Recently, I have had several conversations with friends and family about marriage counseling. Matthew and I have been married for five years now. About two years into our marriage, we decided to go to counseling for several months to help us work out some areas of conflict that we felt were not improving through our own efforts.
Our marriage was not in a state of crisis. We were mostly happy, enjoyed each other's company, and felt secure in our commitment. But there were certain topics that we were unable to discuss without tears being shed due to events and discussions that had happened in our dating relationship and early marriage. We felt that we would be stronger in twenty years if we dealt with these topics in year two, instead of waiting for our challenges to devolve into something more. So we asked our church for a list of counselors, picked one, and jumped into unknown relational territory for us!
|Our Wedding Day, August 2010|
(photo take by Anna Wu)
As my friends and family know, after our experience, I became a huge proponent of marriage counseling. It is not as if I now see counseling as a panacea for all relational problems. Just like the rest of marriage, counseling was hard work, and that's coming from someone who did not feel on the brink of disaster going in and was on board with change from the get-go. So no, counseling is not a silver bullet.
So what did counseling do for us? It gave us new frameworks and tools to break out of our thought patterns, communication habits, and actions around certain topics. Although we have always been very strong in communication (you kind of have to be when you date long distance, as we did for two years), counseling helped us reframe one particular challenge from a you-versus-me issue to an us-versus-the-problem one. The new ways of thinking about the issue that we learned eventually changed the way we interacted around it completely.
I am by no means a relationship expert, nor would I claim to know what works for everyone. (That's why I needed a counselor!) However, having had a positive experience with marriage counseling, I wanted to share a few things we learned through our time on the couch about how to get the most out of counseling, in case it helps another individual or couple in need of some extra support.
1. You don't have to wait until you are in crisis to go. (My husband says you shouldn't wait until crisis.) Most people can and should learn to resolve minor conflicts in healthy ways between themselves, so I am not suggesting you drag your spouse before a conflict arbiter for every disagreement. But I also don't think we have to experience catastrophe level conflict to seek support. Some conflicts (like ours) come up every few months for years without any progress seeming to be made. These conflicts don't need to be earth shattering to slowly erode your trust and joy. Some very common conflict areas in marriage - money, in-laws, children, sex, etc. - can take a toll over time, and my hunch is that the majority of couples could benefit from some improved communication in at least one nagging area. I was so thankful that our friend group had a positive culture around counseling, because we experienced no stigma in the decision to go. In fact, most of our married friends had been at one point or another. It did not mean that our relationship was worse than other folks'. It meant that we were so committed to each other that we were willing to go to great lengths to work on ourselves.
2. Before you start counseling, talk about what you want to get out of it. This was hugely important for us. Counseling can be expensive and time consuming. Matthew and I decided that we wanted to learn new tools to handle a specific area of conflict, and we told our counselor up front that we would attend counseling until we felt we could continue on a positive trajectory on our own in that area. We didn't feel like we had to be perfect or talk through every detail of that conflict, and we didn't feel like we needed to address every single other type of conflict in our marriage. Rather, we wanted to be confident in our healthy ability to resolve the new challenges that inevitably arise in any relationship. After a few months, we felt like we were on a steady path to healing and growth in our particular area of focus, so we ended our professional counseling while continuing to implement on our own the tools and techniques we had learned. Setting a goal from the outset helped us to stay focused throughout counseling and to know when and how to make the transition out of it.
3. Not every counselor will click with you. It is ok to try out more than one. It helps if their general philosophy is in line with your personal beliefs and goals. Although we stuck with the first counselor we tried, many of our friends told us beforehand that they had tried two or three different counselors until they met someone who they respected, who they felt understood both spouses, and who gave truly helpful advice. It is ok to shop around if you need to. My biggest fear going into counseling was that our counselor would "take his side." I was relieved when she heard us both out. At times, she did speak hard truths to one or the other of us, but because we trusted her perspective, we were more receptive to her counsel.
