What Really Happens During Marriage Counseling Sessions?

What Really Happens During Marriage Counseling Sessions? March 14, 2021

During our first couples counseling session, Derek, 48, looked skeptical and asked about the process. In other words, he felt curious and a bit apprehensive since I requested that he and his wife, Shelly, 47, make a commitment to at least twelve weekly counseling sessions. After answering Derek’s question, I explained that I would gather information about the history of their relationship during our first session. Then during our second session, I always meet with couples individually to hear their own stories before therapy begins during session three.

For most couples, marriage counseling can improve their sense of satisfaction with their relationship if they both want to stay together and put effort into improving their marriage. I’ve witnessed firsthand the benefits of my clients learning to manage conflict, developing new skills for enhancing their relationship, and restoring broken trust. The sooner a couple seeks help after having marital difficulties, the more successful therapy is. Unfortunately, most couples wait too long and negative patterns of relating have become deeply ingrained.

A couple’s commitment to each other can be strengthened by their counseling experience and cause them to feel closer emotionally as a result of engaging in the therapeutic process. In fact, in The Science of Trust, John Gottman says that practicing emotional attunement while relaxing together can help you stay connected in spite of your differences. This means turning toward one another by showing empathy, responding appropriately to bids for connection, and not getting defensive.

 What really happens in marriage counseling?

Truth be told, the effectiveness of marriage counseling is directly related to the therapist’s ability to assist couples in increasing positive interactions. In fact, in his extensive research John Gottman discovered that the difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict. There is a very specific ratio that makes love last.

Couples can benefit from reminding each other of Gottman’s guiding principle of adding more positive interactions. That “magic ratio” is 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.

Unhappy couples, on the other hand, tend to engage in fewer positive interactions to compensate for their escalating negativity. If the positive-to-negative ratio during conflict is 1-to-1 or less, that’s unhealthy, and indicates a couple teetering on the edge of divorce.

Further, Gottman coins the phrase ”turning toward” one another to describe how couples can learn to react in a positive way to one another’s bids for attention rather than “turning away”—which generally involves ignoring a partner’s bid, or acting preoccupied. He writes, “Turning toward one another is a kind of secret weapon against elements such as contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling—factors that can destroy any relationship.”

In fact, a key element of Gottman’s Sound Relationship House is “Turning towards each other,” and a skilled couple’s counselor can foster this by encouraging couples to become intimately familiar with each other’s worlds and showing interest in each other so they can weather the storms of marital life.

 How can marriage counseling help couples become “Marital Masters?”

  • If toxic or negative relationship patterns can be identified early and agreed upon, the process of real change can begin.
  • A motivated couple can begin to explore their problems from a new perspective and learn new ways to recognize and manage conflicts as a result of the tools provided by the therapist.
  • Partners can begin to build trust and improve communication that may have eroded the quality of their interactions.
  • A couples’ therapist can provide “neutral territory” to help couples agree upon and work through tough issues with support.
  • Couples can decide to rebuild their marriage and make a renewed commitment, or clarify the reasons why they need to separate or end the marriage.

In his book The Relationship Cure, John Gottman writes about the “Marital Masters.” He explains, “It’s not that these couples don’t get mad or disagree. It’s that when they disagree, they’re able to stay connected and engaged with each other. Rather than becoming defensive and hurtful, they pepper their disputes with flashes of affection, intense interest, and mutual respect.”

Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.

Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020.


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