Never confuse activity with productivity. – Rick Warren
It is an unfortunate truth that a majority of the couples I counsel are at an absolute breaking point when we begin working together. They have tried talking to each other, talking to family or friends, talking to someone at church, reading relationship books, reading online articles, and some have even tried couples counseling before . . . all of which have failed. What I have come to learn over the years is that marriages don’t often end due to a lack of couples actively trying to solve problems, they end because the actions taken don’t seem to produce results.
When two people enter into a relationship they bring their past along for the ride. After years of marriage that past also includes the wrongs they have committed against each other. With all of this lurking in the background jumping straight into marriage counseling without any ground work can quickly devolve into a professionally refereed rehashing of the same old arguments. This is because people all have hurts, resentment, grudges, and emotional walls that have built up over time. Trying to repair a marriage without first addressing those individual issues can feel a bit like bailing water out of a sinking boat. When you don’t see progress it’s hard not to consider giving up.
It is important to speak your mind in counseling. With that in mind I work hard to create a safe space for people to communicate their true feelings without judgement or criticism. However, what you say in the safety of the office may follow you all the way home. For this reason there are some things you just don’t feel comfortable saying out loud in front of your spouse. When I work with couples I see each person individually first. This creates an opportunity to share thoughts, feelings, and emotions you might otherwise censor. It’s important to get these issues on the table and resolved as they are often the same issues that sabotage all of the other strategies that have ultimately failed. Tackling these in a one on one setting with your counselor will be more effective than you and your spouse attempting the emotional equivalent of a three-legged race. The individual work could be as short as a single session, or could go longer, but in my experience the majority of couples find that 3 to 5 sessions has them ready to transition into couples work with a positive outlook.
So if you’re thinking about marriage counseling I recommend you consider doing a bit of individual work first. There is really no wrong way to go about it. Some couples find that seeing three separate professionals (his, hers, and ours) works well. Other couples might decide on working exclusively with one professional so they don’t have to retell their story. I personally find this method most effective as it also gives the counselor the ability to pick up on themes and patterns in the individual work that can later be applied in marriage counseling. Either way, it makes sense to patch any holes in the boat before you start bailing water. The results will come quicker, and as you see results you will be encouraged to follow through and achieve genuine lasting change in your relationship.