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We Have Decided to Start Marriage Counseling / Couples Counseling. Now What?


Posted by Michelle Washburn-Busk

If you are past the big hurdle of getting on the same page about going to couples counseling, you are one step closer to strengthening your relationship. Asking for help with something as personal as your marriage or romantic relationship can feel really scary, but feeling prepared can make it easier to hit the ground running when you meet with your couples therapist. Here are some suggestions for steps you can take between now and your first session to feel more mentally prepared and comfortable about moving forward with couples therapy. 

Get Clear on Your “Why” 

You are bound to get more out of couples counseling if you go for your own reasons, not just because someone tells you to or says you “should.” 1, 2 

In fact, the more you can stand behind your reasons for attending counseling, the more positive change you are likely to see, and that change is more likely to be long-lasting and sustainable. 

You might have a few different reasons for choosing to try couples counseling, and some of them might sound more like reasons for someone else (e.g.: your partner wants you to change; you want your partner to change) or something else (e.g.: your reputation or your self-esteem). 

If your only reasons for attending counseling sound like this, it might be more difficult for you to get the results you want: 

  • I want my partner or therapist to think that I am a good person.
  • I don’t want people (my partner; friends; family) to be upset or disappointed in me.
  • I want others to see that I am willing to work at improving our relationship.
  • My partner told me to, and It is easier to do what I’m told than to think about it.
  • Someone is making me, I don’t have a choice.
  • I want the therapist to help my partner understand that they are the problem.

All of these reasons have a couple of things in common: they’re for or about other people, not driven by your own values, or they’re more about avoiding something bad (e.g., disappointment, looking bad, feeling bad, feeling guilty, or like you failed) than pursuing something meaningful (pursuing a better relationship, becoming a better partner, building a happier future with your spouse). 

However, if some of these reasons resonated with you, you’re not alone, and your couples therapy experience (and relationship) isn’t doomed. It’s just important to also have some reasons for attending couples therapy that are intrinsic – something driving you that feels personally meaningful and important. Those might sound something like this:

  • Attending couples therapy is an important choice that I really want to make to strengthen our relationship.
  • I strongly value our relationship and believe that couples therapy gives us a good chance to improve things.1
  • I value working on my romantic relationship – I know it takes hard work, and it wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t try.
  • I know I have room for improvement, and I want help becoming a better partner.

Making a deliberate personal choice to attend couples counseling because it is personally important to you, because you value working on yourself and your relationship, and because you find meaning in the challenge of relationship growth can help get you started off on the right foot.

Marriage is hard work, and consequently, so is marriage counseling. It is wrought with growing pains, difficult feedback, and emotionally exhausting conversations about some of the most sensitive subjects. If you make a personal choice to engage in the process because it is something you strongly value, it will make the toughest of growing pains in the process more endurable. If you only engage in the process for your partner (because they want you to, or gave you an ultimatum), your partner becomes an easy person to blame for how difficult the growing process is, and you might resent them along the way, which might undo some of the hard work and progress you make in counseling.  

Think About Your Wants and Your Worries

Think About Your Wants

Sometimes it’s easier to identify what you don’t want (‘I don’t want to fight anymore”; “I don’t want to feel lonely in my marriage”) than what you do want (“I want to feel connected to my spouse again”; “I want a better sex life with my partner;” “I want to communicate better.”) The more specific you get about what you want and what you are willing to work on, the more ownership you will feel over your change process. Here are some common wants partners share when starting out:

  • “I want to feel like a team when we parent.”
  • “I want to feel understood and understand my partner better”
  • “I want things to feel fair between us”
  • “I want to trust them again” or “I want them to trust me again”
  • “I want to be a better partner – more emotionally available, better at listening, better at sharing my feelings”
Think About Your Worries

There are a lot of misconceptions about what to expect from couples counseling, and it can help calm nerves to talk through things you’re afraid of or worried about. It can also help to know a bit about what to expect from your first session so you don’t feel in the dark about what’s around the corner. 

Convey That This Matters To You

If you have decided to start couples therapy, it can go a long way to show that you are truly invested in healing as a couple. Here are a few simple ways you can show what this means to you:

  • Don’t make your partner your secretary. Be involved in scheduling the first session and keeping track of appointments along the way, rather than one partner being in charge of making sure counseling happens. 
  • Spark up conversations about your therapy sessions outside of therapy if you feel capable of keeping the conversation civil without the therapist. 
  • Ask questions about what your partner feels about therapy.
  • Follow up on things your partner shares in session.

How to Prepare for Couples Counseling /Marriage Counseling

Marriage counseling/couples therapy is a big step for a lot of couples. For many, deciding to seek couples counseling symbolizes that you take your relationship seriously enough to put in the work it needs and deserves. For some, seeking professional help for your relationship can highlight how bad it feels like things have gotten – a painful truth for many to acknowledge. Whatever has brought you to this point, it takes courage to seek help, and we are happy you are here. Feeling prepared to start this process can make it feel more helpful and less stressful. You are likely to feel more prepared if you begin to think about why you are going, what you want out of it, what you are worried about, and if you are willing to show a personal investment in the change process.

References

  1. Sheldon, K. M., Osin, E. N., Gordeeva, T. O., Suchkov, D. D., & Sychev, O. A. (2017). Evaluating the dimensionality of self-determination theory’s relative autonomy continuum. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(9), 1215-1238. 
  1. Zuroff, D. C., Koestner, R., Moskowitz, D. S., McBride, C., Marshall, M., & Bagby, M. R. (2007) Autonomous motivation for therapy: A new common factor in brief treatments for depression. Psychotherapy Research, 17(2), 137-147.