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Tips on Successful Marriage Counseling Sessions

by Dana Bagwell

World-renowned marriage counselor and research scientist Dr. John Gottman indicates that fewer than 5 percent of divorcing couples seek marriage counseling. Perhaps the old adage, "it only takes one person to end a marriage" is more fact than fiction. Improving a marriage has twice the power, however, when both individuals are willing to learn new relationship skills through counseling.

Compromise, Compromise, Compromise

Compromise is the key to successful marriage counseling. Each partner should acknowledge and verbally validate the other’s beliefs and behaviors during the counseling session. In addition, each partner should be willing to compromise emotional security through exploring radically different methods of interaction. A partner who often plays the role of listener should begin to initiate and sustain conversations and vice versa. Compromise breeds progress and couples that demonstrate significant progress following therapy are more likely to remain married years later.

Positive Versus Negative Emotions

Professors Sybil Carrere and John Gottman reported in a study published in "Family Process" in 2004 that they demonstrated that the tenor of the conversations during the first three minutes of marriage counseling among newlyweds predicted subsequent divorce. Specifically, husbands and wives who showed significantly more negative emotion -- over positive affect -- were more likely to divorce within six years following therapy. How couples first frame their conflict discussions is crucial in determining how the conversation goes. So, couples should begin each counseling session -- even over the most heated of issues -- with positive statements and only gradually introduce issues of disagreement.

Communication

Here’s the bad news: Poor communication is often a primary problem in marriages. But there’s good news, too: Marriage counseling significantly improves communication. So much of success in marriage counseling centers on overcoming patterns of hurt and anger and understanding how one partner perceives and encodes poor communication. Marriage therapists often term changing such behavioral patterns, “the marriage dance.” While communication about emotional matters is often difficult, many couples find communication about logistical matters much easier. So, discuss one or two goals for your next therapy appointment; discuss strategies on how to structure your counseling sessions to fit your needs; and, divide up in-session note-taking responsibilities. Successful communication over non-emotional issues bolsters confidence for future communication attempts.

Realistic Expectations

Although marriage counseling is often short-term, couples shouldn't expect miracles during the first sessions. The goal is to present the counselor with a recent relationship success or relationship stumble, learn new patterns of interaction, and leave the counseling session with homework and goals to work on before the next session. Relationship progress often ebbs and flows and any signs of regression should be cause for reflection, not panic. Professor Christensen at UCLA offers a general rule of thumb regarding expectations in marriage counseling, “If couples do not improve in 26 sessions, that is a bad sign." Even for couples who claim they lack the time and money to attend therapy, online marriage counseling venues are available.

Resources

About the Author

Dana Bagwell has worked in the research-and-development field for more than a decade. His work has covered gerontology, cognitive assessments, health education interventions, social science theory and research methods. Bagwell has also contributed to several scholarly publications, including "Experimental Aging Research" and "Clinical Interventions in Aging." He has a bachelor's degree in psychology and is completing his doctorate in health policy.

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