Marriage counseling has long been branded a social red flag. It’s been inaccurately depicted as the last resort for seriously struggling couples before they sink into separation and eventual divorce. There’s also a subtle implication that needing a therapist to navigate your marriage is a sort of personal failing, as if we’re all born with a manual for the healthiest relationship skills. You know, the way we’re all born with the parenting manual too.
This culture of shame and stigma is a self-fulfilling prophecy, often seriously delaying couples seeking much-needed guidance — according to the Gottman Institute, married couples weather an average six years of unhappiness before they seek counseling.
That’s six years of miscommunication, missed bids for affection, and a heaping serving of resentment. Too many couples believe they have to fumble their way through until the relationship is at the brink.
The pressure to repair years of missed opportunity can feel immense, but it’s not impossible.
What if we demystify marriage counseling? Pull back the veil to reveal it as a helpful tool to grow as a couple? Even see marriage counseling as an opportunity to write that healthy communication manual together?
Whether your marriage aims to get ahead of the curve or requires support to repair, here’s what you can expect when you venture into marriage counseling.
Act 1: The Unknown
First and foremost, counseling can only work if both partners commit to doing the work. Yes, work, because even the best relationships demand work. One partner can cross every “t” and dot each “i,” but if both partners don’t commit to embracing marriage counseling as a growth opportunity then it won’t work. No matter how much you will it.
Ideally, both of you want to learn healthy communication tools and grow as a couple before the going gets tough.
Now let’s consider the therapist you’ll be working with. Both partners need to feel heard and valued so choose someone who is experienced in counseling couples. If you struggle with deeper marital issues then it’s worth considering a therapist who specializes in that area as well.
Above all, choose a therapist that both partners are comfortable with. Just as in individual therapy, if one partner feels uncomfortable or disconnected from the therapist then they might not engage in the work. Seek out as many as you need to find the right fit.
Before the first session, take time to reflect on what you believe to be the conflicts and goals of your marriage.
Once you settle into that cushy couch (or teletherapy nest), any first date-like jitters you felt should start to soften. The first order of business is shop talk, including their policies, ethics, and any rules while in session. Your therapist will settle in and invite you to share your story.
Act II: Out With It
Your therapist is likely to begin with questions like “What motivated you to come to counseling? What’s your experience in the marriage now?”
Be present. Be honest. Be courageous. Be kind. But fully express what you came to this safe space to express! The first step in developing healthier communication skills, or addressing unresolved issues, is to be vulnerable. It’s the therapist’s role to be concerned with facilitating the space and keeping the conversation on track.
This getting-to-know-you portion is called intake, and it occurs in these early sessions.
A therapist that understands your individual and collective stories can put the marriage’s conflicts into perspective. Intake better informs the homework they prescribe to an individual partner and to the couple to share.
Act III: Future Horizons
Your therapist will likely guide the sessions with questions like “What do you want to experience together? What are your goals from counseling?”
Whether you’re there to improve a healthy marriage, or for a guide to help you navigate the well-worn grooves in it, setting clear goals is the other half of the heavy lifting. You can redefine the way love is given and received (hello, love languages!). You can learn to move through conflict with more ease and grace together. Goal setting is a powerful way to open up communication and strengthen emotional intimacy.
Take this opportunity to share your respective vision for the marriage. Hold the vision, but refrain from clinging to ideas of how you want it to happen. By keeping this space open, both partners can collaboratively build the vision while adapting to the marriage’s ever-evolving needs. Get curious about these ideas, what are the stories behind them?
And remember: goals are free to change as your marriage and its needs also evolve!
Timelines are a tool to track progress, but they shouldn’t be a metric to force healing and growth within the marriage. This emotional labor is valid and valuable work. It’s also the sort of work that takes time to integrate before we can eventually harvest the fruits of this labor together.
Epilogue: Joy At Last?
Your marriage’s needs shape the duration and nuances of counseling, but a good rule is to engage in therapy for as long as it benefits your marriage.
Marriage counseling will likely include individual sessions. This is so your therapist can engage with each partner’s experience, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. It’s also a chance to receive support with anything that you struggle to communicate to your partner.
But it’s precisely this balance of individual work and couples’ work that builds a thriving relationship. If you both commit to counseling you’ll learn a myriad of skills—like healthy communication, self soothing, and stress management—to weather the trying moments and to squeeze the most out of the great moments.
Throughout this process, have grace for yourself and your partner. Grace carries us further than we ever believe possible.