Have you ever been curious if couples counseling could improve your relationship? Do you want outside help to create a better relationship or to end your relationship amicably? Whether you’re in a high-conflict or conflict-avoidant relationship, whether you’re interested in rebuilding trust, communicating more effectively, or deepening vulnerability and intimacy with your partner(s), couples counseling with the right therapist and the right conditions, can be very effective.
While divorce rates continue to be around 40% for married couples and 1/2 of these happening within the first 7 years of marriage, research also shows that those who receive couples counseling fair far better, than other relationships that don’t.
A Consumer Reports Study published in November 1995, the largest study to date on the effectiveness of psychotherapies, showed substantial benefits from psychotherapy, but also rated couples therapy as one of the lowest in client satisfaction.
I imagine a part of why we see a certain level of dissatisfaction for couples counseling is that 70% of therapists provide couples counseling even though not all of these therapists are licensed marriage and family therapists or have adequate training in providing couples counseling. Couples counseling often requires the therapist to be more involved and directive than they might otherwise be in individual counseling.
Another reason for this level of dissatisfaction is that many couples have unrealistic expectations for what therapy can do and many couples wait far too long before entering treatment.
However, the good news is that a recent article in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy entitled, “Research on the Treatment of Couple Distress,” looked at a ten year span of couples counseling research from 2000 – 2009.
This research found that couples counseling provided positive benefits for 70% of couples. This is virtually identical to results for individual counseling.
How to make couples counseling more effective:
Start Early: The more you can be pro-active and prevent future harm, the better. Get couples therapy as early as possible before patterns get entrenched and irreparable damage is done.
Have Realistic Expectations: Know that this takes consistent and ongoing work. It won’t necessarily be a quick and easy process. A hoped for expectation can be that therapist will side with you in pointing out all of your partner’s flaws and naming you the good/right one. This isn’t how couples therapy works.
Be Willing: All parties in a relationship need to be in full agreement to doing relationship counseling for it to work best. You can’t force your partner to do something against their will and expect that it’s gonna work out very well. There needs to be at least partial buy-in and willingness, even if there’s some fear, anxiety or apprehension about beginning. I get that it can be extra vulnerable for many to put ourselves out there for couples counseling because we can’t control what our partner says about us and it’s often not very flattering, but we at least need to give full consent to being uncomfortable at times, for the greater good of improving our relationship.
Self-Reflect: One of the most frequent things I hear, especially in the beginning of couples therapy, is blame. All parties in a relationship need to take full responsibility for their part in where their relationship is at, not take ownership of what the other person is responsible for and be open to learning more about themselves.
Actively Participate: Consistently take actions in/outside of therapy to build a better relationship. Couples may only meet once/week with a therapist so there needs to be active participation in improving the relationship outside of session too.
Prioritize: Prioritize your relationship by doing couples counseling and out-of-session work for at least 3-6 months to see what’s possible. If nothing else, you know you’ve done due diligence in trying to repair/improve your relationship and you’ve hopefully developed new skills that can better all your relationships — with co-workers, friendships, family and others.
RespectNo-Secrets Policy: Don’t share secrets with your therapist that you don’t want shared with your partner(s). This allows for everyone to be operating with the same information, to do collaborative work. Part of my No-Secrets Policy is that whatever information is shared with me privately — in-person, text, fax, email, voicemail — is shared with your partner at the next available scheduled appointment. Otherwise, things can get way too complicated and detract from making progress in therapy.
DoIndividual Work: Learning and growing as an individual positively affects your relationship. Individual work can include a meditation/yoga practice, mindfulness in everyday life, individual therapy or any particular method that helps YOU get to know yourself better and live more authentically/compassionately in the world. This is an ongoing process we’re hopefully doing for the rest of our lives.