Are you considering marriage counseling? Don’t worry if you feel reluctant to seek advice about your marriage. It’s not instinctive to talk to a stranger about your struggles and couples are usually reasonably desperate by the time they’re willing to seek counseling.
Shame can become the dominant emotion when you’re struggling in your marriage, making you even less likely to seek help. And to top it all off, you might be skeptical that the counseling process will benefit your relationship. Rest assured that if both spouses are committed to the process, marriage counseling usually works.
Does Marriage Counseling Work?
Does marriage counseling work? You’ll hear arguments both for marriage counseling and against it, but what matters is that it can be a way to save the most important human relationship you have on this earth.
Arguments In Favor of Marriage Counseling
1. You need a mediator
Again, by the time most couples seek marriage counseling, they’ve experienced such a massive breakdown in communication that they can hardly communicate about anything significant without arguing.
When barriers to communication seem insurmountable, having a moderator for difficult conversations can be invaluable. The accountability of having a third party present, notably a trained counselor who uses proven methods to guide the discussion, can help each person feel understood and that they can keep their emotions under control.
When we experience rising anxiety, anger, or other intense emotions, our cognitive processes are disrupted, and we can no longer bond. To have a mature discussion about a complicated topic, both individuals must manage their own emotions.
If one or both people do not have the skills to do this, the presence of a third party can enable them to have necessary conversations without them devolving into an argument.
2. You need a new perspective
Over time, deeply rooted patterns of behavior start to seem impossible to escape. The thoughts, emotions, and methods of communicating that we develop become problems with seemingly no solutions because they’ve been going on for so long.
In counseling, you can talk with someone who has an outside perspective, is experienced in helping couples, and brings years of training and expertise to the discussion. They can help you lower your defenses, talk about those difficult problems, and find ways to handle them while each of you works on your own contributions to the issue.
3. You need hope
Marriage problems that linger for months or years can cause a sense of helplessness which we feel that nothing can change.
Happiness is a byproduct of being well cared for, not the ultimate goal. Happy feelings come and go, but feelings of trust and gratitude are worth far more in the long run.
The feeling of happiness isn’t the goal since emotions will always come and go. But if you build your marriage on a foundation of caring, trust, and gratitude, you will inevitably feel much happier in the long run.
4. You can bond by overcoming the hard times together
When you make your spouse your enemy, your conflicts end up feeling like a battleground. But the catch is that you’re actually on the same side, fighting against each other in the same foxhole!
This approach is incredibly self-defeating. You’re hurting not only your spouse but yourself. A counselor can help you realize that you’re on the same team and that the enemies of your marriage are coming from outside. You can learn to make your foxhole impervious to attacks, so you can be a unified front instead of fighting against each other.
In real-life combat situations, the “war buddy bond” is a phenomenon that draws soldiers closer together than family or friends. They are focused on the good of the other person and will fight to defend them from attacks.
Sometimes our enemies can come from inside ourselves too, in the form of negative thinking patterns or self-talk. Your spouse can be a powerful ally as you fight internal battles. Without shaming you, they can help you assess yourself more gently and kindly, and find your way back to healthier thinking patterns.
When you stop fighting each other and learn to focus on internal and external threats, the love and cherishing you have for each other will allow your dreams for your marriage to flourish.
5. The harder path is often the better one
You might be the type of person who tends to do things the easy way. It’s not always natural to have a long-term perspective instead of focusing on instant gratification. Most worthwhile endeavors require a concerted effort. Some things in life aren’t worth it, but many are. If we make a habit of giving up, we can miss out on some of the most rewarding experiences – and relationships – of our lives.
Maybe your marriage has gotten to such a bad point that it seems like there’s no reason to try. But in most cases, that’s not true. There’s probably something left to salvage, and perhaps more than meets the eye right now. After all, you married this person for a reason. The fact that you agreed to spend the rest of your life with each other is not a small detail.
Working on your issues together in counseling can help you regain the perspective you had when you first fell in love, and find a new way to fall in love again.
6. The stakes are high
The end of a marriage has endless outward rippling effects, starting with children (if there are any) and moving outward to other relationships. Both spouses will suffer. The children’s ability to trust and commit to their future marriages may be damaged.
Even in the most amicable and drama-free divorce, the extended family relationships will suffer as well. Though some bonds might remain, they’ll never be the same as they once were.
Friends may feel forced to choose sides between the divorcing spouses. Relationships at church will be affected. And divorce carries a stigma with it. You’ll move on, but at some level, you’ll always regret what happened.
