What Makes Couples Counseling Successful?
BY ANTONIO MEDINA
When people reach out and want to schedule an appointment for couples counseling, the first thing I ask is, “Does your significant other know that you’re calling me?” Sounds simple enough but guess what? Early on in practice, I started realizing that couples don’t communicate. Couples don’t tell each other, “Hey, I just called a therapist and we need to be there on Tuesday at 6.” What they do is wait until the day of the appointment and drop the bomb. Now, I have to spend the next hour explaining to them why they’re here. If a person says, “Yes, they know I’m looking for a therapist.” Then the chances of having good success in therapy has increased immensely. Here are other things I have learned that are crucial to the success of couples counseling.
Readiness: Couples have to be ready for therapy. Now what exactly does it mean to “be ready.” Think about driving and getting your license. At 13, you may have felt you were ready to start driving and going from here to there but that doesn’t necessarily you WERE ready. You wanted to. Therapy for your relationship is the same way. You might be wondering about it or considering getting help. Maybe you are getting help because someone else said you would or else. Simply stated: you’re there but you aren’t interested in being there.
So many couples come through the door and within the first session, you can assess who’s interested and ready and who’s not there yet. You can see and feel the indifference. It is the “I’m here because I was told to be here” attitude. With that happening, there really isn’t any room for change.
Commitment: Yes, Commitment! You come once, you both go on several tangents in an effort to appear as the victim or the less crazy of the two and think, “Yes, the therapist is definitely on my side on this.” The truth is, we are trained not to take sides. What we do is, “highlight” areas of concern or validate trouble areas without taking sides. If you’re coming to therapy, you have to understand that no therapist is going to be able to help you in just one session. Relationships are very complicated. There are no formulas and every situation is unique.
Some couples ask, “How many sessions will this take?” And I respond, “Depends on your level of commitment.” For example, Rosemary and Greg argue daily about the silliest things. Greg yells and curses and Rosemary gives Greg the silent treatment all week. More than likely, I’d assign Rosemary to decrease her silent treatments to last no more than one day. For Greg, he’s not allowed to curse or raise his voice during arguments. So you come back on your second appointment and the first thing I’m going to ask is, “Rosemary, did you decrease your silent treatment to one day? Greg, did you abstain from yelling and cursing?” If their response is, “Oh we forgot.” The likelihood of success in therapy is reduced.
Flexibility-Patience: By the time people reach out to me, they’re at each other’s throats and I’m the last stop. Every once in a while, I do encounter proactive couples who like to address things early which is ideal but hey, we’re all busy right? Part of therapy is learning to be flexible with each other and ourselves. Again, there are NO FORMULAS in therapy. Just because you come to therapy doesn’t mean your relationship will improve. If that were the case, everyone would buy the book that tells them what to do and voila! Problem solved.
Couples need to have empathy and flexibility with one another. You both have been doing certain things, thinking a certain way for many years and the idea that a handful of sessions is going to change all that is expecting too much too quick. What I tell couples is that we want to see gradual changes. If a person drinks daily and can reduce that to 5 versus 7 days a week, that’s success in my book.
By being flexible, appreciating the efforts of one another and embracing the changes we are making, we are more likely to reinforce long-term change which is what we really want.
Accountability: Yes! Accountability… I cannot stress this one enough! It’s natural for one to feel as though they need to have their side of the story heard; that’s part of the process. The difference is when a person cannot or will not accept their role for the damage they have caused to the relationship. Telling me, “Well, I only do this because they do that” doesn’t work. You have to remember that at the end of the day, we are equally responsible for the health of the relationship.
I recall one couple, like others, but this one in particular. The wife could not accept her role and responsibility for the things she was doing to hurt her husband. Her response was, “that’s the way he sees it but I don’t.” I excused the husband and met with the wife alone and I said, “look, I’m not perfect... I’m human before anything else and even though I’m a therapist, I yell, I curse sometimes and my wife gets on me for that.” It took that little bit of self-disclosure for her to tearfully accept her humanness.
Willingness to Forgive and Forget: Moving along to the last but not the least important point. All human beings have the ability to forgive and forget and yes, even the capacity. Whether we WANT to or are WILLING to forgive and forget is a different story. I tell couples that this is part of moving forward in relationship. In reality, most folks aren’t willing on day one but if they can, in time, become willing to consider it, then the relationship will benefit.
Forgiving and forgetting is very difficult for obvious reasons. I mean, who wants to forgive the person who has been harming them all these years and betrayed their trust? But if you’re in my office, there must be a part of you who wants to move on and this requires you to forgive and forget. Otherwise, your relationship may begin to look like this. You get someone who’s made the change, paid their debt and years later, their partner is still holding it over them. You can’t love like that.
In the end, couples will choose what’s best for them. As a therapist, I try and get them where they want to be. Is it easy? No, it’s hard enough working with nuances of one client, now you’re bringing in two? I’ve seen enough couples to know that if you come in with an open mind and demonstrate these traits, then the chances of your success in therapy grow astronomically. Before you consider couples counseling, perhaps you and your significant other should assess just where your relationship is before scheduling and entering therapy.
AUTHOR'S WEBSITE: http://www.medinatherapy.com/