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Marriage

Getting the Most Out of Marriage Counseling

Patience and persistence.

Key points

  • A marriage counselor’s role is to offer tools that clients can use to fulfill their goals.
  • The responsibility of healing a damaged relationship is with the couple.
  • Couples may find success by discovering their own less-effective patterns, acknowledging them, then gradually and deliberately letting them go.
Source: stevepb/Pixabay
Source: stevepb/Pixabay

Linda: By the time a couple reaches out to ask for help from a marriage counselor, the partners are often locked into painful, angry patterns. They may have been bringing out the worst in each other for an extended period of time. Possessed by the shadow side of their personalities, and seeking to protect themselves, they try to control each other. In all likelihood, they both want to deny responsibility for the presenting problem. Although couples may strongly disagree on many points, they usually agree that it is the therapist’s responsibility to fix the marriage. Since this is the typical scenario therapists encounter at the beginning of treatment, and it is such a formidable mission, it is no wonder that many marriage counselors are intimidated by couples in crisis.

When marriage counselors take on this “fix the marriage” expectation, they assume a responsibility that is impossible to fulfill and do a disservice to the clients. A marriage counselor’s role is not to fix the marriage, but to offer tools that clients can use to fulfill their goals. Therapists are in a powerful position to influence whether or not a couple remains together. In addition, a therapist may be able to help clients use the crisis as a transformative turning point in their relationship. The couple has the opportunity to choose between becoming more conscious as individuals or simply patching up the damage, settling for compromise or an uneasy truce.

The responsibility of healing a damaged relationship is with the couple, and that is where it belongs. The counselor is a guide whose job it is to sustain the idea that through learning, opening, and support a good relationship is possible. The therapist’s job is to assist their clients to move from low functioning to high-functioning relationships. Each member of the couple is challenged to learn the practices necessary for the development of the qualities that are required for a high-functioning relationship.

This model arose not only from our clinical work with couples but also from what we have learned in the heat and fire of our own marriage. Couples' work can be the most frustrating, challenging, and exciting work that any therapist can do. The treatment goal is to discover a clear understanding of what distinguishes strong, healthy relationships from those that are dysfunctional. Therapists and clients can engage with each other with confidence and optimism in creating an action plan to implement the discoveries.

High-functioning couples cultivate character strengths, such as patience, honesty, courage, self-discipline, responsibility, etc. that allow them to speak to each other with openness and respect. Through a commitment to the process of discovering their own less-effective patterns, acknowledging them, then gradually and deliberately letting them go, couples create a good prognosis for their continued relationship.

Jack Kornfield, a gifted spiritual teacher, reminds us that healthy relationships require a cup of understanding, a barrel of love, and an ocean of patience. All couples need to know that they are not alone in their struggles. And in these times of tremendous change, we are all pioneers in the design of new mutually fulfilling relationships.

This work requires tremendous creativity, patience, and skilled guidance. The path of committed partnership illuminates our deepest longings, our greatest fears, our oldest unhealed wounds, and the finest opportunity for us each to evolve into who we can be. It is only in committed partnerships that the heat is intense enough to give us immediate access to all of the shadowy aspects of ourselves, which can be frightening and intimidating. But in the process of courageous taking on the challenge, we learn to open more fully to our deeper, hidden dimensions to finally become free and fully loving.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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