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Seeking out help for their relationship can be a daunting and uncomfortable task for couples to contemplate, let alone begin. For some, sharing innermost personal struggles with a stranger may feel like an invasion of privacy and therefore hard to imagine. Others may feel threatened by the prospect, “If we need counseling we must really be in trouble,” so they continue on, minimizing the amount of pain they’re in and afraid to get help–which unfortunately only makes things that much harder to repair.

senior couple of old man and woman sitting on the beach watching

This is the sad news about my job– that sometimes people wait way too long to seek help. Relationship expert John Gottman has said that the average couple has been unhappy 6 years before they come in for counseling. Six years is a long time for crap to pile up that’s not being dealt with.

So, if you have the courage to take a first step to seek out help then let me help you ensure that you’re making it the best start it can be. Here are my thoughts on 5 things that should be happening when you start.

#1 Your therapist should have training and experience working with couples.

The reality is that any therapist can work with couples resulting in a broad spectrum of therapists including those who’ve had no specific training at all working with couples. But there are also therapists whose work with couples is an area of specialty reflecting years of training and experience. I believe that working with couples is challenging and if your relationship is in trouble you may not want to sit with someone who is seeing you as their first couple ever.

#2 You shouldn’t sit in couples therapy doing nothing but screaming at each other like you do at home with no intervention from the therapist.

Sometimes therapists need to get a sense of where things are getting off track in your interactions so it is necessary to see how things usually go. But you should also begin getting some feedback. Couples therapy is not the place for a therapist to simply nod and ask how each of you feel. I believe it’s a time and place to get busy. In my sessions I have feedback to offer and I want people to start feeling hopeful that the dynamics can change–not just keep going the same old way.

#3 You should be getting some new information and some new interventions.

It’s important to not just stop doing what doesn’t work but to start doing some things that do work. There are some research-based approaches to couples counseling that do show positive results. I’m a big advocate of the work of John Gottman who provides a comprehensive approach to working with couples. In doing the Gottman training I was given two three inch thick binders of interventions to use with couples. I’ll typically pare that down to several that I find pack the most punch but there are many to choose from.

#4 Another thing you should be hearing from your therapist is what your strengths are as a couple and what is working.

It’s important to understand what needs to be improved but it’s also important to highlight moments that are going well and moments where you’ve made progress. In my sessions I look for moments of affection, comfort and expressions of caring. John Gottman refers to these as examples of turning towards your partner. Sometimes couples struggle to notice and identify these moments when they happen. The level of negativity can be so high that these golden nuggets get lost in the shuffle but it’s crucial to be able to recognize them so they can be built upon. These can be moments of hope for a couple feeling dispirited about the state of their union.

#5 (This seems to have negative connotations for people so I should try to come up with a different word, try not to think of high school when you read it) You should be getting some homework.

The goal of couples counseling should not be retaining a third party in your marriage that you need for the rest of your days. The goal is for you to learn to do things differently at home like you are hopefully learning to do in sessions. For that to happen you need to be doing work outside of sessions. It does you no good to only talk to each other in my office but give the relationship no energy or work outside of that. I notice a huge difference in couples who are trying to do what we talk about and who do their homework. Sometimes the homework is simply to notice things or to say appreciative things to each other which isn’t all that difficult. My goals for couples are to decrease negativity and to increase positive interactions.

So these are some things to keep in mind. Now my criteria aren’t the only criteria and if you’re in therapy that doesn’t do these things but your relationship is improving then you are on a good track. I just want people to improve their relationship and have an increased understanding of what helps and what gets in the way.

My next post will address what you should be seeing from yourself and your partner as you go through couples counseling.

Click here for more information on Couples Counseling.