As a marriage counselor, I’ve witnessed firsthand the benefits of my clients learning to manage conflict, developing new skills for enhancing their relationship, and restoring broken trust.
This is what can happen with the support of a skilled therapist. However, not all couples have a positive outcome when they seek marriage counseling. Some couples seek help for their marriage problems too late, and others are not willing to put much effort into improving communication between sessions.
For instance, Jen, 42, and Rich, 45, sought counseling after ten years of marriage and they both had a lot of resentment and often reached a gridlock during arguments, making it hard for them to compromise.
Jen put it like this, “We bicker all the time over small things, plus I feel like Rick is too distracted with work to listen to me and he says that I make up problems because I don’t want to be happy.”
Rich responds, “Jen is telling the truth, she never seems happy and I tell her that I feel criticized. It seems like I can never do anything right. I can’t tell you the last time we had a good time together.”
During our first session, I told Jen and Rich that 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. However, it does take a commitment of at least six months of weekly sessions and involves practicing increasing positive interactions between sessions.
Unhappy Couples Need to Increase Positive Interactions
Truth be told, the effectiveness of marriage counseling is directly related to the couple’s ability to increase positive interactions. In fact, in his extensive research, Dr. 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.
In many cases, a motivated couple who attends counseling sessions 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.
Further, a skilled couple’s therapist can provide “neutral territory” to help couples agree upon and work through challenges with guidance from a trained professional. On the other hand, some couples use marriage counseling as a means of deciding whether to stay in their unhappy relationship or split. If this happens, they may decide to separate or divorce (either mutually or one person decides) and the therapist can support their decision and refer them to trained professionals to assist them.
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.