When to seek
A wonderful marriage is one of the most valuable experiences a person can have in this lifetime. Most people want this experience, and yet so few find it. Why? If two people love each other and are married, aren't all the necessary ingredients in place? Not really.
Being a spouse is a role that comes both from the heart and the mind. It requires loving thoughts and actions, even when you are dealing with an imperfect spouse-and there are no perfect spouses - not even you! Thinking and acting in loving ways towards a person who is not reciprocating at the moment can be one of life's greatest challenges. It requires effort, knowledge, and skill (e.g., understanding yourself, understanding your partner, problem solving skills, appreciating and negotiating differences, and staying on a progressive path when the other is struggling to do likewise). Marriage counseling can help you and your spouse gain the abilities needed for maximizing the enjoyment and minimizing the trouble in your marital journey.
Why seek counseling?
Some people seek marital counseling to improve an already healthy marriage, while others seek counseling to resolve significant marital distress. If the communication in your marriage is breaking down, or there are feelings of insecurity, resentment, disconnectedness, or loneliness, marriage counseling is definitely in order. Patterns of negative thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors may develop when one or both people are trying to resolve a difficulty, but in a harmful (although sometimes well-meaning) way. If you are experiencing patterns of contempt, withdrawal, and/or a complete loss of connection, your marriage is at risk for divorce if you don't receive help. Marriage counseling can help you identify what created and is perpetuating problems and develop skills to shift to solutions that generate positive outcomes.
How do I find a counselor?
There are several ways to find a counselor. You can ask professionals who may have experience recommending counselors (e.g., clergy, doctors). The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists' website lists and describes qualified marriage counselors in your area by zip code (www.aamft.org and www.therapistlocator.net). You might also ask for recommendations from former clients. When you call to make an appointment, ask the therapist if he or she has special training in couple counseling and in any other issues you or your spouse may be facing (anxiety, depression, addiction, parenting issues, etc.).
Should my spouse go too?
It is best if both partners go to counseling. If your spouse is unwilling to go, you may still be able to impact your marriage by making some changes on your own through counseling. Most likely, the therapist will have ideas about how to engage your spouse in the counseling process, whether physically present or not.
What can I expect?
At the beginning of the counseling process, sessions are usually weekly. The counselor may at times meet individually with the partners. Over time, as the couple moves out of problematic patterns and develops positive ways to address the issues, the sessions may become less frequent.
In the first session, your counselor will work to clarify the purpose of the counseling. He/she will ask questions to identify what problems each person is experiencing in the relationship, who is willing to put effort into improving/saving the marriage, and what each person hopes to accomplish in counseling. Your counselor will work with you to identify elements of your marriage needing improvement: patterns, perceptions, attitudes, boundaries, communication styles, priorities, etc.
Often, a couple's unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem have created further problems. For example, you may hide information in order to avoid potential conflict, out of fear that sharing would create an unsolvable problem. But cutting off honesty and openness in the marriage is like cutting off the flow of blood to a vital organ. In some cases, extreme tension may have tempted a spouse to seek relief outside the marriage (staying late at work, developing attraction/emotions for another person, using drugs/alcohol), rather than addressing the problem at home. A counselor can help you gain trust, confidence and faith in the relationship, as you develop new patterns and learn to share openly and honestly.
What's the bottom line?
Marriage counseling is about working on yourself and knowing your best position/role in the marriage. You can let go of the destructive idea that you have the answers for your spouse's problems. You can learn to share what you think, feel, want, and need, without telling your spouse who he or she should be. You will learn positive and purposeful communication (e.g., how to attack problems and not the other person; how to use words and behaviors to build trust, love, connection, and positive emotions; how to identify destructive patterns that promote defensiveness/offensiveness, resentment, fear, withdrawal-and how to create new patterns; and how to communicate in your spouse's love languages).
The counselor will help you work together to understand the needs of the other and of yourself. The two of you can become a team, attacking problems that come against your relationship. You are both different, and you each have different strengths, skills and weaknesses. As you learn to listen with an open ear, you can understand the different roles you have in the marriage. Your counselor can help you accept, respect, love, and utilize your differences to make your marriage a relationship that embraces and nurtures each person as an individual.
Being married is a wonderful experience in which you can be loved in sacred ways. Be cautioned and delighted to know that marriage is meant to be a relationship in which you are made intimately aware of yourself and your spouse (both your strengths and weaknesses). Marriage is not a journey to create a wonderful spouse (unless that spouse is you). It is a journey to create love and accept love in the best ways you can. Your marriage should be a safe relationship for you and your spouse to become whole.
Lynette Wiest is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist (SC and GA), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (GA), and a Clinical Member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. She has a Doctoral Degree in Clinical Psychology, and a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work (with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy). For an appointment or more information, call 843-681-7999.