The 411 about Marriage Counseling – What it Can and Can’t do. 

Recently, I was really surprised to hear the heated argument on The View about whether marriage counselingactually worked or not. Unfortunately, the discussion didn’t provide much useful information but it did reveal a lot of confusion and unrealistic expectations which exists in the minds of some folks about what marital therapy can accomplish. Specifically, there are two kinds of problems: On one hand, there are those who don’t believe in therapy at all and on the other hand there are those who think marriage counseling is magic and can work miracles.

While research has shown that marriage counseling can be very helpful in resolving many kinds of relational problems, it can’t fix everything. Today we want to promote more realistic expectations by looking at the facts about what marriage counseling can and can’t do.

How is Marriage Counseling Different from Individual Therapy ?
It is helpful to know that all talk therapies are not alike.  In psychotherapy the individual is the center of attention. In marriage counseling, the relationship itself is the focus of concern. Although many folks drag their partners into counseling to get them “fixed”, the key to treatment is to identify and correct problems in the couple’s interaction and not to assign blame to either partner.

What is the key Concept in Marriage Counseling ?
The most important idea to remember about marriage counseling is that: “It takes two to tango.” Relational problems do not occur in a vacuum but are the result of a systemic interaction. If you can change the pattern of interaction, you can resolve the problem.

What Does a Marriage Counselor Do ?
Marital therapists have a wide repertoire of interventions which they use to help couples: Some are common therapy techniques used by many therapists, such as:
1) Listen to and empathize with the couple’s complaint.
2) Explain why the problem has occurred and recommend what needs to be done to fix the problem, change a person’s feelings and reignite love and passion.
3) Teach communication, negotiation and conflict resolution skills.
4) Coach the partners to make more adaptive changes in his/her response to one another.
However, a major aspect of marriage counseling which is different from other counseling is its systemic outlook toward marital problems. Marriage therapists introduce a new outlook and a different way of understanding marital problems. Rather than looking for individual blame, a problem is analyzed and defined in terms of the systemic interaction or how the couple relates to one another. The question is always “What role does each partner play in the problematic relational exchange?

What Kinds of Problems Marriage Counseling Can Help?
Marriage counseling is helpful with many kinds of relational problems such as poor communication, misunderstandings, conflicts,lack of forgiveness and problematic behavior. Research shows, that the best predictor of counseling success, however, are the attitudes held by the couple. If a couple demonstrates the following attitudes, counseling sucess is likely:
1) The couple really wants to be married.
2) Each has a willingness to accept personal responsibility for his/her part of the problem.
3) Each is open minded and willing to consider new points of view and approaches.
4) A genuine and mutual desire to work to solve their problems.
5) A willingness to change.

What Marriage Counseling Can’t Do
Marriage counseling can’t work miracles and it can’t make folks do what they don’t want to do. It is unlikely to be helpful if the couple or one partner :
1) Has waited too long to seek help.
2) Lack sincere motivation.  Some folks come to counseling but really don’t want to be married.
3) Is unwilling to make the effort or is unwilling to change. Wanting to be married is not enough to sustain a marriage. Each partner must be willing to do the work and accept the changes which need to be made.
4) Has already made up his or her mind to divorce.**
5) Has a severe personality disorders or addiction, i.e. when a partner can only blame his/her partner for  all of the problems and is unable to see or take responsibility for his/her role in the relationship.

** However, when both partners are sincerely uncertain about what to do, it is amazing how increased information and understanding can change an angry or discouraged point of view into one of hope.

The remarks were prepared by Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC for Bridge Street  9/12/2011