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 couples counsellor with many years of experience saving marriages all over the country, I‘m passionate about demystifying the process and here I 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.
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. 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.
It’s never really about the work clothes on the floor or the dirty dishes in the sink. The real issues are far deeper- 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 your 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 now been building over time.
In marriage counselling therefore, we 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 described below for achieving just that.
It is safe to say that if you have arrived in a couples counsellor’s 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.
Though we might be nodding and looking like we are listening, what we are most likely doing is crafting our response- a response likely laden with defensiveness and all the reasons why the other is 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 so this technique helps 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 ain’t all too flash” at talking about our feelings and emotions.
Frequently, 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? Rightly or wrongly, there are reasons for this that we have to work with to make progress. Simply telling a man who struggles in this department to “open up or else” just doesn’t work and often causes a further retreat. I use a number of techniques to connect with and help the guys (not always and only males, but most often by far) in the room learn that it is safe to open up, and that good things can happen when they allow themselves to take risks and allow themselves to be vulnerable.
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 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 how marriage counselling can help you clear the path and map your way back to each other.
“Where’s the excitement? I didn’t sign up for this! It’s just boring and we never get to have fun like we used 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 Focused 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 than the one that wanders the seas aimlessly hoping to get somewhere.
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.
This article was written by Cameron Wilson, an established couples and relationship counsellor. His down-to-earth and practical approach helps couples get on track and experience better quality of life from their relationship.
Cameron Wilson is an established couples and relationship counsellor based in Bendigo. Cameron also offers telehealth sessions for couples regardless of where they reside. An impactful professional counsellor with many years’ experience working with clients experiencing a broad range of concerns.