How to Get the Best Therapy for Your Marriage.
“I liked our marriage therapist, she just didn’t help us,” said Matt. Matt and his wife of 18 years had decided to get help with their struggling marriage. “The counselor just let me and my partner talk on and on. We went to three sessions and then we just didn’t go back. We didn’t really talk about it, we just never got back on the therapist’s schedule.”
Does Matt's story sound familiar? Do you have doubts as to whether therapy helps a marriage?
It is important to like and feel comfortable with a therapist, but you can like your therapist and also gauge if they will be able to help you. Here are 7 principles that will help your counseling work be successful.
(And if you like your therapist, don’t be shy! Request any of the following points that resonate with you. They will make a difference.)
1 Physical Set Up
When you enter the room, the seating arrangement should be an equal sided triangle. Although perhaps a necessity, having a couple sit on a regular couch together does impact the work. It is best for partners to have their own chair. If that isn’t possible the therapist can place their chair equidistantly to each person, creating a triangle.
Helpful Hint: As a client, you can set this up simply by saying “I want to be able to easily see you both.”
Why this is important:
Many couples do sit side by side on the couch at home for years and don't look or talk directly to one another. Setting up the space in an equal sided triangle assists with body language, direct communication, and invites an inclusive dialog. All three skills will help your marriage as you practice them. For example, learning to directly, respectfully, and matter-of-factly express anger with good eye contact.
2 Equal 3-Way Airtime
Equal partnership, a hallmark of happy marriage, requires that each person “represent”— make a case for himself or herself. Likewise, in order to make use of your therapist’s expertise, they need to insert their voice equally in each session. A rule of thumb is that all three—each partner, and the therapist need to speak about the same length of time each session.
Why this is important:
Again, it replicates what happy couples know and practice. Each person’s viewpoint and concerns are vital for happiness. If you notice that sessions tend to be dominated by yourself, your partner, or the therapist—take notice. Sessions that tend to be dominated by one person’s voice are usually not going to advance a healthy dialog between the partners.
3 Equal Effort
Just because someone is more apt to talk, doesn’t mean they are more aware, and healthier. That goes for people who “are better at expressing their feelings.” Take it from an experienced therapist, when it is announced that someone is better at expressing their feelings, they usually aren’t. More comfortable talking— yes, but not using the equal emotional voice of a functioning partnership. This is a common point of failure in marriage counseling.
If it is challenging for you or your partner to talk during a session, observe if the therapist encourages the effort and guides a “non talker” in gaining practice in the skill. A way to alert your therapist that this is a concern for you is to say, “I feel I’ve been doing a lot of talking. I am curious to know what my partner’s experience or thoughts are on this.”
4 Equal Responsibility for the Therapy Process
Here are signs that partners are taking equal responsibility for the work of the marriage therapy. Each Partner:
Is on time
Prioritizes the scheduled sessions, guards scheduled times, avoids frequent reschedules and attends to payment of the therapist
Engages in each session*
Completes tasks and assignments that you agree to
Advocates for self (Communicates concerns in the sessions)
* Examples of lack of engagement may include: sleepiness, looking at phone, phones making noise, fidgeting, distracted, easily off topic, consistently overbooked schedule that causes you to leave early, interrupting, rants/accusing partner and or therapist of "not understanding me" or "ganging up on me".
5 Zero aggression, including “underground aggression”
If you bicker, argue frequently, and get into escalating fights— you have aggression in your partnership. Counseling sessions that frequently break into “he said”, “she said” or often shift to increasing tensions, have aggression. Your therapist should intervene and guide you to approach the situation differently.
If there is a tendency towards aggression in the counseling work, then that should become the highest priority for the work of the couple—even if it means finding another counselor.
A skillful couples counselor will be vigilant to imbalanced power and guide the session to work toward equality by attending to aggression.
6 Equal happiness
Truly Happy Partner + Truly Happy Partner = Successful Relationship.
The end goal always should be that the couple moves toward more peace and happiness in their lives. This may mean that at times the couple will move towards dissolving the relationship. I find that my best work is when I have facilitated an understanding of what would make each partner happy.
7 Each person speaks their truth with kindness
A skillful therapist will be required to say hard things, call you out—to hold back is to erode the healthy emotional function of the foundation of the partnership. But truth can be said in a respectful, supportive and kind way. Likewise, as an equal participant in your marriage work, you will need to say the hard things that need to be said and you will want your partner to also come all the way clean with their truth. Your therapist can help you learn how to do this. If you find it difficult to share something, try prefacing the information with a phrase like “It is my viewpoint” (It is my truth that…, where I am coming from is…, my opinion is…, at this point I feel….)
You can advocate for self if you find that the therapist seems unkind to you or your partner, or doesn’t seem to seek your personal truth or honor it. It would be important to say out loud to either the therapist or your partner, “That statement feels unkind to me.” It's powerful to do it in real time when you feel the unkindness. Again, this is good practice for the ongoing skills you need to make your marriage successful.
8 Hold out for a good fit
Your marriage is worth getting a good therapist even if it means calling and trying several therapists. If you or your partner don’t have a good feeling about your therapist, keep trying.
When first contacting a therapist, a good question to ask is: “Please share on how you help couples like us.”
Getting the right therapist is an important key to getting the best marriage therapy!