Does it feel like marriage counseling is doing more harm than good?
Or maybe you’re about to start counseling, and you want the fastest, best results possible...
Whether you're preparing for your first counseling session or frustrated after your 10th, in this article, you’ll learn how to improve your relationship more during counseling, including:
Studies show that when both spouses are motivated to go to marriage counseling and they stick with it, the relationship is very likely to improve.
This means marriage counseling doesn’t work very well as a last resort when divorce is already on the table, but it is an effective tool for couples who know they need help.
By the time you finish reading this post, you’ll feel inspired to commit to marriage counseling, and you’ll know exactly how to get the most relationship improvement possible from each counseling session.
Two Big Goals Every Couple Should Have During Counseling
These goals are not dependent on your spouse. In other words, you can aim for both of these goals even if your wife doesn’t, and it WILL help you get more out of counseling.
However, much like the Mutual Love Matrix we talk about in Manly Marriage Revival, the real magic comes when both spouses participate in these goals. Ideally, you and your wife will both adopt these goals as you go into couple’s counseling.
We all tend to pay more attention to our own strengths than our weaknesses, and more attention to our spouses weaknesses than their strengths. These two goals enable you to see your own weaknesses more clearly, as well as your spouse’s strengths.
Goal #1. Improve Yourself
You are your own responsibility. Your feelings, your words, your actions, your self-care (counseling buzzword!)... These are all things that YOU are responsible for.
Go into counseling wanting to change something about yourself.
You can only control yourself. It is not your spouse’s job to fix your problems, and it is not your responsibility to fix theirs.
Too many couples go into counseling assuming that their spouse needs to change more than they do. They think, “Finally this counselor can tell my spouse to do what I’ve been saying all this time! They’ll have to listen to them!”
If your mindset is that your spouse needs to change and you’re already doing everything right, then counseling will be a frustrating disappointment.
Personally speaking, one of the biggest reasons I think I benefited from counseling was because I KNEW that I was out of my league with my wife’s postpartum depression. I KNEW that what I was doing wasn’t helping, and I genuinely wanted to change.
Goal #2. Understand Your Spouse
Let your spouse be in charge of their own self-improvement during counseling.
Instead of changing your spouse, your goal is to UNDERSTAND your spouse.
These are just a few examples of the things you should seek to understand about your spouse through counseling.
The reason that this is so powerful is that when you develop a deeper understanding of your spouse, you naturally like them more AND you are naturally more graceful with them.
Drawing on a real-life example, my wife and I’s counselor helped us both understand what the other spouse feels from their perspective when conflict is happening in the marriage. Without going into too much detail (maybe in another post), I learned that during a conflict it is easy for my wife to feel inferior, which is what makes her defensive. My wife learned that during a conflict it is common for me to feel rejected and unwanted, which can cause me to retreat inward and shut down or become apathetic. These are the built-in responses to conflict that we've both carried with us from childhood.
As my wife and I developed a deeper understanding of the other, it allowed us to consciously work around our natural responses when we feel fearful or hurt, which in turn helped us be more encouraging and supportive of the other.
Now, as I said, both of these goals depend on YOU having an open mind and engaging in counseling. When both you and your spouse are dedicated to improving yourselves individually and understanding your partner, the relationship almost can’t help but improve.
9 Quick Tips To Get More Out Of Marriage Counseling
With those first two goals in place, let's look at some more general advice to help you and your spouse both get the most out of marriage counseling.
#1. Commit to a “Marriage Comes First” Timeline
Remember that the purpose of counseling is not to trick you into staying in a relationship you don’t want to be in.
If couples counseling works, you will enjoy a more fulfilling, more loving and overall happier relationship. But, if you go into it assuming that it won’t work, or if you're only doing it so that you can say that you "tried", then save your money. You will get nothing from counseling.
This is especially important when one spouse or the other is considering divorce. Table the divorce discussion, and table it in your mind too. A couple with divided motives will rarely benefit from counseling.
By humbling yourselves and putting the marriage as your top priority, you greatly increase your chances of a satisfying marriage during and after counseling.
If one spouse is leaning towards divorce, they need to honestly ask themselves, “If I knew this marriage could make me happy, would I be willing to put in the effort to get there?”
How much effort will it take? Well, that’s exactly why we’re setting a timeline. By setting a clear “marriage comes first” timeline, you know the maximum amount of time you are committing to work on the marriage.
Here’s what we know:
When both spouses want to improve the marriage, then good marriage counseling is very likely to help the couple improve the relationship over time.
