How do I get the most out of couples counseling? Making the decision to invest in your relationship by embarking upon the journey of couples counseling is a huge step towards healing. By making the decision to allow a neutral party into the private space of your most intimate relationship, you are agreeing to examine your relationship from another perspective. This document is designed to help you get the most benefit from our work together.
In couples counseling, both the clients, and the couples counselor have jobs to do. Your job is to create your own individual objectives for being in couples counseling. Like a good coach, my job is to help you reach them. I have many, many tools to help you become a more effective partner — and my tools work best when you are clear about how you aspire to be. My goal is to help each of you not only better understand yourself and your needs, but to make better adjustments and responses to each other without violating your core values or deeply-held principles.
Goals of Couples Counseling: The overall goal of counseling is to improve your relationship in ways meaningful to you. To do this, you must increase your knowledge about yourself, your partner and the patterns of interaction between you. Counseling becomes effective as you apply the new knowledge to break ineffective patterns and develop more useful ones. A couple’s vision emerges from a process of reflection and inquiry. A shared vision requires both people to be vulnerable and truly speak from the heart about what really matters to them. The more thoughtful, candid and open to dialogue the easier this task will be.
Your initial tasks will be to increase your clarity about:
- The kind of life you want to build together
- The kind of life your partner wants to build together
- The needs of your partner
- The kind of partner you aspire to be in order to build the kind of life you want together
- Your individual blocks to becoming the kind of partner you aspire to be
- The skills and knowledge necessary to reach your goals
To create and sustain improvement in your relationship requires:
- A vision of the life you want to build together and individually
- The appropriate attitudes and skills to work as a team
- The motivation to persist
- The vulnerability to self-reflect and be open to growing
- Sustained effort
- Time and energy to reflect on progress and make adjustments as necessary
Tradeoffs To successfully grow and develop the relationship you really desire, you can expect some challenging tradeoffs and hard choices for each of you to make. Here are a few tradeoffs you should expect.
Time Investment It simply takes time to create a relationship that flourishes, time to be together, play, coordinate, nurture, relax, hang out, plan, etc. The time you devote to healing your relationship will be time stolen from elsewhere, perhaps from other important and valuable areas of your life — your children, your family of origin, your social time, your professional time, and your personal time.
Discomfort Expect emotional discomfort, as it is always part of the growth process. In couples counseling you will try novel ways of thinking, feeling, sensing, experiencing and behaving, like listening, being curious, validating and empathetic instead of interrupting your partner, arguing, or fixing your partner. Your new job will be to step into your partner’s world and experience the world from his or her perspective. Additionally your new job will be to speak up as opposed to becoming resentfully compliant or withdrawing. Your partner needs you to stay true to yourself as you step into his or her world and be there for him or her. Your growth depends on your willingness to tolerate this discomfort.
Expending Energy Emotional growth simply takes effort to sustain improvement over time. You will need to be intentional about your relationship. Healthy relationships require effort to remember to be true to self, articulate about ones owns needs, desires and wants along with more respectful emotions and actions, more giving, more kindness, more support, more appreciations, more trust etc. Placing the relationship on autopilot, for prolonged periods of time does not work. Healthy relationships require energy.
Getting the Most from Your Couples Counseling Sessions By following these suggestions, you can make the best use of your time in Counseling. For many clients, it’s useful to approach each session as you would an important business meeting. That means arriving on time and arriving prepared.
There are several mistakes people often make in couples counseling.
- The first is showing up without a plan. This is when one of you asks “what do you want to talk about today” and the other says “I don’t know. What do you want to talk about?” While this blank slate approach may open some interesting doors, it is a hit or miss process.
- The second is the stream-of-consciousness approach. This happens when the focus of the session is on whatever happens to be on your mind at that moment. Again, while such discussions can be interesting, they may not be the best use of your time.
- The third is discussing the fight of the moment or the fight you had since the last session. Discussing these fights without also discussing what you wish to learn from them is often an exercise in spinning your wheels.
- The fourth is only focusing on the relationship in the counseling session. To get the most out of your sessions you should hold yourself to task to incorporate your “findings” from session. Progress is dependent upon your willingness to do something with your insights. This might look like taking an emotional or behavioral risk. Some risks will work out better than others. The benefit to working with a counselor is that you have someone guiding your progress. You are not in this alone.
- The fifth is staying with a counselor that isn’t a good fit for you. Not all couples counselors are created equally. Some are a better fit for you than others.
