What do you think is the most difficult psychotherapy to do well? Child therapy? Treating the terminally ill? No. There is one request that usually makes psychologists freeze and stammer, "I don't do that, but here’s a referral!" That job is... marriage therapy.
Now, I specialize in marriage therapy. Prior to 2001, however, I was terrible at it. Couples came into my office, seething with frustration, and I, in my wisdom, tried to mediate between them. "Well maybe he has a point," I would offer to the wife, my voice tense with anxiety.
"That's ridiculous, can't you see that?" she would glare at me.
"Well yes, perhaps it is," I might say, looking now at the husband in desperation, watching him seethe.
I was awful.
Eventually, I sought extra training. Lucky for me, I lived 20 minutes away from one of the greatest couples therapists in the world. I learned to do marriage therapy from a "master trainer," Maya Kollman. She taught me theory, techniques, and skills that have grounded my work ever since. Now I love doing marriage therapy and I have helped many couples turn their relationship around.
Research shows that the typical couple waits seven years from the start of their troubles to when they seek therapy. Process that: seven years. That is seven years of disappointment, hurt, anger, and unproductive arguments, resulting in toxic detachment.
By the time a typical couple arrives in my office, this is what they look like. (I will speak in gender stereotypes, for brevity's sake, although the gender roles sometimes reverse. The same dynamics also apply to gay couples. The same also applies to unmarried partners). The wife sits, stony-faced, rolling her eyes as her husband speaks. She responds, "I'm pretty much done. I think we need to talk about divorce. I don't even know why we are here."
The husband perches nervously next to her, blinking at me with desperation. "I will do anything to fix this. Anything. Please help us."
"You will do anything? Anything?" the wife's voice rises with exasperation. "Why wouldn't you do anything before, when I told you I was unhappy? I asked you to work on this for years. You never would."
"I don't know. But I'll do it now. Please."
Enter the marriage ninja. I am a different therapist for couples than I am for individuals. Couples' work requires a distinct kind of energy, much more active and directive. I have to engage two clients and provide hope. I have to teach communication skills and create a safe space for tough topics. I have to avoid being perceived as taking sides. And I have to be in charge, to keep couples from reverting into destructive patterns. I have to interrupt, shut down personal attacks, and coach people to say things that can feel uncomfortable.
The goals of the first session are to get a sense of the couple, to gather information, and to give feedback. But the biggest goal of the first session is to give a couple hope, and to establish that I'm an expert who can help them. "Marriage therapy can work, but it's challenging," I say. "You will work hard here. Every person arrives at marriage therapy secretly (sometimes not so secretly) hoping I will tell them that it is all their spouse's fault." Now the couple starts to smile. "And it never is. It's a dynamic between the two of you. You are both part of the problem and you are both part of the solution."
"But it's so bad, and I have been so unhappy for years," responds the wife. "Can it really help?" I see her face start to soften. A little light begins to shine in her eyes.
"Yes. But it is hard work, and you will need to focus on your own issues and limitations, because that is the only part under your control."
"Does marriage therapy even work?" asks the husband, anxiously.
"Yes. I have seen couples I was sure wouldn't make it, and then they did. The most important factors seem to be how much you want it, and how hard you will work to change."
My job is to teach couples how to communicate—how to truly listen with an open mind, and how to talk in a way that doesn't alienate their spouse. These are hard skills to learn, easy as they may sound. Most of us don't really listen, particularly when we are in conflict. We might appear to be listening. But usually, we are in our own mind, thinking, "Well that's just wrong! There he goes again, saying that stupid stuff. When he stops, I will say ___. That will show him how right I am."
How we talk to others also easily goes wrong. We may perceive ourselves to be hurt and aggrieved. However, when we talk, we can come off more aggressive and accusatory than we realize. A man's voice grows louder and louder, taking over the room as his wife shrinks with anxiety, no longer able to hear him because she is afraid. Or a woman might unleash a rapid-fire list of complaints with a sneer and a disdainful roll of her eyes. Her husband, in response, shuts down. He can't bear to feel her criticism anymore. Communication has, for all intents and purposes, shut down.
My training serves me well with couples. I teach them basic communication techniques that restore better listening and talking. I tell them to think of me as their relationship "coach." I'm there to teach them skills, to help them practice, and to intervene when conversations go awry. Perhaps most of all, I'm there to "hold the space." My office functions as a sanctuary, a place where they come to reestablish a loving connection, a place where it finally feels safe to be vulnerable.
I never know whether couples will succeed in repairing their relationship. I have seen couples who have cheated on each other multiple times, who have been emotionally disconnected for decades, who have done each other tremendous damage. Even couples like these can build a loving and joyful marriage. It is amazing what people can do when they have hope, help, motivation, and love. I have also worked with couples who seemed to have small issues, who could never find their way back to each other. That happens too. And when it does, I try to help them divorce in a way which is more peaceful, accepting, and civil.
Having spent years with couples who are repairing their marriage, I have some ideas about how to maintain loving connections. Here is a partial list:
- Force yourself to notice what is good about your partner: Over time, you will probably forget to see all that you love about them, and you will pay more attention to their limitations. This is human nature. But make yourself pay attention. Does he have a great smile? Does he call you endearing names? Does he bring you your coffee in the morning? Notice all these good things, fully. Remind yourself of his great qualities and take pleasure in them. Noticing the good will help you deal with the disappointments.
- Spend time together without your children: Relationships need intimate time. One of the problems with having children is that they are so darn cute, and we usually pay much more attention to them than our partner. Children's needs almost always get met first, which is great. But, marriages need time when couples can focus solely on each other, without distractions. That's how you got together in the first place, alone time. You still need that.
- 5 to 1: John Gottman, the famous marital researcher, found that he could predict which couples would divorce by the ratio of positive interactions to negative ones. The ratio needed to be 5 positives for every 1 negative. (Positives could be something as simple as a smile or a pat on the shoulder, and negatives could be something as simple as an eye roll). What’s your ratio? If it is lower than 5 to 1, then, Houston, you have a problem.
- Seek help: Are you having persistent relationship problems? Don't suffer through the usual seven years. Seek an experienced therapist who is certified in marriage therapy and get assistance. It is so much easier to fix a marriage before years of bitterness has set in. And it's OK if you don't know how to fix it yourself. No one teaches us how to have a successful marriage. There is no What to Expect When You’re Expecting out there for marriage. Most of us know more about how to clean a house or fix a car than we know about how to fix a marriage that's in trouble.
So, if you need a little assistance, and are willing to do the work, no worries. Find yourself a marriage ninja. We can help!
To find a couples therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.