep in mind when considering one. It’s impossible to address all important details related to this type of work and, therefore, trust your instincts and your common sense when selecting the therapist and when being in therapy and good luck!