Ten Ways to Get the Most out of Couples Therapy

Couple hugging

The following is a list of just a few things that can make therapy more successful. You may notice that most of them don’t directly have much to do with what is done in counseling itself. While these are common topics to discuss in counseling and much more detail and strategies can be addressed there, your success depends largely on what you choose to do outside counseling. I’m also not a salesperson, so if just reading and following this list solves your problems, excellent. However, I know from experience that people reading this can usually benefit from and usually need counseling to make these a reality.

  1. Have an Optimistic Attitude

Clients tend to be really good at predicting their success with relationship therapy without knowing it. Clients who are generally optimistic tend to do well. Clients who are almost sure it won’t work are usually right. There is a lot of truth to the old saying that whether you think you can or can’t, you’re probably right. Positive clients tend to listen more, be more open to at least trying new things, are more willing to examine their role in relationship issues, and are generally more patient. These qualities almost always lead to better results.

  1. Get Separate Individual Counseling if Needed

It’s not uncommon for marriage counseling clients to have contributing conditions such as anxiety or depression. It’s not entirely unusual for some form of addiction to present. Unresolved past trauma or work issues could make your relationship more complicated. Some conditions like narcissism and borderline personality disorder may make your odds of success almost impossible if you don’t get outside help.

  1. View it as a Medium to Long-Term Investment

They see it as a long-term investment and aren’t fixated on time or cost.

It’s certainly fair that many couples come in to therapy worried that it will be a waste of time and/or money. It’s an unknown, the process isn’t black and white, and results cannot be guaranteed. There are an infinite number of variables when it comes to fixing humans (especially the interplay of two or more together), as opposed to fixing the engine of a car or a broken bone. It’s understandable to be cost-conscious, and everyone’s time is valuable. It can also be helpful to think of the result you want and what that is worth. Sometimes, it is hard to see the value because it isn’t always immediate, tangible, or clear. If your furnace is broken, most people won’t hesitate to spend 5-10k to fix it. You know it’s fixed right away because it runs and provides climate control. When it comes to spending, say, 1-2k to try to improve your relationship or marriage (which I would hope is more important to you than your furnace), many clients balk or get impatient. The most successful couples *want* to spend 1-2k on counseling. Asteristics surround the” want” because it’s not like the want came out of nowhere, and you both love therapy. The “want” is because you realize there is an opportunity and your relationship or marriage is worth that cost. I *want* to spend $1,200 to replace my car mirror. I “want” to because it gives me safety and will improve the resale value of my car. I wouldn’t say I like that it’s that expensive or will take a year to get the part (all true), but I won’t complain about the cost when it gets fixed. I thought fixing a mirror would be cheap, but I had no idea what all goes into fixing a mirror when it has a camera, needs to be replaced as a unit, requires calibration, requires a new camera, etc. If your furnace is broken in the winter, you probably *want* to get it fixed quickly and badly. Perhaps a better word than want is that I understand the going rate, I know it will help make my family safe (I do have a working camera on the same mirror, but costs are what they are, and I have to replace the entire piece even though in a perfect world I could pay $50 to replace the glass), it will raise the resales value when I do sell it, and it is what it is.

Occasionally clients become fixated on the reality that while the first appointment will provide some value right away, it is mainly about my understanding your situation (and you getting to know me). You won’t walk away cured (as with almost all counseling intakes). Understandably, clients think they “need” a 5 pm or weekend slot (those fill up fast but may be available). You also have to ask yourself if you’d make the exact demands of your dentist or family doctor. Granted, those appointments are typically less frequent, but couples who want to make things last and can “only come after five because they both work” can find the time if they really want to. It’s also important to realize that healing isn’t linear. Some sessions may bring out things that at least temporarily set you back. You may have two sessions in a row, go home and fight about them, and only start to get better after the third. There is a chance that some evidence-based techniques don’t work well for you, but we don’t know until we try. Sometimes things stay somewhat stagnant for a while until there is a breakthrough.

  1. Do Your Homework

I know that people are busy. But seeing a therapist as often as once a week and then completely returning to your old patterns may not do much. It’s like if you go to a personal trainer, do a few exercises, learn more to do at home, and then go home and ignore the exercises, drink a six-pack of beer and eat a medium pizza.