Here is a more useful approach to your sessions. Before every meeting, both of you should:
- Reflect on your learnings from the previous session and where you are at with your goals for being in couples counseling
- Think about the next step you want to take to get closer to reaching your goals
- Be ready to discuss the outcome of your completed homework
- Explore in a journal your thoughts, feelings and experiences. Specifically in the journal track your insights and action steps.
- Give Your Success a Chance
Healthy Relationships Takes Two The blunt reality is that couples counseling requires time, patience, effort, and commitment from both partners. In an interdependent relationship these investments must be made by both to achieve and sustain improvement. It is much like intercourse: one person cannot do most of the work all of the time and expect to create ongoing exceptional sex for both people. Healthy sexuality is a shared experience that requires an investment from both people.
Embrace Change When it comes to improving your relationship, expecting and accepting change will take you far. While change can be scary, it is only through change that you can reach your goals. After all, what you’ve been doing has not been working for you, or else you would not be in couples counseling. It’s time to try something new.
Improve Your Relationship by Improving Yourself It is typical for clients to begin therapy with the goal of changing their partners. You may think “if only she would stop doing ____” or “if only he would start doing ____ then everything would be fine.” Unfortunately, this never works. You are in control of only one person: yourself. If you want to have a better partner, you need to be a better partner. You can’t change your partner. Your partner can’t change you. You can influence each other, but you can’t change each other. Becoming a more effective partner is the most efficient way to change a relationship.
Things to Think About Finally, in this section I’ve included some things for you to think about. These ideas may help you better understand your problem, provide you with language to help you discuss your problem, or help you articulate your goals.
Getting Real, Marriages (and businesses) fail for the same 4 reasons. A failure to:
- Learn from the past
- Adapt to changing conditions
- Asking for help
- Predict probable future problems and take preventative action
Can you legitimately expect your partner to treat you better than you treat him/her?
The possibility exists that we choose partners we need but don’t necessarily want.
If you want to create a win-win solution, you cannot hold a position that has caused your partner to lose in the past.
If you know you are stuck, you need to be willing to ask for help. Two heads sometimes work better than one!
Effective change requires insight, emotional risk and behavioral changes. Behavioral changes without insight is thoughtless, Insight without behavioral changes is passive. Willingness to exam self and try something different requires emotional risk. In life, there are no guarantees.
Everything you do works for some part of you, even if other parts of you don’t like it.
The hardest part of couples counseling is accepting that each of you will need to improve your response(s) to a problem (how you think about it, feel about it, or what to do about it). From our experience, most people struggle with improving their response to a situation because it is much safer to focus on why and how your partner is to blame and needs to change. Understanding your role in the situation and accepting responsibility for yourself is far more challenging.
Feeling in love, acting kindly, considerately and lovingly towards your partner when you are in a beautiful, relaxing setting and you have no pressures placed on you. When you are feeling tired, run down and your partner is blaming you for how the two of you got into this mess is when the relationship started to get tested. This situation tests your flexibility, leadership and overall character. At this juncture, you can join in on the blame game, or you can hang onto yourself and become how you aspire to become. Strengthening your relationship through the bad times and good times required sustained effort. The sustained effort stems from a desire to:
- Avoid pain or discomfort
- Experience the rewards that a specific behavior offers
- Become a better person
- Honor your commitments
The possibility exists that you have some flawed assumptions about your partner’s motives, and that he/she has some flawed assumptions about yours. Check out your assumptions.
We are all responsible for how we express ourselves, no matter how others treat us.
Your partner is quite limited in his/her ability to respond to you. You are quite limited in your ability to respond to your partner. Accepting that is a huge step into maturity.
The three most important qualities for effective communication are respect, openness and persistence.
It is essential for you to let your partner know what you think, feel and are concerned about. Partners can’t appreciate what they don’t understand, and people cannot read each other’s minds.
Most of the ineffective things we do in relationships fall into just a few categories:
- Blame or attempt to dominate
- Disengage / withdraw
- Become resentfully compliant
- Denial or confusion
Effective communication means paying attention to:
- Creating a safe space for your partner to be fully present
- Managing unruly emotions, such as intense anger
- How you are communicating — whining, blaming, being vague, etc.
- What you want from your partner during the discussion
- What the problem symbolizes to you
- An open mind that others may react differently to the same set of circumstances
- The outcome you want from the discussion
- Your partner’s major concerns
- Articulating your needs and helping your partner become more responsive to you
- Identifying your beliefs and attitudes you have about the problem as well as your partners
- The idea that both of you may “be right” simply because you are different people