Guest blogger Laura Ritchie is a former MMP bride who lives in Scottsdale, AZ with her husband, Skylar. Laura is a licensed marriage + family therapist who loves after-dinner walks with her husband, quiet mornings that start with a journal + pen, heart-to-heart conversations, + good food shared with great friends. She writes over at her own blog on marriage, Love + Faithfulness.
No couple gets married thinking that their marriage is likely to someday be in trouble. Most of us realize that, yes, it will be difficult at times. We are aware that, yes, we will have disagreements + some hurts + that, yes, our relationship will probably change in some ways over time—but no one goes into a marriage expecting the marriage to suffer or fail.
We are all aware, however, that many marriages do suffer. Many marriages do fail. And, while there are some limited reasons why a marriage really should dissolve, period—patriarchal terrorism, unresolved child abuse, etc.—very few marriages fall in this category.
While some marital hardship from time to time is inevitable + even constructive, most sustained marital distress is both preventable + fixable. Unfortunately, couples generally wait far longer than they should to address any marital problems that arise, let alone to prevent those problems before they are even present in the relationship. In fact, research shows that the average couple experiences marital problems for six years before ever seeking out help!
If I could give one piece of advice to couples preparing to marry, or to those who are already married, it would be to get help, because I truly believe that much of the suffering—and the marital dissolutions that often occur as a result—could be fixed + even prevented if more couples were willing to both admit their need for help + to seek it out earlier on. Getting help, no matter what the source, is one of the best, most intentional ways of investing in your relationship + continually choosing to nurture it.
Today I am going to be focusing primarily on marriage counseling as a source of help, outlining when to seek it out, how to get the most out of it, + what to expect when you actually decide to go—but, because marriage counseling is just one of the many ways that a couple can seek out help for their relationship, I will also be listing several other sources of help in new week’s follow-up post.
When Should I Seek Out Marriage Counseling?
Many couples assume that marriage counseling is only for really big + serious issues + therefore not for them. Many believe that seeking out counseling is equivalent to an admission of failure at a successful + happy marriage. Thankfully, this could not be further from the truth!
Marriage counseling—and premarital counseling—can be a valuable resource for couples in any stage of the relationship + anywhere on the spectrum of marital satisfaction. It’s never too early to seek it out, + it’s never too late.
At the same time, however, marriage counseling is only one of the many resources out there to help nourish + sustain a couple’s marriage. It might be the best place for you to start—but it’s certainly not the only place.
So how do you know if marriage counseling is right for you? Here are some signs that counseling could be the most beneficial thing for you + your relationship:
1. You’re facing a major life transition: Births, deaths, moves, + job changes all come with some major life adjustments—and getting married itself might be the biggest one of all. During these times of change, new expectations arise, + routines must be adjusted. Seeing a therapist to help you + your spouse (or future spouse) negotiate these new challenges peacefully—before they show their raring head—can prevent a whole lot of anguish down the road. A good therapist will help you predict the normal kinds of issues that might arise + will provide a safe place for you and your spouse to problem solve effectively.
2. You’re stuck in a crazy, never-ending cycle: If you feel like you’re having the same negative interaction pattern over + over again without any progress, seeing a therapist might be the very best place for you + your spouse to slow down, truly listen to each other, + gain a new perspective moving forward. A good therapist will not only teach you effective communication techniques that put a stop to unhealthy interaction patterns, but will also coach you on your use of those newly learned skills, ensuring that you have both the tools you need moving forward + the knowledge about how to use them.
3. You’re unable to safely (physically or emotionally) have important conversations: Being able to be vulnerable + authentic with your spouse, + to discuss any + all important topics of conversation is crucial to a healthy marriage. If one or both of you feels as if you cannot bring up certain important topics of conversation without it resulting in a major fight or argument, counseling is the perfect place to go to resolve these issues. A good therapist will act as a referee for you + your spouse, providing a safe, neutral environment for you both to have the important conversations that have been previously avoided + to do so successfully. A good therapist will also coach you on how to create the same kind of safety in your own home that lends itself to meaningful + productive conversations.