Most “homework” is not designed to take more than a few extra minutes a day. Much of it isn’t intended to take more time at all. Your homework may be as simple as starting to kiss each other goodnight if that used to work for you, but you’ve stopped. On the other hand, it may save you time by having you practice better communication techniques the next time you feel an argument coming on. It’s mostly trying to change negative interaction patterns during moments where they naturally appear.

  1. Balance Trusting and Listening to Your Therapist (first) with Expressing Feedback if Something Really Isn’t Working

Counselors are the experts when it comes to relationships, but you are the experts when it comes to your life. Something that works for most couples may not work for you. A good counselor will appreciate you telling them something isn’t resonating with you, provided you have given it your best attitude and effort, and it just didn’t work.

  1. Communicate Issues, Changes, or New Plans

The secure portal is a great place to communicate certain things that may come up. While not designed to bash your partner or look for extensive help, it can be a good tool to communicate issues. Phone calls are welcome as well. For example, if you find out your partner can’t make a session, but you plan to attend, communicating that can give you a much better session by allowing me to prepare just to see you (as well as saving me a lot of time in thinking I’m going to see both of you).

Completing intake forms on time allows me to understand your needs upfront and possibly prepare or change plans. A new policy is that couples who don’t complete the intake forms at least 24 hours in advance will be contacted to reschedule. This is for both of our benefits. I get a good sense of how therapy will go, such as whether couples complete forms or assessments on time, whether I have to remind them (my least favorite work task and one I’m moving away from) and how well they communicate any changes in plans.

  1. See Your Role in Relationship Problems

While affairs may be an exception where we don’t start by blaming the betrayed partner at all, in most cases, it takes two to tango. If you aren’t open to hearing your partner’s perspective, looking at what you can do (it’s much easier to change yourself), and taking constructive feedback from your therapist, you may not do well. While narcissism is a much over-diagnosed and used term, this behavior may be a sign of narcissistic tendencies that need to go away if you are to have healthy relationships with anyone. If you are reading this and saying “it’s 100% my partner’s fault (outside if there has been a recent affair), I would recommend individual counseling with a specialist to see if you are a narcissist. Narcissists typically can’t see or at least admit to any personal fault for major or often minor issues.

  1. Have Realistic Expectations for What a Healthy Long-Term Relationship Looks Like

Some couples come in saying they love their partner but are not “in love” at the first sign of a problem. Some have just not been in a relationship long enough to realize that the honeymoon phase eventually wears off. Rekindling those “in love” feelings is possible, and those feelings are perfectly normal through various relationship stages. Suppose you have visions on a Cinderella happily-ever-after relationship. In that case, you probably want to learn more about relationship stages and accept that this is not reality (despite what the media may tell us or portray).

  1. Be Respectful to your Therapist

This may seem self-serving, and most clients are highly respectful, but those who show blatant disrespect are almost destined to give up or fail. If I’m not the right counselor for you after giving it a few sessions, by all means, look for someone who is. I will even help you find a better fit if you’d like. As stated above, feedback is essential, but immediately reacting with negativity without even trying suggestions is usually unhealthy. While every step is taken to avoid bias, even in the case of blatant disrespect, it is possible that prolonged such behavior could lead to an unintended bias that prevents me from doing my best to help you. I may need to refer you elsewhere. Remember that counselors are generally among the lowest paid with a master’s degree plus face considerable secondary trauma due to seeing many people at their all-time worst for most of every working day. They have almost always gone into the profession intending to help people. This is also a red flag because if you are seeking help and you disrespect someone trying to help you, how do you treat everybody else? You may not even realize how you may come across to some people.

  1. Realize the Most Important Decisions are Up to You (but you’ll get guidance)

Some clients walk into couples therapy and want me to tell them what to do with their relationship. For example, they may ask me if they should get a divorce. While I can talk about what is generally healthy and what I see with other similar couples, something as serious as a potential divorce is your (and maybe your kids) life, and you will live with the consequences. Healthy couples don’t fall into the somewhat familiar pattern of preferring that someone else make a decision (even if it’s wrong) to feel the pressure, stress, and potential guilt of making the final decision on their own. Additionally, see ten additional ways to get the most out of marriage counseling.