There are many reasons couples come in to see a counselor. From extramarital affairs to pornography addictions, there seems to be no end to what can go wrong in a marriage relationship.
In a recent study conducted by the Psychology Department at the University of Denver, Howard Markman and his colleagues found that neither pre-marital counseling nor family background were good predictors of a successful marriage. So what is it that makes marriages go bad?
In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman states he can predict within 90% accuracy whether or not a couple will last. He uses what he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to make this determination, and they are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Gottman suggests that if these 4 characteristics are present in the marriage it will not be happily ever after for the couple.
With that being said, why is couple’s therapy so hard? Well, because changing is hard, and many times we’re fighting more than just bad thoughts. Fighting bad or maladaptive behavior can take years. So in light of the evidence, here are my 4 predictors of successful marriage counseling.
Presence. You guessed it, if you want your marriage to work you’re going to need to show up for counseling. I know, I know, the counselor doesn’t “get you” or “It’s not my fault our marriage is failing!” The truth is, a good marriage counselor has been trained to handle difficult situations and confront bad relationship behavior in the session. Bottom line, it’s less about how the counselor handles your marriage and more about how you handle your marriage. Not showing up tells everyone, including your spouse, that you’ve lost hope.
Hope. A good friend once told me why he quit taking the advice of a marriage counselor he and his ex-wife were seeing. He’d given up hope. When a couple gives up on what their marriage could be, they’re no longer invested in the present, and quite often living in the past. Hope gives us the ability to forgive and love one another in a healthy way.
Expect Less. An entire group of people just rolled their eyes. “How can I expect less when he can’t even take out the trash unless I yell at him?” “You don’t know what I’m dealing with, she never lets up!” We all come into marriage with expectations of what it will be. For some of you those expectations are more realistic than others. Either way, it’s time for you and yours to talk about what new expectations can be set for your relationship. This is a true test of your love for one another, and managing your personal expectations in the light of reality is one of the most difficult tasks a counselor will ask of you. One of the only times I counsel clients to increase their expectations is in the case of abuse or neglect.
Change. No! Anything but that! I didn’t come to marriage counseling to change me! Here’s the deal, and it’s something I tell all the couples I work with. It takes two to tango, and if you wanna dance you’ve got to get in sync. Some couples end up deciding they’re happy with doing a dysfunctional Cha Cha for the rest of their lives. But for others, they want the time of their life “Dirty Dancing” style, pun intended. Well, Baby and Johnny didn’t “get it” overnight, and neither will you. Change requires trust and vulnerability, and if you’re not willing to jump into those feelings then you will be a “baby in a corner”.
All in all your marriage counseling won’t be easy. But if you work to incorporate the steps above, it will be much more successful.
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Gottman, John M., (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Crown Publishers, New York, NY.
Markman H. J., Rhoades G. K., Stanley S. M., & Peterson K. M. (2013). A randomized clinical trial of the effectiveness of premarital intervention: Moderators of divorce outcomes. Journal Of Family Psychology [serial online]. February 2013;27(1):165-172. Available from: PsycARTICLES, Ipswich, MA. Accessed October 29, 2014.