It can be a difficult realisation in a marriage or relationship that you have reached a point where you need help. If you have made that decision to reach out, then I congratulate you as it is not an easy one. Couples don’t often come to counselling when things are just a little bit difficult rather, by the time you get to your first appointment, things are often precariously close to the cliff. There can be some trepidation and mixed expectations from couples entering the counselling room especially, if you have never seen a therapist together before. As an experienced couple’s counsellor with many years of experience saving marriages all over the country, I would like to demystify the process for you and outline 5 ways marriage counselling can save a troubled marriage. For the rest of this article I will refer to marriage counselling however, it applies equally to all shapes and sizes of relationships.
5 Ways Couples Counselling Can Save a Troubled Marriage
Getting it all out on the table and inviting the elephants in.
Clarifying the issues, getting to the core of the problems and establishing goals.
Learning new and healthier ways to communicate and resolve conflict.
Helping you find your way back to each other.
Re-learning to live your marriage or relationship with intent.
1. Getting it all out on the table and inviting the elephants in
As Louise Hay the famous self-help guru once said “In order to clean your house, you must first see the dirt!” Marriage counselling provides a safe space in order for you to have your voice and to speak your truth as you see it without being shut down by your partner and a good marriage counsellor should have firm ground rules about no interruptions while one person is talking. You can individually raise everything you are feeling about the relationship and what you believe needs to happen in order for things to improve. This is very much ripping the band aid off and is often the most difficult session. I hear from many couples that this first session is in itself a very cathartic process as you are both able to speak from start to finish without being interrupted, challenged or criticised. We also need to invite in and discuss any elephants in the room particularly, with regards to infidelity of any variety including online infidelity. It is imperative that any outstanding issues are resolved before the way forward can be charted.
Marriage counselling creates the space to facilitate this safely and productively
2. Clarifying the issues, getting to the core of the problems and establishing goals
It’s never really about the work clothes on the floor or the dirty dishes in the sink. The real issues are far deeper and that is what marriage counselling can help you uncover. In a healthy, functioning relationship little annoyances are not viewed as a declaration of war. You don’t care if you beloved occasionally drops the ball and forgets some of the day to days. However, when you are viewing your partner through the lens of contempt and are disqualifying the positivE. These things often have become the sole focus as the frustration and anger has been building over time. We therefore want to strip away the surface clutter and get to the root of the problem. In marriage counselling we strive to find the feelings behind the presenting complaints and dig beneath the surface. For example, a text message not replied to in a timely manner may be innocent to the recipient however, to the sender it could trigger a cascade of feelings of being unwanted, unloved or rejected.
It is also very important during the first session or two to establish the goals of your counselling. Otherwise, how will you know if the process is heading in the right direction? Improving communication is without doubt the number one goal for all couples I see and fortunately, there are some excellent tools and strategies on hand for achieving just that which I will describe next
3. Learning new and healthier ways to communicate and resolve conflict
It is safe to say that if you have arrived in a couple’s counsellors office your attempts at resolving the issues yourself have not turned out so well. This is where some good evidence-based therapy techniques can be introduced. Personally, my absolute favourite technique is Imago Dialogue from Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT). This is a structured way of having a difficult conversation that has a gentle start up and if used properly is almost foolproof. It is essentially what is called ‘active listening’ which is what you learn day one at University to become a counsellor. When communication has broken down in a relationship, we are no longer really listening to our partner when they talk. We might be nodding and look like we are listening however what we are most likely doing is crafting our response which is likely laden with defensiveness and all the reasons you are wrong. The Imago Dialogue prevents this as we have to listen, reflect, mirror, validate and empathise. As described above, it is the feelings and emotions under the issues that are causing you both distress and this technique helps you uncover those and communicate them to your partner. Every marriage counsellor has their preferred tools and techniques but I find the Imago Dialogue the simplest and most effective tool in the box. The couples that incorporate this into their lives have dramatic turn arounds in a relatively short amount of time.
It is definitely worth acknowledging at this point that “us blokes aren’t too flash” at talking about our feelings and emotions. Men struggle to open up and tend to shut down and withdraw from conflict. Ladies how many times have you been wanting to talk to your partner and he is either on his phone, in the shed or gaming? There is a reason for this and we have to work with that. Just telling a man to “open up or else” just doesn’t work and only causes a further retreat. I use a number of techniques to connect with and help the guys learn it is safe to open up and good things happen when they allow themselves to take risks and be allow themselves to be vulnerable.
4. Helping you find your way back to each other
If you cast your mind back, there was once a time in your relationship where none of these problems existed. This is why I feel it is so important early on to anchor the counselling in a memory you both have of a time when you both looked at each other with positive regard, excitement and love. When you first meet, a lot of magic happens. There is hope, there are butterflies, there is excitement and there is that intoxicating rush of chemicals in the brain with the anticipation of a future with this new person. All those delightful things that happen when we fall in love. While we can never truly go back to the honeymoon phase, what we can do is work to fall in love all over again and establish a new relationship that is built on mutual trust, mutual positive regard, honesty and intentional communication. This is the relationship that has the legs to be long-lasting because it has a solid foundation and this is what marriage counselling can help you clear the path and map your way back to each other.
5. Re-learning to live your marriage or relationship with intent
“Where’s the excitement? I didn’t sign up for this! It’s just boring and we never get to have fun like we use to.” I have a lollipop jar in my office and put one in for every time I have heard this. It’s rather full! A life without purpose, meaning and direction runs the risk of being unfulfilling and a relationship is no different. In Solution Focussed Brief Therapy we focus on the ideal outcome, your perfect life and then work backwards from there. If you both have a shared common goal for the relationship, it is much easier to stay on track and stay excited and motivated about the future. For example; By when do you want to pay off the house? How many kids do you want and by when? Where do you ideally want to live and by when? If you’ve taken time off to have kids when do you want to return to work? How much do you want to have in savings and by when? Where is your next holiday and the one after? A ship with a route is more likely to get to its destination where the one that wanders the seas aimlessly hoping to get somewhere, has a high probably of running aground at some point.
Marriage counselling (especially pre-marriage counselling)
is the perfect way to chart your course and make sure you are both working as a team to get to wherever it is you want to go.
Emma, Sunshine Coast
Cameron gave suggestions of powerful tools to use, which I have followed through with and these continue to reinforce the positive and empowering changes that he helped to facilitate. Many more positive events have occurred since and I can see how it connects back to the work I did with Cameron. Thank you so much.