Updated: Nov 16, 2022
Couples therapy likely feels like a big step, and it is very normal to feel somewhat anxious getting started. Especially if you do not have any previous experience in therapy, it may be daunting to embark on such an unfamiliar process. Furthermore, there are common misconceptions about marriage counseling that could be adding to the stress of considering getting support.
In hopes of easing this decision and helping with how to prepare for your first marriage counseling session, I have outlined some general guideposts for what to expect in marriage counseling. I will also address the most common misconceptions to set the record straight.
Couples Therapy: Expectations vs. Reality
Before we outline the basics of what to expect in marriage counseling, let’s start by addressing common misconceptions since these inaccurate expectations can often present a barrier to seeking help.
Expectation: Couples therapy is a place to fight.
People often associate couples therapy with conflict. And sure, conflict is often a symptom that leads to couples seeking support. However, you can fight at home without a therapist.
Reality: Couples therapy is a place that prioritizes safety.
Couples therapy is about trying something different in your relationship, centered around maintaining safety for both partners. Conflict and difference are not inherently bad. However, when working through conflict begins to feel unsafe or hurtful, this becomes a problem. Marriage counseling focuses on building your relationship’s capacity to move through difficult conversations slowly and safely.
Expectation: Our marriage counselor will settle our debates on which one of us is “right.”
Couples often assume that their therapist will act as somewhat of a referee around disagreements that have been keeping them stuck in a stalemate. With this idea comes some anxiety that couples therapy may be a place they will be told they are “wrong” or seen as a bad partner in some way.
Reality: Your therapist should maintain a neutral stance and never take sides.
This deserves the caveat that offering suggestions, particularly when any safety concern is at hand, is necessary. Otherwise, however, therapy promotes understanding both perspectives in the room and respecting that two “truths” exist in every couple’s dynamic. Most importantly, placing those perspectives in opposition never produces a mutually positive outcome. When I work with couples, I emphasize a framework that places the three of us united as a team to both understand and ultimately defeat negative patterns in their relationship.
Expectation: Marriage counseling will get my partner to make the changes I have been asking for.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, many people begin couples therapy with the hope that therapy will inspire specific changes in behavior from their partner. “Therapy will make him more engaged in the family.” “Counseling will help her see how much I need more intimacy and sex.” It’s very understandable that you might have specific changes you hope to see that would mark whether therapy has been a “success.”
Reality: Counseling strives for effective communication, especially through differences.
The therapy process is just as much about learning to understand and tolerate areas you are different from your partner as it is about making specific changes. According to research by the Gottman Institute, 69% of conflict couples experience involves issues that are “unresolvable and perpetual.” Successful relationships, therefore, are those where partners can find acceptance and flexibility with issues that will likely not change.
Expectation: Marriage counseling will save our relationship.
Partners often turn to therapy as a last line of defense to revive a relationship that has been struggling for a long time. This carries with it the hope that therapy will resolve what they haven’t been able to address on their own.
Reality: The outcome of therapy is not prescribed and does not always end in repair.
One unfortunate reality of couples therapy is that partners often wait too long to get help. When negative patterns become entrenched, it becomes harder to restore feelings of safety and security between partners. So, don’t wait! Starting “too early” versus starting “too late” can be the difference between your relationship surviving or failing.
Regardless of these circumstances, marriage counseling does not assume any outcome for the process. Partners may decide not to stay together. Sometimes partners seek therapy specifically to navigate separation amicably. To be clear, if your intention to seek couples therapy centers on the goal of repair and reconnection, this will certainly guide the process as such. However, the possibility that this goal may change is a possibility you and your therapist should both hold in mind
At the foundation, couples therapy promotes open and honest communication from both partners so that decisions about staying together are informed, clear and intentional.
Six Expectations to Prepare for In Marriage CoUnseling
Bringing Vulnerability and Intimacy
This is, perhaps, the most overarching goal of marriage counseling – regardless of whatever specific issues you are bringing into therapy with you.
