Marriage counseling is an investment of money, time, and energy that can give you and your spouse valuable lifelong benefits.
If the two of you are going to make a serious commitment to staying in counseling until you’ve worked through the problem areas, you may be looking at going once a week for three to six months or longer. So it only makes good sense to want to get the most value from your marriage counseling experience.
The following suggestions can help you to get the most from your marriage counseling investment:
1. To locate a counselor with a good professional reputation and track record, start by asking your family physician for a recommendation. Also ask any friends or family members who have gone for marriage counseling or who might be in a position to know. You could also ask your minister, priest, or rabbi.
If you can’t come up with any recommendations that way, then look in the yellow pages under counselors, psychologists, social workers, and marriage and family therapists. Read the various ads and see which ones appeal to you. You can also look online to see who in your geographic area is advertising and what information is available.
2. Before you make an appointment, ask about any areas of concern that you feel are “must know” ones. If religious orientation is important to you, ask your questions up front. “Are you a Christian counselor?” is a commonly asked question, and it’s asked by people from both sides of the issue—those who want a Christian counselor and those who don’t.
Some therapists will agree to a free short five-minute telephone call with a prospective client, while others simply do not have time in their schedules to do so. Ask the receptionist when you call what the counselor’s policy is.
If you cannot speak to the counselor prior to making an appointment, leave one or two of your most important questions with the receptionist and ask her (or him) to call you back after she finds out the answer from the therapist.
3. If you have narrowed your search down to several potential therapists but can’t decide who to work with, you might want to consider making an initial consultation appointment with each one. Level with each counselor and tell her (or him) what you’re doing.
If any of the counselors are upset by this, then that is not the person you need to work with. Experienced professionals know how important a good match between therapist and client is. They should be supportive of you and your spouse’s efforts to find the best therapist for the two of you to work with.
4. Use the initial consultation appointment to ask your questions and get a sense of the therapist’s style, personality, and orientation. Ask about success stories and how long you and your spouse will most likely need to attend counseling. Ask if the therapist assigns homework or not.
You should leave the appointment with an understanding of whether or not the therapist will always see you together or if you’ll sometimes be seen separately, the therapist’s general approach to marriage counseling, what to expect from therapy, what the goals are, and the projected number of sessions it will take.
5. Pay attention to your intuition and “gut reactions” during the appointment. You want to work with a counselor you can feel comfortable with and trust. If you feel a sense of rapport and connection with the therapist you select, you’ll have a better chance of making the most progress.
Some personalities fit together better than others. A person with a sense of humor generally won’t be able to relate well to a humorless therapist. If the therapist reminds you of your fifth grade teacher who you detested, it’s best to find another counselor.
After the first session or two, if you don’t feel comfortable or on the same wave length with the therapist, don’t get discouraged. You may need to consider trying another counselor who you feel more in sync with. It’s better to go ahead and explore your options than to suffer in silence.
6. Be sure to ask any potential therapist the question, “Have you ever participated in extensive personal therapy yourself?” You would be shocked at how many therapists have never faced their own individual or relationship issues in counseling.
Just think about it—would you want to go to a counselor who recommends counseling to others but has never taken his or her own advice? I can unequivocally say that you should steer clear of counselors who haven’t done their own personal work in counseling.
7. Schedule the first appointment at a time your spouse can go with you. If one spouse meets with the therapist before the other one, things don’t seem to get off to an even start. The spouse who was not able to go to the first appointment often feels that the therapist is biased because the partner got to share his or her side of things first.
The therapist is then perceived as leaning toward the spouse who went first, and the other spouse may feel discouraged or left out from the very beginning. And that can affect that individual’s morale, motivation, trust in the counselor, and willingness to continue in marriage counseling.
8. Keep the focus on learning as much as possible about yourself. Use this opportunity to grow in self-awareness and self-knowledge, to improve your relationship skills, and to work on personal issues.
This approach is less threatening to your spouse than pointing fingers, blaming her (or him), and trying to make your spouse the “bad guy.” Plus, the only person you can ultimately change is yourself.
You can’t control whether or not your spouse uses the opportunities for self-awareness and self-growth offered by the counseling experience. But you can commit to taking maximum advantage of this opportunity to work on yourself.
9. Make the time and effort to do any homework exercises and to practice and reinforce any changes in behavior that you’re working on in counseling. Change doesn’t happen just by talking about it. Change requires taking action and doing things in a new and different way.
People learn by doing, making mistakes, correcting the errors, and then trying again. Practicing new behavior in your marriage could be compared to being in a relationship laboratory where you practice relationship skills. It takes time to unseat old habits and for the new behaviors to become established and second nature.
10. Make a list before each session of questions or issues that have come up for you since the last session.. It’s a good idea to write down questions and thoughts in a notebook as they come to you between counseling sessions.
Then, before each appointment, you can review your notes and organize a list of questions or concerns to take with you and discuss with the counselor. This will help you to stay organized and not to overlook some issue that is important to you.
By following these tips, you’ll be more likely to have a positive marriage counseling experience that can lead to increased personal growth and improved relationship skills. And that’s a win-win situation for both you and your spouse.
Nancy J. Wasson, Ph.D., is co-author of Keep Your Marriage: What to Do When Your Spouse Says "I don't love you anymore!" This is available at http://www.KeepYourMarriage.com, where you can also sign up for the free weekly Keep Your Marriage Internet Magazine to get ideas and support for improving your marriage.
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