For many couples, the decision to seek couples counseling is a tough one. Too often one spouse is resistant to bring their problems to a professional. Sometimes, if the marriage is highly strained and conflict-ridden a sense of hopelessness and resentment can run deep, causing partners to feel as though nothing or no one will be able to help them. If a couple is experiencing any of these thoughts or feelings, the time is right to seek out counseling. What can you do to ensure a good outcome from time spent in counseling?

Make A commitment to the process. I often request that couples delay making decisions about the future of their relationship for 90-120 days in order for them to begin to see the benefits of improved communication brought about by the counseling process. During this time period, they will be asked to attend weekly counseling appointments, and to do homework that is aimed at benefiting the relationship.

Do Your Homework! Research indicates that just like in other aspects of life, people who do their homework in couples counseling have better outcomes. Following through on homework is crucial, as it keeps the relationship front and center and reminds the couple of what they have committed to do. If the partners don’t make completing the homework a priority it indicates a lack of respect for the process and sends the message that it is their partner, and not themselves, who needs to make changes in the relationship. The successful couple will understand that in addition to meeting weekly with a therapist, they need to immediately refocus their efforts on improving their relationship at home. This effort needs to be made daily for it to have a chance at becoming a new relational habit. Think of it as building new relationship muscles: just as you wouldn’t expect to get in shape by going to the gym once, you need to repeat healthy relationship habits until they become a part of your new couple dynamic.

Willingness to make changes within themselves. It’s easy to point fingers and make accusations about a partner’s behavior, but much more challenging to see one’s own role in the process. Partners in counseling will be asked to consider how their actions, attitudes, or reactions effect their spouse; partners will also be asked what they are willing to change about themselves. The successful couple will come to see that one person can in fact change a relationship by changing how they interact with a partner. A marriage is just like any other system: the inputs greatly influence the output.

Ending all contact with third parties. If one or both of the parties is involved in a relationship with another person that is undermining or threatening to the marriage, that relationship must end. The successful couple acknowledges that the relationship doesn’t stand a chance of repair if one partner already has one foot out the door.

Understand that marriages take work. Often I work with couples who get frustrated by the idea that marriages require continued effort. The successful couple will view their relationship as being a long-term investment, and will continue to make daily deposits of consideration, conversation, and consistent attention. The need for continual effort does not mean there is something inherently wrong with the relationship; it means that like anything we value, we need to prioritize it.

Dr. Anne Malec
Symmetry Counseling, Chicago