Beginning marriage counseling means you are committed to doing hard work to restore your relationship. That work includes speaking your truth about hopes, fears, hurts, and happiness. Reigniting joy in your relationship requires clearing some debris along with rekindling the spark. Counseling is meant to be a safe space where you can express your needs and frustrations. But bringing trauma and challenges to the table means you and/or your partner might already be walking on eggshells trying to avoid making things worse. You might be so afraid of saying the wrong thing that you don’t want to say anything at all.
Are there things you should not tell the therapist, but wait to discuss with your partner in private? Are there things you should keep to yourself and not tell anyone for the sake of getting along? Will your honest answers to the marriage counseling session questions do more harm than good? These questions and others might be circling in your brain, losing you sleep, and increasing your anxiety as the appointment date gets closer and closer.
It’s totally natural and healthy to feel these concerns and generally be nervous about the first marriage counseling session. Now, take a breath. Well Marriage Center has put together this guide to help you prepare for the journey ahead. After reading this, you will be better-equipped to balance your statements in the moment with your long-term goals for the relationship. We want to support you in making your own best judgments about what to say to both the therapist and your partner, when to say it so it can be constructive, and how to say it with love.
What Do You Talk About in Marriage Counseling?
When you start marriage counseling, what to expect can be a little confusing. You might worry that the main topic of discussion during marriage counseling will be all your problems and everything negative that has happened in your relationship so far. If you are working with a less-experienced counselor or a therapist who does not specialize in couples therapy, they might even mistakeningly guide you in this direction. But only talking about the problems is itself a problem. While you can’t address and move past your issues without talking about them, you should also talk about positives.
At Well Marriage Center, we employ a strengths-based approach, taking the time to learn what you admire about one another, what drew you together, and what has kept you together despite difficulties. Our counselors respect your desire to preserve and strengthen your relationship, and work to heal and restore the connection between you and your partner.
One of the biggest signs of a good couples therapist is that they do not take a one-size-fits-all approach to their work. What you talk about will depend on what brought you into counseling to begin with. And whatever the subject of discussion, you deserve a therapist who is as committed to fighting to protect your relationship as you are. What Statements Cause Problems With Couples Therapy?
There are statements from both the participants and the therapist that can cause problems with couples therapy. Let’s start with some of the things you should not say.
- “It’s your fault…”
There are many issues and challenges that bring couples to therapy, and some come with blame from one or both sides. Infidelity, lack of intimacy, disconnection…both parties in the relationship might tell a different story about why these situations have come to pass. In each of these scenarios and others, the initial fault or bad action might even lie with one partner over the other. But part of the work of therapy is understanding the broader dynamics of your relationship. Once a couple works past the need to place blame, they can release bitterness and begin to heal. Though it may sound scary to put a pause on blame, this is a liberating experience that can effectively reveal more strength in your relationship. All in all, continuing to focus on the faults of the past keeps you trapped in the old relationship that you are trying to repair and restore into something better than ever.
- “Don’t tell my spouse/partner…”
It’s important to understand you should not expect your therapist to take sides. Asking your therapist to keep something a secret from your partner or spouse is a request which can actively hold back your healing. If there is something you do not want your partner to know, but you do want the counselor to know, it’s important to explore why that is. What are you worried might happen if this secret becomes known in the relationship? Talking through what you want to keep hidden in the safe space of therapy can help you and your spouse deal with the emotional pain, questions, and/or fears that are driving your hesitation.
In some cases, it might still be a good idea to talk with your therapist individually about big reveals you would like to make. Past infidelity that is not known to your partner, hidden feelings and experiences–these can require planning to make known, and it might be the opinion of your therapist that more healing is needed before certain things come out. It’s not to say that a therapist will keep your secret, but they can help you plan bringing it to light in a positive way that does not further damage your relationship.
- “I want a divorce/breakup.”
