How can marital therapy help? What’s the therapist’s job? What’s yours?

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Marital counseling can help save your relationship or ensure that you are making the right decision if you divorce.
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In my work with divorcing couples, they often tell me, “We went to counseling but it didn’t work.” When I inquire further, I often hear that they went only once or perhaps had a few sessions.

John Gottman has researched marital stability and divorce prediction for more than 40 years. His research says that by the time clients get to marital counseling it is, on average, after six years of unhappiness in the marriage. So, don’t wait until there is a threat of divorce, and do commit to at least 10-20 sessions.

When clients come to my office to pursue divorce coaching, it may still be possible to repair the marriage. I like to know that clients have pursued every possible way to repair their marriage before deciding to divorce.

I don’t want you to regret your decision after the divorce process has started or concluded.

Here is how marital counseling works: There are at least three people in the room. The therapist is responsible for skillfully doing his or her part, and you are responsible for yours. If the therapist is doing more than 50% of the work in the room, therapy will likely fail.

The therapist’s role:

The therapist has no agenda or vested interest. This means that the therapist cannot be invested in the outcome of your counseling. You, the clients, determine the outcome after fully exploring your concerns and options.

The therapist should be a neutral facilitator, not an arbiter or judge. He may give impartial advice based on research or his experience. The therapist is responsible for creating a safe environment for honesty/unburdening/emotional expression/healing a betrayal. A skillful therapist helps you strengthen your communication skills and build trust. He or she may focus on your family values to strengthen your commitment to your marriage or to co-parent during and after a divorce. Here are some of the therapist’s responsibilities:

  • Support you in expressing yourselves appropriately and honestly
  • Facilitate your abilities to listen actively and build understanding or empathy
  • Mediate in problem-solving to build solutions to differences or conflicts, without taking sides
  • Assist you with making decisions about your future relationship
  • Should you decide to divorce, the therapist can support your transition to a respectful divorce process and a healthy co-parenting relationship

John Gottman describes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of relationships as communication styles that, according to his research, may predict the failure of a relationship. Counseling can help you learn new healthy, constructive ways to communicate.

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Honesty, openness, forgiveness and apologies are essential.
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They are:

  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling
  • Contempt

Your and your partner’s role:

First, show up with an open mind. Ultimately, the future of your relationship will be your decision, but in the meantime, show up to listen and explore your relationship’s strengths and areas of conflict. If your spouse asks you to go to counseling with her, do it. You have nothing to lose and you may find that many issues can be resolved or improved with a commitment to fully participate in the counseling. If you have already decided that the marriage is over, the counseling can help you set a healthy course for the future of your family. Here are some of your responsibilities:

  • Grit. This means hard work, not giving up easily. Therapy will help you fully explore the reasons you have come to counseling, and that can be painful or difficult. Stay with it and you will feel more certain about your decision to go or stay in the marriage. Leave no stone unturned.
  • Respect. Treat your partner (and your therapist) with respect. Constructive conversations and helpful discussions are only possible with respect. Self-regulation means that you are mature enough to manage your emotions and express them in a way that your partner can hear and understand. Emotions should not be used to further hurt the person you married. Using threats or coercion to try to get what you want will undermine both the relationship and counseling. Threats such as “If you don’t do X, I will divorce you” or “I will see you in court” spell doom for any constructive benefits of the therapy.
  • Willingness to change, listen, share, and be curious. Counseling can help you grow as a person even if you don’t stay married. Being able to listen, share, be open and interested, and able to consider changing your behaviors or perspectives—these are all qualities that will help you in all aspects of your life, including future relationships.
  • Honesty. Honestly, there is no point in going to counseling if you are not honest! Of course, being honest is sometimes scary and painful, especially if there has been an affair. However, a repair can only happen if you can face the reality of the issues, and the effects on your relationship.
  • Keeping agreements, building trust, and goodwill. Counseling will help you and your partner make agreements. First, don’t agree to something that you aren’t 100% committed to. It is okay to say when you need time to consider an agreement or to say, “That doesn’t work for me.” This is crucial because keeping your agreements will build trust and goodwill with your partner, whether or not you stay together.
  • Forgiveness and openness to repair. You may have come to counseling because of a betrayal, whether it is an affair or another kind of betrayal. If you are open to forgiving and repairing the relationship, counseling can help. This is not to let your partner off the hook for something that hurt you. Forgiveness is for you and doesn’t mean that you have to stay together. However, if your partner has hurt you and has worked to repair the relationship, you may be open to exploring that possibility. But you also have to be open to forgiving.
  • Apologies and amends. If you have done something to hurt your partner, including a betrayal, counseling can help you make a real apology. An apology means that you take responsibility for your actions and that you are accountable for your choices. It doesn’t mean that you have to stay in the relationship, it just means that you do what it takes to help heal the pain you have caused.
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Resolving long-standing issues is possible if both of you are willing to do the work.
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So don’t wait! Marriage counseling is most successful before you have swept many issues “under the rug.” When you tell yourself “We can deal with this later, when the kids are grown” for example, you are reducing the likelihood that the marriage can be saved. Counseling is not a punishment or a lifetime commitment, but a resource to turn to when your marriage is struggling.

Give yourself at least 10-20 sessions of counseling before you make any big decisions. Then, if you make a decision to divorce, you will feel secure knowing that it has been a well-thought-through decision that you won’t regret down the road.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2020

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory. ​​​​​​​

This article was originally posted in Psychology Today.