Couples Counseling – 6 Truths
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.
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?