This is a guest essay by marriage counselor Elizabeth "Liz" Polinsky. In my therapy practice, I only see individuals. Many times, my clients realize their partnerships might benefit from the help of a marriage counselor, but they aren't sure how to find one who is a good fit for them. I asked Liz to write a guest essay on this topic for that very purpose!
In this article, marriage counselor Elizabeth “Liz” Polinsky discusses how to know it’s time to go to couples counseling as well as how to pick a good couples counselor.
Common concerns about going to marriage counseling.
When to go to marriage counseling
How marriage counseling can help
How to choose a good marriage counselor
Common Concerns About Going to Marriage Counseling
Many people have concerns about starting marriage counseling. Anytime you try something new, it can be nerve-wracking, and if you have had negative experiences with couples counseling in the past, then it would make a lot of sense to be a bit wary of starting with another couple therapist.
Some of the common concerns people have when considering couple counseling are:
The marriage counselor taking sides
The therapist being really judgmental
The counselor blaming the problems on one partner
Feeling like things aren't “bad enough” yet to go to a couple's counselor
Wanting to try to fix things on your own first
The cost of marriage counseling
This article will help answer some of the questions and concerns you may have about starting marriage counseling and help you pick a good couple therapist.
When to Go to Marriage Counseling
The professional field of marriage and family therapy is the main profession doing research on relationship concerns. When I was working on my Ph.D. in Couples Therapy, the research indicated that couples tend to wait 6 years after the start of problems to go to couples counseling.
6 years is a long time to go on your own before seeing a marriage counselor. By the time couples do go to a couples counselor, about one-third of them will divorce. My approach to couples counseling is that it not only helps solve relationship problems, but it also helps to prevent them. So please, please, please don’t wait 6 years.
What Signs Should You Look Out for to Know When to Go to Couples Counseling?
1. The relationship is feeling more negative than positive.
The Gottman Institute has done research that indicates couples need a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. Couples who are headed toward divorce tend to have 8:1 negative to positive interactions. If you are noticing the positive is decreasing and the negative is increasing, it’s time for a tune-up.
2. You are stuck in a loop fighting about the same thing all the time.
Many couples get stuck in communication patterns that can get worse and worse over time. The two most common ones are a criticize-defend loop, and a shutdown loop. In short, when one partner says something critical (even if they didn’t mean it that way!), the other partner gets defensive. When one partner gets defensive, they say things that sound critical. Then the other partner becomes defensive. This critical-defensive loop keeps going until someone shuts down or walks away.
Over time as this keeps going on, one or both partners will just start to shut down to avoid the critical-defend loop from even happening. Things get swept under the rug and never resolved. Over time, the distance grows and problems get worse and worse.
If you notice a pattern like this happening, it’s time to go to couples counseling because you want to nip that communication pattern in the bud, prevent it from blooming, and help you both to develop positive communication patterns that leave you feeling close and productive.
3. Resentment and contempt are growing.
According to research by the Gottman Institute, contempt is one of the greatest predictors of divorce. Resentment and contempt are often byproducts of negative communication patterns. When these patterns take hold, it becomes harder to not take things personally. You may start wondering if your partner really cares about you or accepts you for who you are. As loving feelings dwindle, anger and resentment grow. This is a recipe for disaster because at this point even loving gestures from your partner will feel like a barb, and neither of you will be able to access your empathy and care for the other. If this is where you are in your relationship, please know that all is not lost. Couple therapy can still help you turn things around.
How Marriage Counseling Can Help
There are different types of marriage counseling, and they are best thought of in terms of prevention, basic couple communication and coping skills, and pattern restructuring. If you are trying to prevent relationship problems and just promote more growth as a couple, going to a couple educational workshop or couples retreat may have everything you need.
If you are noticing problems start but are catching problems really early (year 1), then you may only need some communication skills, tips, and tools to help you guys get back on track. For this, I would recommend working with someone who is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).
For couples who have waited the 6-years to go to couples therapy, it’s likely that a negative communication pattern has taken hold and created a lot of distance between the two of you. For this, you will want deeper work that is focused on re-structuring this pattern and helping develop something new. There is only evidence-based treatment (meaning it meets rigorous research standards to prove its effectiveness) that currently exists for this, and it’s called Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy or EFT for short. In Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, couples learn how to:
Better understand what your partner is trying to communicate
Communicate difficult emotions in a positive way
Improving the ability to listen and hear without reacting
Decreasing the emotional distance that the communication loop has caused
Learn to create a new communication pattern that promotes teamwork as well as emotional closeness and connection
You can find an EFT couple therapist by searching the therapist directory here: https://iceeft.com/
How to Choose a Good Marriage Counselor
1. Consult with a few different marriage counselors.
Research consistently shows across all types of therapy that you need to click with your therapist. In couples counseling, you both want to click with the marriage counselor. Consulting with a few different marriage counselors gives you the chance to feel the person out and to determine their level of training and experience to help you.
2. Ask about their training and experience helping couples.
Ultimately you want an expert, not a dabbler or generalist therapist. When interviewing marriage counselors, make sure that the person you are considering has specific training and experience working with couples. You can even ask about the success rates of the approaches they use.
3. Ask how their approach would help with your specific situation.
A good marriage counselor should be able to explain what they think the problem is and how to fix it based on their approach. They should also know how to tailor things to your unique situation. For example, if one of you has a mental health diagnosis, or if there has been an affair, ask them to describe how their approach can help your relationship specifically.
4. Start with the person you both get good vibes from.
I can’t reiterate this enough! You both need to click with the person, and good vibes are the easiest way to feel this out from a consultation call.
5. Test the counselor out for 6-8 sessions to see if they take sides.
Just because you start with a counselor doesn’t mean you have to stick with them. I recommend a trial period to my clients to make sure our relationship feels good to them and that they think I can be helpful. You should know by 6-8 sessions if the therapist is going to be able to stay neutral between the two of you and not take sides. If they are taking sides, seem judgmental, or either of you are feeling bad vibes by 6-8 sessions in, cut your losses and try another marriage counselor.
6. If things are not improving at all in 3-6 months, consider switching to a new therapist.
The length of time for couples counseling depends on several factors such as how much damage has been done to the relationship, how long problems have been going on, and if there are complicating mental or physical health problems. That being said, you should feel like things are on an up trend by 6 months. If things are not improving at all, then I would consider either switching counselors or switching approaches to therapy. It may be that you have been doing a preventative or communication-focused approach when you may really need a restructuring approach like Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.
If you are concerned, it may be time for marriage counseling, consider talking to your individual therapist or medical provider on how to find a couples therapist near you. If you are looking for an Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist, you can find a therapist directory at https://iceeft.com/.
Elizabeth "Liz" Polinksy, LCSW, LMFT is a Certified Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist and Supervisor in Training who specializes in working with military/ veteran couples, and couples where one or both are recovering from trauma. She is the host of The Communicate & Connect Podcast for Military Relationships: CommunicteAndConnectPodcast.com. You can learn more about her marriage counseling services by visiting ElizabethPolinskyCounseling.com.