Relationships are complex and multifaceted. Arguments over infidelity, step-families, money, sex, in-laws, children, drug and alcohol abuse, illness, job loss, and a host of other stressors, can ignite a war sizable enough to leave profound casualties in its wake. While some less serious issues can be dealt with by a couple who is willing to cooperate with each other and work hard to make things better, many more difficult situations are not that simple to fix. Under such circumstances, a valuable tool that can potentially help pull the couple out of its troubled predicament is marriage therapy, also referred to as couple’s counseling.
What Is Marriage Therapy?
Broken down into its most simplistic form, marriage therapy is a helpful avenue provided by a trained and unbiased professional. The focus of a Marriage & Family Therapist is relationships. They help couples and families navigate through their most toxic impasses by:
* processing and reframing what is said
* assisting them in developing more effective communication skills
* helping them see what isn’t always obvious to the parties involved
* providing effective approaches that aid in creating a genuine shift in the relationship.
Marriage counselors can be an invaluable resource for a couple in crisis. For example, in our blended family situation, my husband and I believed that one of our boys was the problem. The therapist explained that the infrastructure of the family lies in the strength and unity of the couple, and if a strong and solid foundation isn’t there, the children will often misbehave. That helped us put things into a different perspective. We shifted our focus away from our acting-out child, to our relationship. Once we knew what the problem was, we started moving forward in a more positive direction. That eventually saved our marriage.
How to Know If You Would Benefit from Marriage Therapy?
If you and your partner have been struggling with the same issue over a long period of time without getting closer to any type of resolution, then you could benefit from couple’s counseling. A trained and unbiased third party can be instrumental in reviving the relationship.
Some distraught couples often want to work on the relationship on their own, without outside interference. Typically, one of the partners feels their problems are nobody’s business. What happens, then, is that their issues are on a constant loop.
Picture a Ferris wheel. Now imagine one of your biggest problems sitting in one of the bottom carts. It’s there, up front and center, then it disappears for a little bit, only to come back around again. Without the proper help, the problem doesn’t go away; it just keeps circling ’round and ’round; hence why couples end up having the same fight over and over again.
Most people don’t have the necessary understanding to know what’s actually happening in their relationship. They might see the obvious surface layer, and think that’s the actual problem, but they’re not equipped to see the obscured underlying issue. In his book, Irritating the Ones You Love, Jeff Auerbach, Ph.D, explains The 30/70 Split. This, he says,
“…refers to the fact that our reactions are partly due to immediate events and partly due to our pre-existing areas of sensitivity. The 30/70 Split provides a clear and concise reminder of which is which; approximately 30% of the total reactions are about what just happened, while the other 70% is the result of childhood feelings, or Jars, being activated.”
A marriage therapist can help figure out the concealed issue, and steer the couple onto the right path.
There is no perfect relationship out there. When two people come together, it’s not just them; it’s their parents, their siblings, their history—good, bad, or indifferent—their traditions, and everything else they’ve acquired along the way. In any relationship, there is usually a struggle as to whose side will “win.”
For example, let’s say that recently-married Jane has always celebrated Christmas Eve with her family. John, her new husband, has always celebrated Christmas Eve with his. Now what? At this point, if both Jane and John dig in their heels, there’s going to be a conflict. But suppose that Jane acquiesces, saying, “It’s okay, I’ll see my family another day.” Even though she’s trying to please John, she may be harboring resentment at missing Christmas Eve with her family.
There’s a potential here for hurt and buried feelings. There is rarely a winner in these types of scenarios. Even if it looks like someone’s side won—John’s, for example—Jane might be left with anger and bitterness. So no one actually wins.
What to Do When You Start Going to the Therapy
Let us suppose that you and your partner agree to marriage therapy. The situation has gotten so out of hand that you both feel only a trained professional can help. That’s a smart first step. Once you do start therapy, it’s important to:
1. Set Goals
Why is this important? If you want to get somewhere, you need to know where you are and where you want to go. Setting a goal is like punching in your destination on your Google Maps.
You can do this when your therapist asks you what the presenting problem is (where you are), and on what specifically you’d like to work (where you want to go). This is the point in which you can share what’s currently bringing you to counseling, and in what direction you’d like to see your relationship forge ahead.
For example, let’s say that John comes home late every night. He gets so wrapped up in his work, he doesn’t take into account that Jane is waiting at home with dinner on the table. When he finally does get home, she’s fuming. “You’re late again! And dinner is cold! You are so inconsiderate!” she yells. John might respond with, “It’s no wonder I don’t want to come home; you’re always nagging me!”
In the above illustration, a goal might be for John to try and make it home by 6:00 three evenings a week. A goal for Jane, on the other nights, might be to just reheat his food, sit with him while he eats, and ask about his day. The goal is important because if it’s not met, then the couple, along with their therapist, can explore what got in the way. It’s a springboard from which to proceed.
2. Establish Priorities
What is valuable to one partner may not necessarily be valuable to the other one. Quite often, compromises have to be made in order to get the relationship out of neutral. When each person verbalizes what’s truly a must-have for them, the other partner needs to listen and make adjustments so that both parties feel heard and understood.
Perhaps, for John, who might be a Type-A personality, the priority is to get the majority of his work done before he leaves the office. For Jane, on the other hand, who is very family-oriented, the priority is to make sure that there is family time in the evening. Each person needs to understand what’s important to the other one, and try to meet their partner halfway.
3. Be Realistic
At the beginning of counseling, a therapist will ask if there’s anything on the table that absolutely cannot be changed. For example, if the couple lives in a very small space, there isn’t a lot that can be done about that. If one partner works nights, that, too, is not something that can be changed overnight.
In any changing situation, it’s important to be realistic. Some things will fit in nicely and other things won’t. You’ll have to re-evaluate and adjust your overall plan.
4. Give the Therapist a Chance
A therapist is a trained professional who wants to help. They are not there to judge or take sides. Give them a chance to offer insights and suggestions. It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a perfect relationship, but working with a therapist can get you moving in a better direction.
A struggling relationship can be one of the most challenging experiences a person can go through. But with the help of a trained marriage therapist, a couple can work through their issues and create a stronger, more fulfilled partnership. In the end, the benefits of seeking therapy can result in a happier, more productive, and satisfying relationship for both partners.