So, you have decided to attend couples counseling in an effort to improve your relationship… how do you get the most out of your sessions? What sets apart couples who benefit from counseling and those who do not? Of course, your therapist’s skill set and whether they are a good match is important, but more often than not, couples who follow a few of the following rules see the most improvement:
- Be open and honest. If you don’t mention that your spouse cheated on you three years ago and it still impacts the marriage, your therapist will not have all the information they need to help improve the relationship. This may sound obvious, but bringing up old wounds can be difficult, and some couples are hesitant to air out their dirty laundry to a stranger. Lisa Vallejos, PhD, LPC on GoodCounseling.com shares, “You have to build trust with your therapist AND with yourself—with your therapist, you need to know that he or she has the capacity to hold whatever pain you might share, and you need to know that you can handle sharing your past without falling apart, losing control, or being overtaken.”It doesn’t benefit yourself or marriage not expressing what is bothering you and your needs from your partner. It can be nerve-racking for some people to bring up what is bothering them in session, believing it will lead to an argument later… which brings us to our next step for success:
- Do not use what is said in session against each other later. You are in counseling to IMPROVE your relationship, not to give each other another reason to be resentful or distant. It takes vulnerability and bravery to talk about the struggles in relationships; honor that for each other and be supportive.
- Take accountability for your part of the problem. When couples come into session ready to use that time to vent, criticize, and prove they are right, nobody wins. If you want someone to nod their head and tell you you’re right, vent to a friend or get an individual counselor for your own emotional support. If you want to improve your relationship, express what changes you want from your partner, but also be ready to assess what your piece of the puzzle is, and be open to change.
- Get ready to have homework. I’m not talking about reading books and filling out worksheets; I’m talking about behavioral tasks that compliment the work you’re doing in sessions. You’ve been in the relationship (I would assume) for months, or even years, before you decided to engage in couples counseling; only working on the relationship one hour a week isn’t going to produce miracles. However, taking the strategies, skills, and changes from session into your daily lives CAN produce miracles. “Without homework, the insights, plans, and good intentions that emerge during a therapy session are at risk of being buried by patterns of negative thinking and behavior,” says Joel Minden PhD in the article How Much Does Homework Matter in Therapy? on Psychology Today. Some examples of homework assignments I’ve given my couples include finding twenty minutes a day to talk about something besides the stressors in your lives; doing something you used to do when you first started dating, like leaving notes or bringing your partner lunch at work; doing something new together; having an “at home date” after the kids go to bed, etc.
- Have a sense of humor. Like I said above, it has taken years to establish bad habits or for resentments to grow – you are meeting a new person, doing new things, and changing in couples counseling. Change can be uncomfortable, scary, and weird… I get that. It’s okay to laugh at yourself, laugh with your partner, and laugh in session. We’re in this together, and the goal is to get happier – there is always room for a little comedic relief.