Even the happiest marriages hit rough patches over the years. Money, job changes, moves, and (let's face it) kids can cause the best couples to suddenly find themselves at odds with each other and arguing more than ever.
If the conflict and tension don't lessen organically, or worse, they escalate, it may be time to consider marriage or couples counseling. One of the key factors in repairing your relationship is seeking help early, while you're both still willing to do the work to save the partnership. Waiting until one person is ready to leave to start counseling as a last-ditch effort may not get the results you're hoping for because they may be too far gone to be open to the work and change that will be asked of them during counseling.
Couples counseling isn't designed exclusively for relationships that are in trouble. Partners who just need a little guidance in communicating more effectively, co-parenting, or simply living together can greatly benefit from a counselor because they will come out even stronger, and be equipped with the tools they will need to survive the really rough patches that will come later in life.
So, if you're ready to take the plunge and dive into counseling, here are a few things you can expect throughout the process:
An Introduction Period
Sitting down in front of a stranger to discuss some of your most personal and vulnerable moments isn't something that just comes naturally. A good therapist/counselor will help guide a couple through an introduction period which will help them gauge where the two of you currently stand as a couple and where you hope to go.
During this period, you'll also have the opportunity to test the waters with your counselor. In order for counseling to be effective, you and your partner need to both feel safe and heard by the therapist - chemistry is crucial in healing. It may take a few sessions to decide if it's the right fit, so don't walk out of the first visit discouraged.
Open, Honest, & Sometimes Uncomfortable Communication
In order to get anywhere during counseling, both people need to be willing to have open and honest conversations. Depending on what brought you to counseling in the first place, you may be asked to discuss your intimate life, a marriage or relationship prior to the one you're in, or any other topic - because nothing is off-limits.
Additionally, you and your partner need to be prepared to hear criticisms from the other. Not only that, but you'll have to hear them with an open mind and understand that some of your partner's complaints are valid, even if you don't want to admit it.
An Established Goal To Work Towards
Couples therapy is not the same as talk therapy. If you need someone you can just vent to for an hour, a personal therapist is a better option. In couples counseling, you'll be asked to come up with an end-goal early on in the process. Then, every session from there will be dedicated to working toward that goal.
You may bring up conflicts that came up between sessions that pertain to the reason you're there in the first place, but couples counseling is designed to have an end date (with possible maintenance sessions over the years following).
Emotionally Focused Therapy
For the most part, most couples counselors use Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) methods to help their patients get through to the other side of counseling. Typically, counselors aim for anywhere from eight to 20 sessions to help couples get to the other side of their issues using this method, and it works 70-75% of the time.
Essentially, part of the reason couples end up in therapy to begin with is because they fear they will be abandoned by the person they've developed an attachment to (much like a child to a parent). EFT helps the couple remember that they are in this together and that they are both showing up because they want to, not because they have to. (Learn more about EFT here)
Learning New Skills To Improve Problems
When you complete your sessions, and your relationship seems like it's back on track, you should be equipped with the tools you need to continue to work on your relationship in the future, because it's highly likely that you will have a rough patch again at some point. Throughout your counseling, you should expect to learn what these tools are and to practice them at home (much like homework). This will require both parties to compromise on things and likely change a little of who they are or what they expect from the other person, but they are the lessons that need to be learned to keep the relationship alive.
Taking the plunge to start couples counseling is not a sign your relationship is doomed, it's actually a sign that it is strong and that you both want to keep it that way. Any type of counseling or therapy can get tough (working on yourself is never easy) but if you and your partner are both putting the work into it, you'll come to be grateful for the challenging parts of therapy because those will be what ultimately change your relationship for the better.