What exactly does it mean to put the marriage first?
It means that in YOUR priorities, your marriage and your spouse are above yourself. And for your spouse, the marriage and you are above themselves. When both of you humble yourselves and put the marriage as your top priority, you greatly, greatly increase the odds of a satisfying marriage during and after counseling.
#2. Make Sure You’re Seeing the Right Counselor FOR YOU
Perhaps the two most important factors that influence marriage counseling’s effectiveness are (A) the motivation of the couple and (B) the quality of the counselor.
I remember when I was doing my research on marriage counseling, one of the most surprising statistics was that at any given time, half of all couples counselors would describe themselves as burnt out and unable to put their best foot forward for their clients.
If you followed the first tip, then your motivation as a couple is taken care of. You are committed to putting the marriage first during counseling.
Now, you need to make sure you find a good counselor that you and your wife can both trust.
Fortunately, I’ve already written an in-depth guide to finding a good marriage counselor, so if you need some help, read below:
RECOMMENDED: How To Find A Good Marriage Counselor
#3. Accept That What You Think About Your Spouse Might Be Wrong
It’s easy to get more caught up in assigning blame than fixing problems. This is one of the key things we talk about in my pay-what-you-want guide, 10 Steps to Gain Husbandly Leadership.
Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt during counseling. With an open mind, you will learn new things to appreciate about your spouse and how they feel, even if you've been married for decades.
Most couples are in some kind of rut when they start counseling. Not just in actions, but in thoughts. You probably have the same thoughts about your spouse or the marriage over and over again… A repeating dialogue about what’s wrong.
As you go through counseling, you will need to identify your own internal rut, and break out of it. What you think about your spouse or about the marriage might be wrong. This goes both ways; you might think that something is good when it’s in fact bad, or that something is bad when it’s in fact good (or at least not as bad as you thought).
We all tend to pay more attention to our own strengths than our weaknesses, and more attention to our spouses weaknesses than their strengths. In counseling, try to learn to see your own weaknesses more clearly, as well as your spouse’s strengths.
#4. Be Wary When YOU Point Fingers
When you find yourself casting blame for why counseling isn’t working, that’s when it’s most important to look inward.
Maybe you blame your counselor…
Or maybe you blame your wife…
When you point fingers at either your wife or your counselor without taking any responsibility of your own, that is a good sign that you're not seeing the whole picture.
Maybe you’re not even saying the words - maybe you’re just thinking them. For example, one of my wife and I’s struggles when we had our foster son M was that I felt like she was the one making it not work, and internally I blamed her for not trying harder.
What I didn't realize is that my wife genuinely was trying her best and that the situation was much, much harder for her than it was for me. I was being unfair and ungracious in how I thought of my wife. Even though I never said any of those things out loud, she could feel them through my attitude.
The truth is that marriage is hard. Life is hard. Challenges and problems are inevitable. Nobody is perfect. When problems arise, it's not that you have to be permissive, but you can't act like it is unheard of or unforgivable for your spouse to struggle, or like a few flaws makes them a bad person or bad spouse.
Truth without love is brutality. Love without truth is hypocrisy.
-- Warren Wiersbe
Remember the old saying... Truth without love is brutality, but love without truth is hypocrisy. You need both.
Again, we’re speaking in general terms here, and obviously this doesn’t include something like an affair which you really do have to isolate and treat seriously.
The moral is, the more that you blame your wife for whatever it she is going through or struggling with, even if that blame is only being expressed in your thoughts and not your words, the more likely it is that your blame is either unfairly placed or wrongly placed.
#5. Stick With It
It’s completely normal for things to feel worse after the first couple sessions… Keep at it.
Plan to do high frequency at the beginning (weekly) and taper off once things get better. Studies show that more counseling sessions = more likely results.
Couples who stick with counseling for six months get better, longer lasting results than couples who stick with it for three months, and couples who stick with it for a year get better results still.
In one of the studies I looked at – the one with the highest success rate – couples were required to attend 26 counseling sessions over the course of a year. The average number of sessions is 11.5. This study showed that roughly 50% of these couples maintained an improved relationship, even four years after finishing counseling. The researchers postulated that long-term relationship improvement could be even higher if those couples continue to do occasional "booster sessions" with their counselor.
Really, it's just plain common sense. The more time you spend working to improve your marriage - and that isn’t just restricted to counseling - the more likely it is that your marriage will improve.