Your relationship hasn’t felt successful for a long time, and the feelings of closeness and intimacy that your relationship was built upon have grown fewer and farther between. In many cases, the conflict or emotional distance that has taken the place of intimate connection has made any bids for intimacy feel too risky or even unwelcome.
Marriage counseling is a space designed specifically to feel safe enough to take the risk of communicating vulnerably with your partner again. Finding comfort and safety in the intimacy of sharing your needs, longings, and vulnerable emotions is the foundation upon which all other couples therapy goals can be built.
Uncovering the Conversation Beneath the Conversation
Bringing intimacy back into your relationship starts with uncovering the vulnerability that lies underneath the negative patterns you are bringing with you into marriage counseling.
Partners come to therapy stuck in a negative feedback loop. When an attachment relationship feels insecure, we instinctively react in self-protection. When this happens repeatedly, partners become entrenched in defensive postures that reinforce a lack of safety in the relationship and, in turn, evoke protective reactions from their partners.
When partners get stuck in a negative cycle like this, the lack of safety in their relationship perpetuates emotional distance or, worse, emotional harm. And yet, within these protective reactions exists real vulnerability. When we are “defensive,” we are protecting ourselves from a vulnerable experience.
Marriage counseling focuses on bringing this vulnerability to light and communicating in these terms rather than in the protection that shields it. Helping partners have repeated experiences of success in their own vulnerability fosters feelings of safety and security and, consequently, diminishes the need for protection in the first place.
Learning Tools to Regulate Emotion and Resolve Conflict
None of the goals stated above can happen if you cannot, first, learn to manage your own emotions. This is exactly why communicating through conflict is so difficult! It is hard to choose the right words, express your vulnerable side, or self-reflect when your nervous system is sending you on high alert.
In marriage counseling, you will learn to not only recognize when your emotions are rising beyond your window of tolerance but develop tools to regulate your nervous system so that you can act in alignment with your preferred self.
Creating a Shared Narrative of Your Relationship
Every relationship contains two narratives belonging to each partner. These narratives are colored in by each partner’s own belief systems and interpretations of their experiences. Typically, partners share many similarities within the stories of their relationship; however, there are often important differences, particularly when relationships experience distress.
Past events carry different meanings or are held with greater impact by one partner compared to the other. These differences can often spark debate about which one is “reality.”
Marriage counseling can be a space to allow both stories to exist at once as “the truth.” Giving space to both partners’ experiences can help uncover areas of disconnection that may not be readily apparent to either partner. Together, our goal is to intertwine these two stories into one and recognize how different understandings or interpretations can cause disconnection from the person you love.
Repairing Old Wounds in Your Relationship
All relationships experience wounds over time – some small and some large. When harm is done, it presents an opportunity to repair and strengthen your bond. However, when a partnership is wounded and is not attended to, this can fester into other areas of your shared life.
This can happen when a partner feels too much shame about the harm they have caused. Sometimes this can happen as a result of different narratives of the relationship itself or how an event took place. No matter the case, couples therapy places a focus on repairing any area of the relationship that requires healing – no matter how big or small, or long ago. Wounds that go unhealed can create unforeseen problems down the road.
Connecting Past to Present
Regardless of the circumstances, the patterns we all enact in our relationships bear connections to past relationships. How to be a spouse, partner, or friend were all modeled for us by the people in our early life.
So, one of the most important parts of understanding difficult patterns in your current relationship is making connections to your past and how this informs your reactions and interpretations of your partner. Building awareness of these connections helps to make more choices available to choose to do something different.
Remember: Marriage Counseling Varies
Every therapist has a different style. And there are several models for how couples therapy is structured. If you try therapy and are not satisfied with the experience, this can provide great information to help you find a more suitable fit. For more information on finding the right therapist, read my blog post on How To Find The Right Fit and my website to learn more about the way I work with couples.