Many single people go to therapy to improve themselves and find a satisfying relationship. And many couples about to divorce go to therapy to “save the marriage.” But what about that huge gap in between...is there value in going then?
I asked Don Boice, highly experienced Divorce Mediator in NY and author of Top Notch Couples: The First Five Skills.
Here’s what he said.
Should people go to counseling at the start of their relationship?
Many people don’t choose counseling until the problems are almost insurmountable. Imagine going to a counselor before there’s a problem. You’re creating a better future for you and your partner, and increasing the odds of it working out successfully. It can be immensely helpful to go to counseling in the first year of a relationship.
How does it help?
Counseling will stack the deck in your favor. It will improve your communication skills, allow you to get to know yourself better, your partner better, understand where you align and don’t align, appreciate differences, be more patient, and work on letting your partner know you care.
When you’re in therapy, you’re working on yourself. But think about this: Your relationship with yourself dictates how well your relationship with others is going to be. If you’ve resolved issues you’ve had in previous relationships, you won’t create a pattern of carrying them into your future ones. Practicing good self-care means that in the new relationship, you’re able to love that other person more deeply and more fully and get that back in return.
How early on in a relationship should a couple go?
Most couples who come to couples counseling regret that they didn’t come sooner. The research says that it is years later than it should have been, because they recognized the problem and didn’t follow through on getting help. