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Couples Counseling – 6 Truths

Photo by Cari Ann Wayman

I’ve seen it happen so many times: In casual conversation, without really thinking about it, I start a sentence off with, “Our couples counselor…” and I’m startled when I see the eyebrows raise.

Amid what has become my utterly ordinary reality–we see a couples counselor–I forget myself. I forget that for most people, working with a couples counselor is the sort of thing you’d only reveal to intimate friends and family (and perhaps not even then).

But this is my truth: my partner of seven-plus years and I work with a couples counselor, and have done so since about the two-year mark of our relationship.

We don’t do this because someone has cheated, nor is there any other deal-breaker issue at stake. We don’t do it because we are on the brink of breakup (though, like most long-term couples, we’ve had our times where we have been).

We see a couples counselor because doing so creates sanity. We do it because I left my family of origin with anger and aggression, and he left his with habits of passive-aggressive people-pleasing, and we knew that we were capable of something better when our patterns were knocking up against one another.

We do it because we’ve looked at one another so many times and said, “I don’t know what we would have done without Matthew” (our couples counselor).

When we met, we were in our twenties, and thought that relationships worked like Hollywood movies–if you were in a “good” relationship, things just worked out.

Now we know better. Relationships don’t “work out,” they take work–the good kind.

If you’ve ever felt lost in your own relationship, but haven’t thought couples counseling could be for you–either because you weren’t married yet, or hadn’t been together “long enough,” or didn’t have “real” problems–here’s what I now know about working with a counselor to improve a relationship.

1.) Don’t Wait

Don’t wait to see a couples counselor until the crisis of faith has happened.

Instead, see working with a counselor as the thing that strengthens the relationship so that it can survive the maelstroms that life will offer up.

Every relationship, even strong relationships, have their own subtle, underlying dynamics.

People can use all the “I” statements in the world, and there might still be little tiny fractures at work that grow larger during times of stress. Putting time in to forestall potential conflicts is the most valuable investment you can make in your relationship.

2.) Consistency & The 5-Session Marker

Go consistently, and break the five-session mark.

I can’t remember where I read it, but I did read once that most couples who seek counseling go fewer than five times before they quit. Given the high divorce rate, I think it might be fair to say that people don’t give it enough of a try before declaring it all a wash.

You can’t run five times and say, “I’m ready to run a marathon.” Similarly, you can’t try to sort out conflicts fewer than five times and then say, “I have a healthy relationship.”

3.) Taking Sides

Don’t expect to “like” your counselor all of the time.

When we’re talking about breaking up an old pattern, particularly one that your personality or ego is really invested in, there’s a death fight to keep it around. We defend most the very things that cause us to suffer, usually because we don’t know of another way to be that will get our needs met.

It’s often terrifying to change, and in a room with a third-party, baring all secrets and being honest about the times when you got your pot-shots feels vulnerable.

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself getting irritated with a counselor who says that regardless of what your partner said first, you’re responsible for not getting the pot-shot in. It can feel, in those moments, as if the counselor isn’t taking your “side.”

And truthfully? You’re right. The counselor probably isn’t taking your “side,” or your partner’s “side,” either. The counselor is probably taking the “side” of what’s best for the relationship.

4.) Self Understanding

Don’t go to couples counseling to “save” the relationship.

Take with you the perspective that you’re actually there to learn more about yourself, and all the places where you hide out, where you love big, where you try your damndest, and where you give up early.

5.) It Could Get Worse

Anticipate the possibility that it will get “worse” before it gets better.

Working with a counselor brings out into the open all of those things that you’d really prefer not to look at. Perhaps most difficult for me were those times when I thought that my partner and I had worked through some petty disagreement, perhaps about, say, unloading the dishwasher, only to find it brought up again during a couples session.

Those were the times when I would get most frustrated, and it took awhile for me to understand this tiny-big truth: It’s NOT ABOUT THE CONTENT.

The argument about the dishwasher wasn’t ever really about the dishwasher. That’s just “content.” The argument is always about something else–power, feeling needy, long-held resentments, left over mommy-daddy issues.

At first, when those stale arguments are re-hashed in couples counseling, it can be easy to think, “I thought that we were over and done with that, and now we’re coming here and stirring it up, again! What’s the point of this, if everyone just gets upset about it as we talk about it yet again?”

The point of this is that the content fuels the work. Describe enough of these dishwasher-style arguments, and your counselor is going to see a dynamic, a pattern, emerge.

If the two of you as a couple were skilled enough to talk about the dynamic, you’d probably recognize it as it was happening, and with time and work, you can get there–but for now? You’re probably going to need to rehash some old dishwasher arguments.

6.) It Gets Better

Know that when it gets better, it truly gets better.

It’s been my experience that unlike the times when my partner and I would argue over something and then swear that we were going to do it better, only to argue again. The work we’ve done in couples counseling truly has put our conflicts in their proper context.

Part of engaging in the process of counseling is about learning to trust. Trust is a choice, and it’s a choice to put our trust in another person and in a process.

Being in counseling long enough, I’ve seen again and again that whenever I surrendered and trusted the feedback our counselor was offering me, or trusted the tool or practice that we were given as “homework,” there were rewards.

Yes, the first time I took in the feedback, perhaps everything in me fought against it. Yes, perhaps the first time (or even the third or fifth time) that he suggested a tool to improve communication, it felt awkward and stupid and ridiculous and a waste of time.

