Your wedding day represented a beautiful union between you and another person. A happy event with lots of celebration. Life as newlyweds seemed wonderful as you and your spouse continued to celebrate each day with each other.
Then, one day, something felt different. Maybe you couldn’t name the feeling or the moment you started noticing something wasn’t right, but you do know that outside help might be needed.
As you start to look for a counselor, you might be wondering what happens in marriage counseling.
Hopefully these 7 frequently asked questions can be helpful as you make your decision.
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7 Frequently Asked Questions about What Happens in Marriage Counseling
1) How Does Marriage Counseling Work?
Every therapist is different and they each have their own unique way of working with married couples. However, some things are usually the same regardless, so we will look at what is typical. After you reach out to a therapist about counseling, you decide on a time that works for your schedule, then you and your spouse have an initial session with the therapist.
There will be a disclosure that you and your spouse will sign and some type of intake form that will vary based on the therapist you are seeing.
As a married couple, the therapist will recognize you as an individual client instead of two individual clients, but will still be curious about your past before marriage and the family system you came from. The therapist may do a family genogram with both you and your spouse (a timeline of events that have led up to your request for counseling), or use another assessment tool to get a better understanding of who you are or where you have been as individuals before or during marriage.
One assessment tool featured in the book, Essential Assessment Skills for Couple and Family Therapists is called the Eight C’s for Couple Functioning and Assessment. A therapist will look for these 8 things featured below when assessing couples who come in for counseling. They will also ask about the shared problem that is bringing you and your spouse so that goals can start to be established.
Eight C’s For Couple Functioning And Assessment
- Conflict Resolution
- Caring and Cohesion
Many things will happen during the first session together, so it may take a few visits to feel connected with the therapist. At any time during your session with the therapist, it is always encouraged that you share your experience with your spouse and the therapist so that a safe space can exist for everyone.
2) Should We Get Counseling Even If We Are Getting Along?
Yes, definitely. You are not alone if you are unsure of the reasons why counseling could be a benefit to you and your spouse when everything in your marriage is going well. People will often think that they should only go see a counselor when something in their life feels broken, but that is not the case at all when it comes to deciding if counseling would be something rewarding for you and your spouse.
You can think about marriage counseling in a similar way to going to the doctor for preventative care. You check in every few years to make sure you are still healthy and get tools to remain healthy as you age. Marriage counseling prepares you for the aging process in your marriage and gives you information about how to remain intact and functioning.
John Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, talks about a concept called the “Love Map.” The Love Map is a term that Gottman uses for the part of the brain where people store important information about their spouse, such as their favorite dessert, their true feelings about someone else, or who their best friend is. The book says “They know each other’s life goals, worries, and hopes.” In marriage, there are moments where you feel confident in knowing more about your spouse than anyone else, and it is in those moments that connection happens.
It is also said in Gottman’s book, “From knowledge springs not only love but the fortitude to weather marital storms. Couples who have detailed love maps of each other’s world are far better prepared to cope with stressful events and conflict.”
It is much easier for couples to make it through tough times when they already have a full love map with knowledge about their spouse and the strength that comes from that knowledge.
When building your love map in times where your marriage is going well, you will have the tools you need to remain strong when a problem may arise.
3) Can We Really Share What Is Happening In Our Marriage?
I can imagine how strange it must feel to think about going into a room with your spouse to talk with someone you just met about all of your personal business. You might be worried about the confidentiality of the therapist.
Therapists are legally bound by law to keep your information safe and secure, except for during a few exceptions (abuse happening to someone within a vulnerable population of people, threat to hurt yourself, or threat to hurt someone else).
Maybe you are concerned about the reaction of the therapist, thinking that they may judge you or your spouse when you share your story.
What happens in marriage counseling is very much the same as what happens in individual or family therapy. The therapist takes a non-judgmental stance and supports the client (remember, in this case, the married couple is the client) through their struggles.
When there are two people in the room sharing their feelings and concerns, it is best to have a therapist who is experienced in listening to multiple versions of the same thing and is comfortable remaining neutral. If you feel like you are unable to share freely in session, possibly bring it up the next time you are all together and discuss your feelings around your experience.
4) Will I Get Help For Some Of the Things I Am Dealing With Individually?
You and your spouse have chosen to go in to see a marriage therapist, but you both also have your own history of things that you have struggled with or continue to struggle with and you are wondering if either of you will be able to address those concerns. The answer is, “it depends.”
Most things that people bring to the marriage can be addressed during sessions together since now that the couple is “one” the symptoms are present within the marriage and not just the individuals. It is beneficial for each spouse to gain understanding around how different areas of their own life cause certain emotional responses from the other spouse.
By working on this together in session they can reach a place in their marriage where they are able to use the tools they have learned to work through different scenarios at home. There are some things that one spouse may need individual attention for, and depending on the subject, the spouse may need to see a different therapist for their needs.
Often times the therapist works hard at treating the couple as a unit and not as individuals and seeing the problem as belonging to both people in the marriage, but when one spouse comes in to see the therapist on their own it can cause the other spouse to feel like they are now outside of the therapeutic relationship, especially when there were extreme reasons for them to come in to begin with.
This is when the therapist would most likely recommend the spouse see someone else for individual therapy. There are other times where the marriage is healthy and functioning and the therapist may allow the one spouse to come in and work on an issue that needs a little more one-on-one work, such as trauma that has happened outside of the marriage or an eating disorder. Clear rules would be set up about information that is shared that pertains to the marriage and both spouses would state that they understood.
The main goal is to make sure that the client (the marriage) feels safe with the therapist so that healing can take place, and most times seeing one spouse from the marriage can rupture the relationship that has been built, so it is best to seek out a therapist who can work with you individually.
5) Are We Going To Get Work To Do At Home?
Homework is definitely helpful for the therapeutic process, so there is a possibility that the therapist will send home something for the couple to complete and bring back the next week. You can get the most out of what you have learned by trying it out at home in real life scenarios.
Homework is something that therapists who use EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) and the Gottman method give out frequently. Homework can feel challenging because some of the answers may bring up very different emotions, but the goal is to work through those emotions and grow within the marriage.
Seeing how couples work through issues together is also helpful for the therapist, as it provides a window into what may be keeping the problem going. Many therapists will work through activities in session as well. Both ways of getting the couples to dig deeper into their own ideas, emotions, and reactions are powerful tools to create awareness and change.
An example of what you might be given as homework can be found below:
How Does Your Garden Grow? (Part 1)
(Activity with handouts and homework)
Objective: To enhance a couple’s emotional awareness psychoeducation around couple style, provide a metaphor explaining the need for ongoing evaluation within the marriage, and awareness of interaction style and emotional components of the relationship.
Use: This is intended to be used with couples who are in a committed relationship and trying to increase communication and intensity of intimacy.
Instructions: Plant seeds (list of materials will be given)
Activity: The therapist will provide a spoon for the couples to use to dig out the soil, but the couple can choose on what they would like to use to dig out the soil that represents their marriage.
Questions the therapist could ask: Like the seed, what do you need to grow? What in your life is sunlight? What in your life is water?
6) Can going to counseling make things worse for my spouse and I?
Counseling can bring up feelings that you might have never felt before or have forgotten about until the moment you are are expressing them in session. It could seem like since you came into session without a defined problem that counseling is making things worse, but really, you are opening up the opportunity to work through your emotional response to moments that may otherwise cause conflict to grow in your marriage.
It can be extremely scary at first to have so many new things come up, but with the safety that has been created in the room between you, your spouse, and the therapist, you should begin to feel more equipped to handle the situations that may once have felt overwhelming.
7) How Long Should We Get Counseling?
You may come into therapy with your own timeline for when you and your spouse would like to be completed with therapy, so the therapist will have a conversation with you two usually during the first session. Some people take more time to achieve their goals, while others are able to spend as little as 6 to 8 weeks together.
After establishing a treatment plan for the clients based on their needs and working toward their goals, couples may decide that they would like to continue working with the therapist on a less frequent schedule (maybe going from every week to every other or once a month). As the client, you are in charge of what feels most meaningful, and helpful for your growth.
Now that you have read through these 7 frequently asked questions about what happens in marriage counseling, if you and your spouse have the desire to begin counseling together, one of the many therapists here who work with married couples would love to journey with you.
ReferencesGottman PH.D, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Harmony Books.
Hertlein PhD, K. M., & Viers PhD, D. (2012). The Couple and Family Therapist’s Notebook. New York: Routledge.
Williams, L., Edwards, T. M., Patterson, J., & Chamow, L. (2011). Essential Assessment Skills for Couple and Family Therapist. New York: Guilford Press.
“In Comfortable Silence,” courtesy of Vladimir Postovit, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Romance,” courtesy of sasint, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License ; “I’m Sorry,” courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, unsplash.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Bound Together,” courtesy of Naassom Azevedo, unsplash.com, CC0 Public Domain License