What does good couples counseling look like?

By Susan Heitler Ph.D., Author of the book, The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong and Loving Marriage

The simple answer is that in good couples counseling both people leave almost every session feeling happier, closer to each other, and feeling like they’ve learned something that will help their good feelings to last.

Here are a few things to watch out for when you’re evaluating whether the couples counseling you’re getting is likely to be effective. 

To illustrate each point, I’ll use an example based on a recent couple I saw in my private family therapy practice that came to see me because they were bickering all the time. I’ll call them Jon and Julia.

1.  Beware of therapists that allow negative interactions between you and your partner to flow unchecked. In marriage counseling, if your therapist lets you criticize each other with comments like, “You shouldn’t have…”, lets you respond by negating what each other says with words like, “But…”, or lets irritation and anger in your dialogue keep escalating -- consider finding a new counselor. 

In a good therapy session, the therapist is quick to intervene to help keep the couple they’re working with stay positive and on track.

Even in my first session with Jon and Julia, I introduced them to new rules for communication in marriage.  The minute one of them began to sound angry, or to say something blaming, criticizing, or complaining about the other, I interrupted and helped them return to collaborative dialogue.

They quickly learned that complaining about what the other person had said or done just brought on bickering.  They could count on me to stop them before their complaint was even out, so they had to switch to talking about themselves—to verbalize their feelings (“I feel sad…”), express their own concerns (“My concern is that …) and clarify their preferences (“I would like to ….).

2.  Beware of therapists who take sides, or who encourage you in the game of who is right and who is wrong.  A helpful therapist guides you along the road from conflict to a win-win resolution on issues where there’s been arguing.  A win-win resolution respects that both people are right. 

Instead of letting them stay stuck with their horns locked on summer vacation planning, I helped Julia and Jon to identify their underlying concerns and to build a plan of action together that they were both excited about.

Jon wanted to take the family on a lengthy car trip.  Julia wanted to go to a beach and stay put.  John’s concern was that he liked the idea of being able to rent and drive a fancy car.  Julia’s was to enjoy the calm simplicity of being based in one beautiful spot.  Their decision—they’d rent a fun fancy car John could enjoy, and use it for short day trips from their vacation home-base, a pretty motel by the beach. 

3.  Insight about the origins of relationship mistakes can make it easier to pull up old bad habits from their roots and lay down new healthier patterns.  At the same time, be wary if couples counseling has the two of you only looking backward. That’s not a safe way to drive ahead!

Jon and Julia both found it helpful when their therapy sessions included brief looks into the rear view mirror to identify the sources of their bickering patterns.  Jon realized he had been ignoring most of what Julia said just like his alcoholic Dad used to ignore his mom’s concerns.  Julia realized that she grew up with a Mom who used to pepper her comments with what she didn’t want, what she didn’t like, and especially what she didn’t like about what others did.  Probably her mom had been chronically depressed—maybe that accounted for why the negative word “not” seemed to pop up so often when her mom spoke.  “I’m not …”, “You didn’t….”, “You shouldn’t…”

At the same time, these insights from the past were just a small part of the larger project of learning new skills for a better partnership.

4. Beware of therapists that expect you to have all the answers. Some therapists spend the whole time asking you “how do you feel about that?” and then never giving you the tools to change how you interact. Good counseling sessions include learning specific skills and techniques for success.

That’s why I wrote the Power of Two book, and why the Federal Department of Health and Human services gave us a grant to turn the skills in the book into the full Power of Two Online program.  There are real skills that couples can learn to improve their communication, build trust, increase intimacy, and generally sustain a strong and loving relationship.

For lots of couples – the skills are really what they need most.  The Power of Two Online is a resource for learning the skills for strong and loving marriages, and it can be used either on its own or to assist more traditional couples counseling.

In working with Jon and Julia I expected them to keep growing during the week. One hour a week of counseling is far less effective than keeping up a steady pattern of small forward steps each day.  I assigned them homework to log on to http://poweroftwomarriage.com to learn new skills and to practice them.

As it turned out, their bickering was only the tip of the iceberg.  Once we were able to eliminate the bickering and negativity, they were able to have some very intimate discussions about some deep concerns each of them were carrying around inside like how to deal with jealousy in their relationship.  Also, we were able to identify self-defeating patterns they each had learned as kids, and fix them – which they were particularly excited about since they’d already seen their own kids mimicking their own same bad communication habits.

Now, Julia and Jon’s marriage is filled with calm, positive, and intimate communication, and their love is blossoming again.

 

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Funding for this project was provided by the United States Department of Health Services, Administration for Children and Families, Grant 90-FE-0123. Any opinions, finding, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Department of Health and Human Servies, Administration for Children and Families.