Dr. Christine Belaire with Belaire Counseling Services weighs in with some helpful advice.
WHAT ARE THE STIGMAS OF COUNSELING? WHAT SHOULD WE EXPECT?
It’s no secret that there’s a lot of stigma surrounding couples counseling, and counselors themselves are very aware of what you might be thinking–including any reservations you have about how well marriage counseling works. This includes beliefs that the counselor will make you do or say things you don’t want to and that the counselor will choose sides.
Most of these stigmas are formed by failed counseling sessions or distorted perceptions of what was happening. While there are some “bad” counselors, blame can also fall on the clients.
Counselors like Dr. Belaire would like people to understand that couples counseling is a good resource that’s free from blame, side-picking, and other topics of distrust.
During the session, you and your partner can both expect to be heard and validated by the counselor. However, you do need to understand that the hour a week you spend in the counselor’s office is the smallest part of the work. The rest of the work occurs during the week when the couple needs to put forth the energy to practice and implement the skills they learn in counseling.
Dr. Belaire mentions that, oftentimes, those who agree to go to counseling don’t want to face their own problems but want to “fix” the other person. Believing that something is wrong with the other person and not you won’t mend the cracks. Afterall, couples counseling works best when both individuals are willing to see the problem and are willing to work together to help solve it.
WHEN SHOULD WE GO TO COUNSELING?
You can start attending couples counseling at any stage of the relationship, but keep in mind that there is always a benefit of going before it’s too far gone, and normal counseling turns into crisis counseling, which presents a whole new set of problems.
“A lot of people want to wait and do counseling as a last-ditch effort, and that rarely works because you’re not invested. Recognizing problems early and addressing them early results in a much better success rate because the relationship is not too far gone. Some people have already decided it’s over and say, ‘Well, let’s just try counseling,’ but that’s not going to work,” explains Dr. Belaire.
DOES THERE HAVE TO BE A PROBLEM IN OUR RELATIONSHIP?
No, there doesn’t have to be a problem in the relationship for couples to attend. Couples counseling is actually an excellent way to maintain balance and understand how both of you are feeling. Sometimes underlying issues are hard to bring up without a third party involved who can coax you to talk it out. Of course, there is more to keep in mind than just maintenance.
“You can go to counseling to keep going in a good direction, but you do need a common goal,” explains Dr. Belaire. “So whatever the goal is, it needs to be common to both people. If two people want completely different things, then they’re not going to get success out of counseling.”
HOW DO WE PICK THE RIGHT COUNSELOR?
Shop around. Kind of like picking a therapist, you might not make a love connection on the first try (but it’s okay if you do). The most important part is making sure you both agree on the choice of counselor, and there are a couple ways to do that.
Completing a tryout session is a good way to test the waters. Different counselors will have different techniques, methods, and viewpoints on your relationship. On top of building a solid counselor-client relationship, be sure to consider your choice’s training, certifications, and licenses before doubling down.
“Give some counselors a try before you decide on one. If one person is more concerned than the other, like believing a counselor will pick sides, then they can each do an individual session first then come together as a couple. That way, there doesn’t feel like there will be any siding since everyone will get a chance to say what they want to up front,” advises Dr. Belaire.
WHAT DO WE TALK ABOUT?
Okay, so you two have picked a counselor that you both like and maybe you did a trial session already. Now here is the hard part: what to discuss. In truth, anything can be a topic and your counselor will encourage you both to mention points of conflict or underlying issues during sessions.
First things first, organize your thoughts and talking points beforehand. Get a pen and paper, take some time to yourself, and go over the last few weeks, months, or even years. Did something major happen that really bothered you but neither of you have had a chance to talk it out? Is there something tiny that you want to bring up but you’re afraid of a fight breaking out?
Alternatively, try writing down some goals you would like to accomplish together or by yourself as well. Be prepared to “state your case” and hear your partner out. Maybe you think buying that new house is definitely in the cards, but they are feeling financially insecure about it. Try to keep calm and have an open mind–after all, you two are here because you want to be and a third party mediating can keep things civil while unraveling the intricacies of the problems at hand.
All in all, marriage or couples counseling isn’t just for addressing a crisis, which is what makes it an excellent tool at your disposal. It can be hard to open up and decide to go, but once you do, you may find a newly-ignited passion in your relationship. ■