4. Go in with an open mind; consider that you may be (probably are at least in part) the one who has to change. Don't get me wrong. Even one spouse changing for the better can have a huge impact in a marriage. But the opportunity for growth and healing is multiplied by that much more if both spouses are willing to make adjustments. There are two sides to every story, and the reality is that you cannot force another person to change. You can only change your own attitudes and behaviors and pray that the other person follows suit. Some conflicts are more one-sided than others, but we all have room to grow. Going in with a positive attitude and willingness to change personally makes all the difference.
|Engagement Photo, 2010|
(photo taken by Anna Wu)
5. But you also don't have to agree with everything the counselor says. When the counselor judges a situation in a way that does not ring true for you, after honestly considering what they have to say, it is ok to disagree. That person may hold some different spiritual views, cultural norms, relational expectations, etc. than you and your spouse. Just because you may need to change some things for your marriage to thrive does not mean you have to do everything the counselor's way. When you disagree with the counselor, this is a good opportunity to find out what your spouse thinks. If they agree with the counselor, you may need to go back to number four and see if it applies. But sometimes a counseling session can spur good conversation when you get home precisely because you did not agree with everything said, opening the door to affirming what you and your spouse do believe.
6. Not every session (or even any one session) will be life changing. Take the long view. Sometimes, we left counseling feeling like we did not learn anything new or like we discussed a topic that didn't quite seem relevant to our overall goal for counseling. On those days, we wondered whether we had just wasted an hour of our lives and a chunk of change. (And maybe we had sometimes - more on that in point seven.) Other sessions, we saw the value of the conversation but didn't leave suddenly feeling like different people. Rarely did specific and measurable change come after a single counseling session. Rather, it was something like a year later, when the previous area of conflict came up, and I didn't feel defensive or angry or sad or even like there really was a conflict anymore, that I realized counseling had worked for us. When we had a calm conversation about the topic and each trusted what the other was saying, my husband and I just looked at each other and said, "Wow, we are in a really different (great) place right now! How did we get here without even realizing it?" It happened through gradual (but intentional) change that we could not always see in the day to day slog. Now, several years later, we recognize how different we are for having applied those new ways of thinking over an extended period. It is easier to maintain perspective throughout counseling if you go into it having a realistic long-term view of relational growth.
7. But you can feel more like you are making direct progress each week if you prepare for each session and are intentional about the topics of discussion. Ok, so you may not experience major life change in one week, but at the same time, there are more and less effective ways to spend your time in counseling. If you have something you want to discuss, make a game plan to bring it up as soon as you start the session. We found that sometimes, one of us was having a bad day at work when we showed up to counseling, or we had a minor disagreement in the car ride over, and that ended up being what we talked about for our whole session! Although dealing with our work hangups and resolving what we were having for dinner were certainly important to us, we didn't want to pay someone else to help us in those areas at that time. We found that by having a brief discussion the day before (or even five minutes before) we went to the counselor, we were able to isolate some topics that would be useful for discussion, such as new successes in our relationship, important conversations that had come up in the last few weeks around our area of conflict, questions we had about the tools we had previously learned, etc. It really helped to ask ourselves what we thought we needed to take the next step forward in our relationship based on the specific goal we had set up for counseling as a whole. And our counselor seemed to appreciate our directness about what we wanted to get out of the process, as well!
8. Sometimes one or both spouses also need to seek individual counseling. This is something we have mainly learned from some of our friends who have gone to marriage counseling. There may be some situations where deep individual challenges are affecting your relationship (or just yourself), and it can be hugely beneficial for one spouse to seek additional guidance. For example, if one of you is dealing with depression, a history of abuse or abandonment, addiction, unfaithfulness, or any number of other challenges, counseling with your spouse may not be the best space (or the only space) to unpack all of the ways this is affecting you.
|5 years married, 38 weeks pregnant, 2015|
(photo taken by Jen and Jason Ko)
While the above tips will not necessarily work for everyone, these are the things that we found most helpful or that stuck out from what our friends have shared about their own experiences in couples counseling.
With the birth of our first child, we have had yet another opportunity to reflect on what marriage counseling meant for us. And we both agree that the emotional growth of the first five years of our marriage - including those months in counseling - prepared us to be completely different spouses and parents than we would have been otherwise. I can look back and see how God was working in that time, and for that, I am supremely grateful. I would not hesitate to go to marriage counseling again for some guidance on a particular issue or even a marriage "check-in" or "tune-up" should we feel the need.