Most people believe helping couples attain a healthy relationship means stay connected and improve communication. Or that it’s a simple matter of teaching good listening skills. Or being a referee.
It’s actually more complicated.
One research project study looked at the essence of the most successful interventions in couples therapy.
Their goal was to identify the common strategies employed by science-based couples therapists regardless of their therapeutic orientation. These researchers boiled it all down to five enduring principles of effective marriage counseling.
Evidence-based couples therapists don’t apply a particular theoretical model because it’s in a book. Good marriage counseling matters because it is tested against alternative methods. The gold standard is randomized controlled trials.
To become an expert in couples therapy requires pursuing formal training and clinical supervision. Many clinicians start with a background in family therapy. Then they adapt their approach to ensure that they are using the best that modern research has to offer.
Becoming a science-based marriage counselor requires skills of assessment and observation. Depending on your degree, science-based marriage counseling takes years of rigorous coursework and clinical supervision. It’s a grueling process that happens only after licensing. Formal training in science-based marriage counseling requires coursework. It requires submitting tapes of your work to both your supervisor and an objective institute evaluator. There is typically a several-year certification process.
Many couples therapists are licensed marriage and family therapists, but not all. There is also a self-selection process involved in who decides to become a science-based couples therapist. Marriage counseling is not just a specialty. It is also a passion and a calling. Emotions can run high, and it requires a calm and level-headed professional.
Here is what makes marriage counseling effective:
1. Changes the perspective on the relationship. I like how Susan Johnson describes this in Emotionally-Focused Therapy. During couples therapy, the therapist helps both partners see the “Demon Dance” and “Protest Polka” that they are engaged in.
Most problems are bad patterns repeated over and over. “The more you say this…the more I say that.” If you can help couples to see that pattern, they can develop a new perspective.
They learn to stop blaming and shaming. They also become more aware that change involves both of them. They stop seeing “enemies” and start seeing allies. They start to see their marriage in a new light.
These are some ways that marriage counseling works for motivated couples.
Science-based marriage therapists do more than just watch and listen. They collect “data” on the interaction between the partners by watching how they interact. This is often done with video analysis.
Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy helps spouses to reveal thoughts and feelings they avoid expressing to their partner. They learn to read each other’s faces and encourage transparency.
Different models will use different interventions, vocabularies, and strategies. But all good therapist focus on changing the way the relationship is understood. Couple can then begin to see each other, and their interactions with greater empathy.
The question of “Does marriage counseling work?” begins with changing a couple’s perspective, and setting realistic expectations.
2. Modifies dysfunctional behavior. Careful assessment is the key here. Couples come in a lot of pain around their presenting problems. Different models will use different interventions, vocabularies, and strategies. But all good therapist focus on changing the way the relationship is understood. Couple can then begin to see each other, and their interactions with greater empathy as well as clarity.
But an individual’s problems are also important. You can’t save a couples marriage if personal problems require individual counseling.
Science and research tell us whether or not a couple is suitable for couples counseling. Working with couples is one level. Working with the RIGHT couples is also important. Good science-based marriage counseling and premarital counseling understands how carefully assess a couple before jumping headlong into treatment.
At the end of the day, a good science-based couples therapist has a specific treatment plan to address bad behavior. But this knowledge starts by understanding which cases are not appropriate for marriage counseling work.
This is the perpetual rookie mistake of the All-Purpose Therapist. Divorce counseling can take any couple as they are, but marriage counseling requires careful assessment.
3. Decreases emotional avoidance and distancing.
Conflict Avoidant couples avoid expressing their inner feelings.
They learned in their family-of-origin that conflict was unhealthy and should be avoided.
But research tells us that they put themselves at greater risk of becoming emotionally distant and growing apart by doing so.
Too often a couple waits for their partner to change first.
Science-based marriage counseling help the couple express themselves. Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy is particularly good at this. An EFT therapist allows each partner to share thoughts and feelings they have been reluctant to talk about.
Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy helps people be less afraid to express loneliness, or fear.
4. Improve clarity of Ccommunication.Good marriages require learning how to communicate with clarity and skill. Couples need to understand where their communication goes wrong, so they can see how they stay stuck, despite their best intentions.
Gottman Method Couples Therapy help couples stay calm in order to improve communications. It teaches couples how to build the skill set for regulating their nervous systems and co-regulating each other. The therapist provides practical instruction. Has the couple try it out.
Does marriage counseling work? I would respond with a counter-question. How motivated are you to change?
You need to be able to resolve conflicts instead of increasing bickering and escalation. This is a key strength in the Gottman approach.
5. Promote strengths.Couples in negative sentiment override often can’t even see a positive behavior coming from their partner. The best couple’s therapists see beyond the current anger and resentment. They appreciate strengths. And they share this awareness of those strengths.
Call us for more information 844-926-8753 to reach me, Daniel Dashnaw.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.