Does Marriage Counseling Work? What to Avoid--and when it works best

When I was first married we had a lot of marital problems, mostly related to trust, which showed up in all kinds of ways (including the bedroom).

My dad had left when I was just a baby, and then my fiance had broken off our engagement (he came back later). So I was a little fragile.

When we started to have problems, I went to individual counseling. And stayed there for quite a few years.

My counselor and I tried to get to the root of many of my hangups, and as we were talking, it came out that I absolutely hate it when I hear my own heartbeat or feel my own heartbeat. I can’t stand to have anyone hold my wrists, and feel faint if anyone feels my pulse. I faint during blood tests. In grade 7, when we were studying the heart in Biology, I almost passed out daily.

So my counselor wondered, why? So I started going over the possibilities. Had someone done something to me when I was younger, while holding my wrists? Had I once been panicky when I was very small, hearing my heartbeat pounding in my ears, and anything that reminds me of that makes me faint? All of these things could be related to why I was having problems in my marriage.

We began to talk about it and pray through it. I started suspecting that some of my relatives, whom I loved very much and whom had never done anything bad to me that I could remember, could maybe have been sinister when I was little.

But then we moved, and I stopped going to a counselor, and our marriage slowly started to get better on its own.

Two years ago, when my youngest daughter was 12, we were teaching her the heart in our homeschooling. She turned pale and said she couldn’t stand to even think about it. That same year, when we were training for track and field and the coach told everyone to check their pulse, she wouldn’t do it. She said it made her feel like she was going to pass out.

Wow. Katie hasn’t been abused. Katie has great parents. Katie has a wonderful relationship with her dad. But Katie doesn’t like hearts and blood, either. So maybe I’m not nearly as messed up as I used to think I was!

I tell that story because I am a little hesitant about different kinds of counselling.

I believe that a lot of times, the more we focus on what’s wrong in our lives, and the more we try to talk it through, the more we can actually make ourselves miserable.

Whatever you focus on expands. If you are focusing on the crap in your life, it will get bigger. My marriage really didn’t improve until I stopped going to counseling–that time.

Whatever You Focus on Expands

But please don’t misunderstand me. I am not against marriage counseling, nor am I against individual counseling. Does marriage counseling work? It often is a lifesaver.

But on the whole, I think that counseling is best if it is focused on a particular problem, and then focuses on specific to-do solutions to get over that problem. I’m not sure how useful it is if you just talk about everything that’s bothering you.

If you were abused as a child, and that is impacting your marriage, you need someone to talk through that and pray through that with. But I think most counseling would do better if there were an end date attached to it. You go to a counsellor for, let’s say, 8-12 sessions, to work on something specific. You pray through it, you do your homework, you figure out strategies to get through things from now on, and you understand more about yourself.

If you simply go for two  years to talk about how sad you are all the time, I don’t think that helps.

And what about marriage counseling? Let me tell you a story of some marriage counseling that worked for was Keith and me.

Shortly after Katie was born we moved to Belleville, and we suddenly had a bit more time (Keith was finished his residency in pediatrics) and a bit more money. But we were still really grieving from the death of our son. So we went and saw a counsellor for about eight weeks. She focused far more on cognitive behavioural therapy–teaching you to see things differently and tell yourself the truth, rather than getting sucked into depression. And we talked about some of the reasons that I got distant. We talked about how to handle grief. And she gave us some practical things that we could do for each other when we were hurting, to keep the focus on each other and off of ourselves. One of those things was simply creating a list of Twenty Things that Make Me Feel Loved–20 things we want the other person to do for us that are quick, cheap (or free), and have nothing to do with sex.

That one piece of advice really helped. And talking through some of the grief really helped, too. But it was for a defined period of time, to deal with one thing. And we dealt with it.

If you are struggling in your marriage, I’d advise finding a counsellor like that–someone who will help you work through one problem, not a whole bunch of problems. If you have a ton of problems, then break down the most important one first (and I’d advise talking about how you can build a friendship). See a counselor for a few sessions specifically about that.

Marriage Counseling is terrific if it is seen as a tool that you use to find a solution to a problem.

It is not very wonderful if it is seen as a place where you can just talk about all of your problems. One is optimistic and practical; one is passive and too introspective. And sometimes, the more you talk about your problems, the more paranoid you become that something is wrong with you. Some people will need a longer period of counseling if they have very difficult problems, and especially if a psychiatric diagnosis is at play. But I think on the whole, most of us would benefit more from trying to find a solution than just talking about everything that is wrong in our lives.

Here’s a YouTube video where I’m talking about how to forget what lies behind and just move on:

Now it’s your turn: What have you found with counseling? Have you found something that worked well? That didn’t work well? Let me know!
Tags: