“The success of marriage comes not in finding the “right” person, but in the ability of both partners to adjust to the real person they inevitably realize they married.”
Couples counseling is inclusive of several different partner sets and definitions of what it means to be a couple. Intimate relationships are not predictable, often ambiguously defined, and require profound insight. In couples counseling, a pairing of intimate partners form a therapeutic relationship with a trained counselor to bring about insight, relationship growth, and personal healing.
Couples counselors are interested in assisting the couple to achieve a measure of insight into communication models and an ever growing intimacy with each other. One of the goals of couples counseling is to improve the quality of the relationship by encouraging flexibility, awareness of the other, and a willingness to change thought patterns and preconceived notions regarding what the relationship should actually become. Couples counseling also encompasses the dimensions of communication found in the relationship, levels of honesty, congruency, how responsibilities may be shared, and how to support each other.
The application of couple’s counseling knows no boundaries in terms of gender, age, culture, sexual orientation, or nationality. The couple’s counselor is trained to provide counseling services to couples that are dating, cohabiting, separated, preparing for marriage, or preparing for divorce. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning couples can also benefit from the insights gained in the couples counseling process.
The overarching focus of couples counseling is to first identify and label the types of dysfunction being demonstrated in the relationship. The next focus is to create a treatment plan that will successfully, over time facilitate a dynamic change in thoughts, feeling, and behaviors within the relationship. The goal of therapy then, becomes to alleviate presenting symptoms and bring restoration to brokenness.
Role of the Counselor
“In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?”
Counselors that are effective in couples counseling have developed personality traits and interpersonal skills that can be brought to the counseling process. The marriage and family therapist has a basic set of communication tools that can be used to bring about insight, change, and increased levels of intimacy in relationships.
- Attending is a skill that encompasses the use of engaged and interested body language, open-ended and probing questions that require the client/couple to move beyond giving one or two word responses, and an overall authentic interest in the communication that is taking place. Attending also brings with it an implied capacity for empathy.
- Paraphrasing is a counseling skill that calls upon the counselor to restate or reframe what has been said in order to clarify the intent of the message and to “check-in” to see if what was said was actually understood. Paraphrasing gives the counselor confirmation of perceived insight and allows the client to correct any misunderstandings.
- Reflective listening is a highly sophisticated process of listening to the message being communicated during a counseling session, paraphrasing it, demonstrating empathy, and then reflecting back both the content and emotion of the message. Counselors use this skill to further deepen communication levels, bring awareness, and confirm they understand that what they are hearing is what was intended.
- Challenging is another skill marriage and family therapists bring to the counseling process. Couples can present to counseling after being “stuck” in modes of behavior, cognitive paradigms, and ways of solving issues within the relationship. The counselor must be willing to challenge the couple to change the way they think about themselves, the issues they face, and the ways they deal with these issues.
Marriage and family therapists also help to create an environment that is safe, a strong therapeutic alliance with the couple that gives them emotional encouragement, and a sense that hope exists and things can get better.
“Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it.”
Marriage and family therapists have arrived at a counseling orientation before being licensed and practicing with the general public. Each of these orientations bring with them a definition of how people become dysfunctional, what a mental disorder is, how it can be treated, how people get well, and the methods/modalities of treatment.
Your therapist’s orientation is an important point to consider when thinking about marriage and family therapy. Although the relationship between therapist and client is a professional one guided by standards, codes of ethics, and laws, it is also a relationship consisting of the dynamics of empathy, care, unconditional positive regard, and a profound interest in the wellbeing of the client. Because the counseling process is such an intimate, revealing, and potentially challenging one, it will be important you have a good basic sense that you and your therapist “get along” together. This is often a subjective experience in the minds of both the counselor and client which is impacted and influenced by the counselor’s orientation and the client’s sense of what a therapist should be.
Does Counseling Work?
“I've experienced several different healing methodologies over the years - counseling, self-help seminars, and I've read a lot - but none of them will work unless you really want to heal.”
- Lindsay Wagner-
This is an interesting and valid question. Essentially, the answer actually lies in a couple’s willingness to change, how well you respond to the orientation and techniques of your therapist, and the depth of the presenting issues.
Statistics from the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists indicate a large degree of couple satisfaction with their counselor and counseling process. 97% of the couples surveyed indicated they knew they had developed deeper levels of communication, a more realistic respect and love for their partner, and an enhanced inner resiliency with which to meet future challenges together.
Is it for you?
“Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.”
Individuals seek therapy for a host of reasons and every couple is different. However, couples typically present to counseling having argued a great deal, not getting their emotional needs met, financial issues, and conflicts in regard to children. Lack of communication, and a sense that the partner is not “hearing them” is often verbalized.
Couples counseling can, over time provide the safe environment necessary to gain inner strength and develop deeper communication networks. Counseling can help to heal old wounds and assist couples to stop doing things that are counterproductive to the relationship and hurtful to a partner.
Essentially, it will work if you work it.
And a couple’s counselor can help you work it.