Arguments Against Marriage Counseling
Marriage counseling can be beneficial in many situations, but sometimes it isn’t a good fit. What are each spouse’s feelings about therapy? Are both committed? What are your current emotional states? Are you willing to be patient while you find the right counselor? If you’re considering marriage counseling, think about how these factors will affect the process:
1. Both spouses must be committed to the process
We often see that one spouse is reluctant to get counseling, but if they start to look at the benefits over time, they become more positive about it. On the other hand, if one spouse is so resistant that they won’t participate much or at all, it’s not possible to make progress in couples counseling.
It’s not easy to get out of your comfort zone and make changes for the good of your marriage. If a spouse is resistant, they’re not going to change just because of external pressure. Your spouse’s resistance doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek individual counseling. But if your spouse remains resistant after one or two sessions, you should reconsider seeking couples counseling at this time.
On the other hand, if your spouse exhibits a willingness to continue going and at least a minimal level of engagement (even if it’s mostly negative emotions), give counseling a chance. But if the sessions end up mainly being focused on your spouse’s negativity, criticism, or anger, there’s not much hope for progress. Both spouses must be committed to making an effort for change to take place.
2. Sometimes it’s too late
Unfortunately, there is such a thing as waiting too long to seek counseling. Sometimes there’s no coming back from a low point, when there’s no communication left other than insults and name-calling, or when there’s persistent infidelity, verbal or emotional abuse, etc., and one or both people are unwilling to change.
To receive the benefits of counseling, both spouses have to agree that there’s something in their marriage worth saving, even if they can’t perceive it right now.
The only way that can happen is if each person takes ownership of their behavior and whatever they’ve done to contribute to the problems. When there’s stubborn pride, unrepentance, or unforgiveness, the relationship can’t recover.
3. Both have to be willing to change
If there’s been infidelity on the part of one spouse and they agree to come to counseling but not to give up their affair, therapy won’t help. If one spouse has engaged in destructive behavior that they won’t stop or get help for (such as an addiction), they are choosing to embrace this behavior over their marriage and breaking the vows they made.
It’s as if they’re saying, “My fulfillment is more important than your feelings or the pain I’m causing you.” This attitude will cause the other spouse a great deal of heartache. If your spouse doesn’t have your best interests at heart, they’ve deserted the marriage emotionally. If they aren’t willing to change their core approach, the union is effectively over, regardless of whether divorce has happened yet.
4. Individual counseling may need to come first
Sometimes there’s no right way to process marriage issues until one spouse has received help for past emotional trauma. Or one spouse may be unable to self-regulate their emotions in any way. There may need to be individual counseling first to open the door for marriage counseling to be more useful later.
Sometimes this means beginning marriage counseling and then realizing, probably with the help of a therapist, that individual sessions are needed before mutual progress can happen. Once one or both spouses have done individual therapy, they can choose to resume the marriage counseling process, if things haven’t improved enough already.
5. Understand your limits
Sometimes people’s characteristics prevent them from making progress in counseling. If you can’t stand getting advice or think that you are always right, you probably won’t make much headway.
But, if you do tend to think this way, but you’re seeking counseling, this is a good sign. Knowing there’s a problem is always the first step. You won’t grasp the changes you can make if you never take a step in the right direction!
For other people, they may face incapacitating anxiety about receiving counseling. Seeing a psychiatrist and possibly taking anti-anxiety medication may allow you to manage your stress better so you can go through marriage counseling.
6. Find the right counselor
There are some counselors out there who give terrible advice. One counselor told a woman in marriage counseling that she should have affairs with other men, so she could better understand her adulterous feelings.
Just because someone is a licensed therapist or a counselor doesn’t mean they give good advice! For example, one counselor told a wife that she should have affairs to explore her adulterous feelings. This advice is destructive, and there are less extreme examples as well.
If you feel that your counselor is not helping your marriage, seek help elsewhere. It’s better not to get counseling than to receive advice that’s at best useless and at worst downright harmful.
If you feel like you can’t overcome your marriage problems on your own, it’s best to seek help. If you and your spouse are both willing to work on your issues in counseling, there’s a good possibility that your marriage can be even better than it was in the beginning.
“Conversation,” courtesy of mrhayata, Flickr Creative Commons, CC0 License; “Follow Me,” courtesy of Yoann Boyer, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Love Story,” courtesy of Zoriana Stakhniv, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Heartache,” courtesy of Takmeomeo, pixabaycom, CC0 Public Domain License
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