You don’t have to look hard to find stories of couples who have gone through marriage counseling only to emerge with a relationship even worse then they had prior to the counseling. If you don’t know someone personally, Google has millions of blogs/articles for you to look through. Truth is, there are times when counseling can be helpful and times when it will do more damage. If you need marriage counseling, here are some ways to make sure that the process will be helpful.

Understand that the marriage counselor is only partially responsible for your successful outcome:

Couples sometimes have this belief that they can come to marriage counseling, argue it out with their spouse in front of the therapist, and the therapist will make it all better. Or, they believe that therapy will cause them to see instant improvement. Here’s how it really happens: 

Some couples come to their first therapy session and argue so much that the therapist can’t speak. They then leave feeling as though marriage counseling has not and will not do them any good. They may get angry or determine that they’ll “try a few more times even though it probably won’t help.” On the other hand, some couples will come in, quite open to getting some guidance. Those couples will usually leave feeling as though things are much better than they have been in the past. They’ll feel more hopeful that things just might get better. Either way, the couple has played a significant role in the outcome of that session. In fact, the entire process of marriage counseling is greatly affected by the couple, not just the counselor.

That’s not to say that the therapist doesn’t play a role in the success. Of course they do. And it’s important that you find a marriage counselor that will be helpful to you.

Before you ever go to marriage counseling, determine that you want to stay married:

As a psychologist with extensive training in marriage and intimacy, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that some couples who come to see me are just “giving it one last shot” prior to the divorce they’ve already planned on. Even the most knowledgeable and caring therapist cannot help you improve your marriage if you’re not interested in staying married. But, if you’ll both determine to improve your relationship, then a determined therapist can help you make that happen. A good therapist because will work hard to concentrate on you as a couple, placing equal responsibility on both of you for relationship improvement.

Bring specific scenarios to your counselor:

One of the reasons that marriage counseling can be so effective is because you have an outsider looking in. Because of the emotions involved when we’re in the midst of an argument or issue, our ability to understand the problem is decreased. Counselors can stand outside of the emotional investment and listen to the facts. Leave nothing out. Do your best to describe how the argument started and where it ended. You don’t have to remember every detail. But, the more you can share, the better your counselor can understand what happened and how to help you avoid the same negative patterns. By the way, bringing a scenario doesn’t give you liberty to fight it out in session. While it can be helpful for your counselor to see you argue some (they’ll use this later to help you NOT fight with one another), the truth is you’re paying pretty good money for counseling services. Don’t use it to act out the same behaviors that are bringing you in. Determine to use your time wisely. Your counselor can only be effective with the space you give him or her.

Calm yourself before going to session:

If you’ve recently fought with one another or if you’ve had a difficult day, take just a few minutes to calm yourself some before the session. Being highly stressed will make it difficult to move forward in the counseling process. And, if you feel stressed about other life issues, go ahead and mention them. Better to spend ten minutes of your session talking about a disappointment from your day rather than letting the pent up emotion from that instance carry over into your session. Prayer is an excellent way to calm yourself prior to the session. Trying saying a short prayer together before getting to the office.

Understand the process of marriage counseling:

Having difficulties in your marriage after a session does not mean that marriage counseling isn’t working. Most couples have no idea that counseling makes them feel a weightiness from time to time. People usually expect that if counseling is working they will feel better. This isn’t necessarily true. Marriage counseling is tough!

If you’ve ever known someone who has been seriously burned in a fire, they’ll tell you that they have to go through a process where the old skin is rubbed off and the new skin is applied. The process of rubbing off the old skin happens over and over again so they can fight off infection and to make sure that the skin graft works the way its supposed to. Counseling can be like that. You’ll leave session sometimes feeling like you’re at a place where you just can’t take the emotional pain anymore. Please, don’t give up! The reason counseling is difficult is because you are faced with characteristics and habits about yourself that really needs to change. Start working on changing these bad habits and realize that as you improve your own behaviors, your marriage will improve as well.

If you need help, seek it:

I believe fully in getting good help when your marriage is in crisis. Marriage counseling absolutely can help. Just keep in mind that your success doesn’t depend totally on your counselor. You have a huge role to play and much of the work will happen outside of session.

As a final thought here, if you’re seeking help for your marriage, take a look at the bios of the counselors you may be working with. If they blog or write books, glance at some of what they’ve done. This will give you an idea of if you’ll be a good match. Also, consider speaking to them by phone for a few minutes prior to going to your first session to understand their process.

Blessings to you as you pursue a fulfilling marriage!

P.S. If you’d like a little help for a more intimate connection, but you’re not quite ready for marriage counseling, join my closed Facebook group for practical tips to help you improve your connection.