Although there is less stigma associated with mental health counseling than there used to be, there are still areas of ignorance and misunderstanding.  For example, many folks believe that marriage counseling is simply to help couples who are having marital problems fix their relationships.

Indeed, many seek marriage counseling because they are having difficulties with their relationships and want to improve them. Therefore, it is understandable that some people think of marriage counseling as tilted toward keeping a couple together and see it as being a relational repair shop.  While true in many instances,  that is not the only function that marriage counseling serves.

Sometimes, when marriages are in crisis, individuals and couples aren’t clear about what to do. They wonder (often without a clear understanding of their issues) if their relational problems are so severe that it’s better to just end it all.   Many don’t realize that marriage counseling can be a helpful resource to help them clarify their situation. Specifically, marriage counseling for confused couples can help couples to Assess the nature and severity of their problem, Explore options in detail and Come to a reasoned and well thought out decision about what to do going forward.

The Nature and Causes of the Problem Just like when a person goes to their medical doctor, they may know where it hurts but they may not understand where the pain is coming from. As with physical ailments, relationships can experience “referred pain.”  , i.e. pain which may appear to be located in one place but actually originates from another.   A marriage therapist can help to identify and diagnose environmental, individual and relational factors that contribute to the couple’s dilemmas .

A Wider Perspective Many therapies (individual, conjoint or family) provide increased and a wider understanding about the nature and context of one’s troubles. This is especially useful in marital work.  Initially, it is common for individuals to blame their partner for causing the problem. By looking at each individuals history, both parties can learn how trauma and distorted reaction patterns from the past often interfere with each person’s ability to perceive and respond reasonably in the present.

In addition to gaining information about the source of the marital problem, couples can explore:

Options, Implications and Changes With increased understanding and raised awareness, couples can discover other options (e.g. trial separation. exploratory counseling, individual counseling etc.) which they hadn’t been aware of before. Likewise, they can look at the consequences and implications of the various paths and evaluate the cost and benefits that changes and adjustments each choice would involve.  In going through this process, couples can more calmly reveal the strength or weakness of their love and commitment they have for each other as each discovers what path is best for him or herself.

When a decision is made to work on preserving and improving the marriage, couples will understand, specifically,  the  work that needs to be done to resolve their conflicts and have a mutually satisfying partnership.  Sometimes, changes will  have to be made with environmental  issues such finances , jobs or time commitments. On occasion, changes will involve  resolving psychological or medical problems in one or both partners.  And often the changes will have to do with relational issues  and the way the couple communicates , copes with frustration and anger as well as how they relate to one another and deal with conflicts or differences.

For some, the increased learning leads to a dramatic and mutual change of heart and a commitment to work on the needed areas. Sometimes couples don’t come to the same conclusion.  However, even in these difficult situations where one partner wants to work on the marriage while the other choses divorce, both will be better able to deal with how to proceed having learned important aspects of their situation. In either outcome, couples come away much less confused and  with a greater sense of clarity about their future with one another.

One final note. Sometimes people come to a counselor expecting to be told what they should do. This is an understandable but false expectation.  Only in the most extreme cases of physical or emotional violence would the therapist attempt to direct or impose a course of action on the couple. It has been my experience over the past forty-two years  that, when given a calm and reasonable place to examine their troubles, couples discover a remarkable resilience which enables them to choose what is best for them.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC , Fellow AAPC    5 29 2019

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