Since marriage counseling is a safe space to express your feelings, you might wonder why this statement is something you should not say. Ultimately, if you do want a divorce, or a breakup for those who are in couples therapy while dating, then this might already be known to the spouses and counselor. But continuing to repeat it reflects that therapy may not be working.
More often, we find that when this statement is made during a counseling session, it is a threat coming from a place of deep distress and frustration. While you might later decide you did not mean this statement, your partner will remember what you said and might even take you seriously. Your marriage counselor is on your side to help solve and work through negative feelings within the relationship to preserve the good while healing the bad. Threatening to end the relationship in the middle of counseling is expressly working against this effort.
There are also some things your therapist should not say. Your therapist should never be the one to tell you that your relationship needs to end. They should also never say anything that makes you feel judged,, belittled, or otherwise unsupported. At Well Marriage Center, we practice marriage-friendly counseling, listening to your specific mutual needs, goals, and concerns to tailor an approach that can help you and your partner find your way back to each other.
How To Handle Feeling Attacked in Couples Therapy
Feeling criticized is one of the four main predictors of relationship unhappiness, according to Dr. John Gottman, a foundational researcher in the field of relationships. Dr. Gottman also researched defensiveness that emerges when we feel attacked. When you speak up to defend yourself against the perceived attack, your partner then speaks up in defense of their initial criticism, trapping you each in your own perspectives trying to prove you are innocent. Luckily, in addition to describing these dynamics with his research, Dr. Gottman also came up with an Antidote to Defensiveness:
- Seek the truth within the criticism. When criticism is given, it’s because your partner has something important they are trying to tell you. What is that?
- Give the benefit of the doubt. Your partner is not trying to make you feel bad about yourself. In fact, the criticism might be more about what they are feeling than what you did or did not do.
- Validate your partner’s perception, even if you do not agree. Telling them they are wrong or becoming argumentative/defensive is only going to deepen the rift in the relationship. You don’t have to agree with their perspective, but you do have to accept that it exists.
- Tell your partner what you can agree with. Are they right about a way you behaved, an outcome that occurred, or something that could have gone differently? Repeating back something they said lets them know you were listening.
- Bring up your difference of opinion. Of course, your feelings are equally valid and deserve to be equally heard. Leaving this part until last allows you time to process and avoid having too extreme of a reaction based on your defensive feelings.
Depending on the circumstances which have brought you to this point, it may be very difficult to validate your partner’s perception and accept the truth within criticism. Remember that when your partner is speaking, you should be listening to understand their perspective, not already planning what you will say in response. That work is exactly what experts like the therapists at Well Marriage Center are here to help you do!
How To Prepare for Marriage Counseling
As you get ready for marriage counseling, questions to strengthen your relationship and topics for conversation might be top of mind. Or you might be anxious about telling your side of the story or hearing your partner’s. Remember going in that it’s important to find the foundation in the strengths of the relationship. If the goal is to try to stay together, be ready to start by exploring why that is. Preparing for marriage counseling means preparing to welcome gratitude, respect, passion, and compassion back into your relationship. It won’t happen with the first session, but we have seen it happen for many couples.
Contact Well Marriage Center for Effective Marriage Counseling
There are many factors that impact whether a certain marriage counselor is right for each couple. Well Marriage Center may not be right for everyone, but with a diverse group of specialists we do believe we can lend perspective to a tense, lonely relationship. We have 21 offices across the US, so it’s possible we might already be in your area or be delivering telehealth marriage counseling in your state.
Our counselors study many different methods and schools of thought to deliver unique approaches that are tailored for each relationship. Sometimes the strengths-based model reminds a couple immediately why they continue to choose each other. When working through deeper trauma or infidelity, coping with the recent events might require strengths to be explored as they are revealed through the healing process. Whatever pace of treatment and specific tuning your relationship needs, Well Marriage Center is your partner on the journey to a fresh start. Our intake coordinator Melinda can work with you to answer any questions, learn more about what your needs are and match you with a therapist. Fill out this short intake form to get some time on the calendar and get started!