4. There has been a major injury to the relationship: If one of you has done or said something that has seriously unsettled the trust + security of your marriage and/or deeply hurt the other person, counseling might be necessary to safely sort through the details, assist in the process of forgiveness, + establish a new foundation of trust.
5. Your spouse suggests counseling: A good rule of thumb to have about marriage counseling is that, if your spouse thinks you both could use it—and says so only when he or she really means it—then you both could probably use it, even if, on your end, it seems as though everything is perfectly fine. While it might at first feel as though you’re being blamed as the source of your spouse’s discontent, or that your spouse is considering divorce, it’s much more likely the case that he or she is being proactive about bettering your marriage, showing his or her desire + willingness to put in the work to save it from divorce or even simply to protect it from bigger problems down the road.
How Do I Get the Most Out of Counseling?
Too many husbands and wives enter counseling expecting a therapist to fix their relationship by changing things that are wrong with the other spouse. However, marriage counseling is by no means a quick fix directed at a single individual. It is, if it is to be successful, an endeavor requiring shared effort toward mutual change. Entering marriage counseling with the right expectations, perspective, + preparation plays a huge role in determining whether the experience is beneficial to you and your marriage.
1. Consider the fit: The most important factor in determining the effectiveness of your experience in counseling is the relationship that you + your spouse have with your therapist. If the person across from you is someone you find difficult to trust or respect, or with whom you find it challenging to easily converse, it is unlikely that you will have a positive counseling experience. If you find yourself in this position, it is absolutely worth it to look elsewhere. There are plenty of other therapists + you should have no trouble finding one with whom you feel comfortable.
Before you select a therapist, however, consider what you’re looking for. Do you want a therapist who works from a certain faith background? Would you prefer to have a therapist with a certain degree or one who works from a specific theoretical orientation? Are you hoping to work with someone who specializes in your specific concern? Do your research—or ask around to find a good recommendation from someone you trust! (For recommendations on where to look and what kind of therapist to look for, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
2. Reflect on your goals: Goal-setting is an important part of counseling + is the measure by which a therapist determines your progress. To speed up the process, discuss with your spouse what it is you both hope to achieve in counseling + what types of resources you wish to gain exposure to during your time there. If you can come up with even one or two short-term or long-term goals before the first meeting with your therapist, he or she is going to be much better equipped to help you achieve the goals you’ve established.
3. Focus on the big picture: In order for counseling to be effective, you must be willing to speak openly about yourself + your relationship, + to put aside the details of specific arguments, whether they happened this morning or a decade ago. While it is your therapist’s job to help you stay proactive, you can help him or her by maintaining a focus on development of your relationship over time + the patterns you’ve seen arise in your interactions. What themes come up again + again in your arguments? What do arguments generally look like in your home, or are they generally avoided? By answering these questions, you will be providing your therapist with useful information that can be worked with to induce relational change.
4. Be prepared to put in some effort: Unlike a doctor fixing a broken bone, a good therapist will not fix your relationship—unfortunately, that’s almost entirely up to you. A therapist is simply there to help + guide you. He or she cannot undo in one hour what you’ve been doing the rest of the week. If you want to get anything out of that hour-long counseling session, you must put in the work that is asked of you at home. If your therapist assigns “homework,” do it! If you + your spouse learned something new in session, practice it (unless your therapist advises otherwise)! Like most things, the more you put into counseling, the more you will get out of it.
5. Focus on yourself, + be open to change: Both you + your spouse will have to make some changes in order to improve your relationship. But your experience in counseling will be much smoother if you are open to seeing your part in the problem + willing to focus on improving your own actions rather than worrying about the actions of your spouse. Just as your therapist will not fix your relationship, neither will he or she change your spouse. Your spouse may change as a result of counseling, but more likely he or she will change as a result of a change in you. If your spouse hasn’t changed in the way that you’ve been asking him or her to, a therapist saying it probably won’t be any different. Contrary to what you might think, you have way more influence over your spouse than a therapist ever will—but probably not in the direct way that you might think. Look at yourself first—and that itself will make a difference.
Stay tuned—next week on the blog, Laura will be sharing other resources aside from marriage counseling that can be used for investing in your marriage.