#6. Look for Patterns in The Relationship & Yourself
Try to figure out what thought patterns or habits lie behind the big or common problems in your marriage.
All relationships go through cycles of satisfaction and discontent. Sometimes, though, the marriage can develop unhealthy patterns.
When you develop a deeper understanding of yourself and your spouse, the hard parts won’t seem as bad and the good parts will seem even better.
It is easy to say to a husband, "you should be kinder," or to a wife, "you should not be so critical."
It's much harder to identify the internal beliefs and feelings that drive the husband to say these mean things to his wife, or the wife to overly criticize the husband. But, those negative thought patterns are there, and once identified, they can usually be changed.
Again, this goes back to the first two goals that we set at the beginning of this article. When you develop a deeper understanding of yourself and your spouse, you will naturally accept both the downswings and the upswings in your relationship… And, with time and diligence, the upswings will last longer in the downswings will be shorter.
#7. Do Your Homework
At some point during most counseling regimens, the counselor will ask the couple to do some form of homework.
- Maybe there will be some recommended reading…
- Maybe you will be asked to fill out a worksheet or a survey…
- Maybe the therapist will give you a personality test or something like that…
Whatever it is, do it, and do it on time. Don't just view it as busywork that you're obligated to do, genuinely pour your heart into whatever homework you are given and complete it to the best of your ability.
Trust that your counselor knows what they are doing, and that they wouldn't ask you to do something that is not worthwhile.
#8. Use Your Counseling Tools
A follow-up to the last tip is to make a conscious effort to use what you learn in counseling at home.
I still remember when my wife and I were doing counseling and we started to get into a pretty intense conflict. Both of us were feeling very hurt and alone, and our arguments weren’t getting us anywhere. In the middle of our argument, we both stopped and looked at each other and I asked her, "Can we do a Heart Talk?" The Heart Talk was something our counselor taught us, basically a system for a couple to express how they feel appropriately and honestly.
My wife nodded her head and we sat down and used what we had learned in counseling. It worked great!
Counseling is useless if you don't take home what you learn. It's easy to be on your A-game during a counseling session, but much harder to actually bring what you learn home and make use of it. But, again, studies show that the couples who actually use what they learn in counseling – surprise, surprise – have a much higher rate of relationship improvement after counseling.
#9. (Optional) If Things Are Rocky, Save Conflicts & “Relationship Talk” For Counseling
This won't apply to everyone and that's why I put it last. Eventually, as we talked about in the last point, you will need to be able to work through your conflicts without the help of your counselor.
However, if your marriage is on the brink of failure, if you and your spouse can't seem to resolve any conflicts on your own, that's okay… It means that you need to save your conflicts for counseling. You and your wife should agree with each other that you will keep the "relationship talk" for counseling, at least for now.
Especially in the beginning, it is perfectly fine to use counseling as a safe place where you and your wife both have the help of a third party to discuss your problems and their possible solutions.
Again, this is optional… Personally, my wife and I loved coming home after a counseling session and talking about what we learned, how we felt about it, what we agreed with and what we disagreed with, questions that we wanted to ask at our next session, all that good stuff. But, our marriage was not in danger, and so we didn't need to keep counseling as the "safe zone" that some couples do.
What To Do If Counseling Doesn't Work?
Sometimes no matter what you do, counseling just seems to make things worse. If you’ve been to several sessions, maybe even tried different counselors, and your marriage is still getting worse, then it’s time to pull back and re-strategize.
Just because marriage counseling doesn’t improve your marriage doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. There are lots of other tools and methods couples have used to successfully improve their marriage, either alone or with the help of their spouse.
If you’d like a good starting point, I suggest reading through this quick guide to my favorite marriage counseling alternatives:
I firmly believe that with the right guidance and motivated persistence from both spouses, 99% of marriages have the capacity to be mutually beneficial and joyful for both spouses. You and your spouse can both learn to love each other; it just might be that counseling is the wrong tool to get you there.
Nonetheless, even if you’ve tried counseling before, if you and your wife fit the bill for marriage counseling success (read this article to find out: Does Marriage Counseling Work? Yes, But...), I encourage you to take what you learned in this article and give counseling another try.
With much manly love,
I'm Stephen, the guy behind Husband Help Haven. I'm not a marriage counselor or a lawyer, I'm just a guy on the Internet who has talked to a loooooot of men going through separation... Over 2,000 in the past 5 years. My goal is to give men the tools they need to save their marriage from separation. Read more here