Great strides have been made in couples counseling in the past 30 years. We now have research and theories about adult love that we did not have in years past. Most marriage counseling prior to the 1980’s focused either on negotiating the relationship (I’ll do this if you’ll do that) or helping couples develop communication skills such as active listening. Therapies that stressed improving behaviors or practicing good communication skills did not last outside the therapist’s office. Their “tools in the toolbox” got rusty or couldn’t be found when partners became flooded with negative feelings. Many would not go back and try again.
Some people say marriage counseling saved them from the brink of divorce while others say it was a waste of time and money. Magazines, newspapers and the internet reveal a wide range of opinions about the effectiveness of couple’s counseling. So, it makes sense to ask, “Why is the experience worthwhile for some and not others?”
The success of couple’s counseling depends on several factors: the goals of the couple, the type of counseling offered by the therapist and the expertise of the counselor. As with any service contract, those seeking couples counseling should be informed. Couples should consider the benefits and risks of this investment of time, money and emotional energy. This includes asking hard questions for yourself, your spouse and your therapist.
Your Goals For Counseling
Generally both partners experience some dissatisfaction in their marriage prior to therapy. Both may make that obvious, or one may talk about their distress more than the other. They usually want to make their marriage work, but find themselves unable to share their point of view or may feel incapable of satisfying their spouse’s needs.
They argue about little things. No matter what the topic, they get stuck in patterns of behaviors and verbal attacks that never seem to go anywhere. When each accept some responsibility for the problem, they are more optimistic about building a loving connection again. Perhaps, they will be able to emotionally bond for the very first time.
But not all folks enter with such openness to personal change. Their main goal is to fix their spouse. Still, an effective marriage counselor can explore individual concerns and help both partners better understand the dynamics of their relationship. Soon they will see the interplay of what they do and feel in a distressing moment. They discover what it will take to build lasting change, as well.
At times, the couple has differing goals for the counseling. For example, one person is completely out of the relationship, and the other wants to hold on. There is not much a therapist can do if one person wants to heal the relationship, and the other is simply determined to end it in front of a witness.
Perhaps one partner wants an exclusive marriage and the other seeks multiple sexual relationships. Conflicting values can be a deal breaker if the spouses cannot come to an agreement. If one partner is encouraged to compromises their values, that person has to clarify those values, share them with their spouse, and live consistent with their beliefs.
If counseling is not going to be helpful, this usually surfaces early in therapy. Still, counseling can be worthwhile if the parties clarify their goals and have a greater understanding of what went wrong. The individuals are wise not to repeat negative patterns of behavior in a future relationship.
If one spouse is not sure if they want to maintain the marriage, it is not necessarily the end of the relationship. Lack of clarity on any life concern is often a main reason why people seek other types of counseling, as well. Personal values and goals can be explored.
Other people outside the marriage are affected by your choices. Children, parents, extended family, and spiritual community and even the workplace are affected. Children, at any age, often suffer the consequences of an unstable home life and are more likely to develop relational difficulties of their own if they lack good modeling from their parents. The best gift children receive is the model of a healthy marriage.
Affairs, and other situations in which trust has been broken, can be worked through, though the process is usually slowed down to secure a safe, loving connection. In relationships where addictions or domestic violence is present, individual therapy may be in order before couples therapy begins in earnest. Thankfully, there is hope for even the most troubling situations.
The Approach of the Counselor
Clients often do not understand that counselors differ in their philosophies and ways of conducting therapy. Consider your choice of counselor carefully. Engage a counselor sharing views of marriage consistent with your values. Any therapist should be able to tell you about their approach to the process.
Unfortunately, some people let insurance make the decision about who they see for counseling. Unless you have to use your insurance, this should not be the sole reason for selecting a practitioner. Some therapists who take insurance are wonderful marriage counselors. Others are generalists who may have great training in working with children, for example, but very little experience working with couples. If you want to use insurance benefits, thoroughly interview a potential counselor, and ask about their approach to marriage counseling , what training they have, and how they judge the effectiveness of their counseling.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy
This approach to marriage counseling was developed by Dr. Susan Johnson in the early 1980’s. She now directs the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) in Ottowa, Canada. Sue, and fellow EFT certified therapists have trained thousands of counselors, psychologists, social workers, and marriage and family therapists all over the world. The approach has been studied for over 25 years and touts a 73% cure rate. Additionally, 90% of couples felt it improved their relationship. That is amazing!! There is a science to support what Sue has said for years, “At last we have a road map for working with couples.”
EFT is based on the idea that couples develop patterns of behaviors, emotions and automatic thoughts that contribute to both their individual difficulties and their relational problems. It can easily be checked out on line at; www.HoldMeTight.net. Here, you can read an excerpt and watch a video about the approach that helps couples learn what happens when they are not getting along. Once they recognize their pattern, they can experience in session what it is like to have a more secure bond.
In several studies, couples who have worked with an EFT therapist have been called two years from the end of their work with a therapist and asked about their current relationship. Most say they are doing even better than when they completed their counseling! This gives great hope that folks who use an EFT trained therapist for their marriage counseling has, and can, save marriages.
Why the focus on emotion? Of course EFT takes into consideration our behaviors and our thoughts. But studies show that most people marry and divorce for emotional reasons. How many of us end up saying things in the heat of a moment that is not what we really wanted to say? So, it makes sense to focus on the important roll that feelings play in our most significant relationship. This EFT map helps us discover the intersection of how we behave in an argument, what might be our underlying thinking and what emotions may trigger a pattern of interacting that feels like a dragon at our door. When couples fight the dragon together, they stand a much better chance of building a lifetime of love and connectedness.
My Personal Experience with EFT and Couples
I first heard about EFT in my undergraduate program at Covenant Theological Seminary. This approach is consistent with my values and perceptions about adult attachment and knowledge of how people build stronger connections. I also appreciate the fact that it has strong research to support its effectiveness.
I have completed advanced, professional training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. This has greatly encouraged me that marriage counseling can help most struggling couples build great relationships.
It is great when couples see their need for counseling in the first year together and seek to head potential problems off at the start of their marriage.Some unfortunately wait 20 or more years living like distant room mates before they call. But even long term marital struggles can improve when the couple commits to relationship counseling.
You might ask, “What if my partner won’t come with me?” Have no fear. If you look at a relationship like a dance, when one partner changes his/her steps the other has to do something differently, as well. Do not underestimate what you can do in individual counseling to change your relational dance.
It saddens me that relationships have failed because some couples believed their problems would magically go away by themselves. Your relationship is not likely to improve on its own. Whether you are newly married or married for many years, there is hope. Couples can begin to send clear emotional signals to each other as they shape the dance of loving connection we all desire. If this is your hearts desire, I would love to work with you, as well.