It felt all of those ways because my old defenses didn’t want to loosen up and give. Once they did, though? That’s when I got everything I truly wanted. Beyond being right, what I wanted was to be truly in relationship.

Vitally Alive

Our relationships are the most important part of being human, being vitally alive.

We can’t assume that our families of origin gave us all the tools we need to navigate them, and I’m definitely not trusting that today’s media is going to teach me what I need to know about true connection (the high ratings of Jersey Shore should prove that point).

Consider all the other places in your life where you invest time, attention, and money into improvement or creating more ease. Now ask yourself: Are you making that same investment for your closest, most important, and most intimate relationships?

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About the author

Kate Swoboda is a life coach, speaker and writer who specializes in courage. You can learn more about her at YourCourageousLife.com, where she writes about courageous living, integrity, and ferocious love. Life Coaches can check out her resources for business and leveraging your practice over at YourCourageousBlueprint.com

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11 thoughts on Couples Counseling – 6 Truths

  1. sonal

    I can understand the truth
    Consider all the other places in your life where you invest time, attention, and money into improvement or creating more ease. Now ask yourself: Are you making that same investment for your closest, most important, and most intimate relationships?
    Very well said about relationship with partner .
    After 36 years our relationship became worse than ever when my husband tried to sit alone and do whatever he wanted following my attitude . He was thinking I was ignoring him but I wanted to do what I wanted to find my inner child to stay away from him , away from all the world wanted to find peace if my partner could not give me . Stressed out working over time , ignoring household responsibilities , fighting with me for nothing made the distance more and more . I did all the chores myself but I did care of him to make him come out of depression without any medicine . He cares about me more if I care about him . That is true inspite of his rude behaviour I forgave him , he is my husband after all the prayer helped me to become stronger . I write I fight but I never say I can live without him . I give love to find it from his eyes and efforts are rewarded sooner or later . Thanks for sharing good article . I read all articles forwared by Tina .

  2. cj

    Excellent post, Kate. There is no better investment than in your yourself and your partner and if counseling is an option, then I say go for it. Why wait for a crisis? Prevention is severely overlooked in all areas which, in part, explains the raised eyebrows when you mention counseling. As a species, we tend to wait until we hit rock bottom before doing something. Perhaps this post will help someone to avoid disaster.

  3. Fantastic article! I especially appreciate the 2nd truth “Consistency”. As a therapist, I find It helpful if couples make a full commitment to a certain number of sessions before they consider giving up on their relationship. Typically, after these sessions are completed, the couple remains committed to working on their relationship.

  4. Great post Kate! A friend turned me onto your articles earlier today…I look forward to reading more.
    As a marriage therapist I have become accustomed to couples coming into my office in crisis. After about 5 sessions the crisis that initially brought them in the door subsides and they’re tempted to think they are done. The real work of therapy however doesn’t even begin until that time. I think this is one of the reasons why so many couples don’t reap the benefits of marital therapy.
    As a therapist I try to get folks to adopt an attitude that sees their work as an investment. Most folks have invested large sums of money into learning a particular topic in school. Most folks also spend time, effort and money into maintaining their homes and cars as well. Why wouldn’t a person want to invest those resources into the the relationships that have such a significant impact on every area of their life? Those relationships require that we improve and educate ourselves as well as perform the necessary maintenance needed to keep the system running in tip top shape!

  5. Kate,
    Very insightful post. My experience having worked in couples counseling during a clinical practicum while earning my master’s is that many people wait far too long before coming into the therapy room. By the time they arrive, there is heavy dose of resentment, negative regard, sarcasm, and a myriad of other negative traits and behaviors that are already pervasive in the relationship. Most damaging is the natural tendency for one or both partners in a troubled relationship to “re-write” history, and re-frame what were undoubtedly positive experiences into very negative ones.

    Your advice to get there early is well-founded. Once the relationship is characterized by intense ill-will, saving it is a low probability activity.

  6. Such a great truth-telling article, Kate! Love it. This rings so true for my experience as well and is a great reminder. ;)

  7. It’s really great to have the perspectives of some MFT counselors, here! There are some very apt comparisons made by all the comments, especially in pointing out that we are often willing to invest in school, but we invest less in the time it takes to “learn” what we need to learn in our marriages.

    I don’t think there’s an inherent unwillingness in most cases, so much as it’s just such a vulnerable process. My experience in counseling is that I needed to unpack a whole host of habits and belief systems that were totally mine–and I really clung to a lot of those belief systems, saw them as my identity. It’s about so much more than just using “I” messages, that’s for sure! ;-)

  8. Larry

    Very interesting article. Unfortunately it leaves me with two unanswered questions:

    1) should just any couple counselor be OK, or should we look for one specialized in marriages which do not have any problem?

    2) How often should we have a session?

  9. Indeed, couples therapy is not only for those who have experience problems in their married life but it is more of a preventive measure to enhance the relationship by getting to know yourself more and how you should handle marriage. Thanks a lot or sharing. I really learned a lot.

  10. Before I used to think that solving your own problems is the right thing to do to enhance independence and somehow make me strong but I was wrong. There is a reason why we have friends and families. Facing the problems of married life alone will only cause more problems.

  11. This is so refreshing to read. I have been so scared to start marriage counseling because of all the horror stories surrounding them. This list is almost something to live by when it comes to counseling and relationships. I appreciate the effort you put into this article, it has lightened my spirit and makes me prepared and ready to find my counselor.

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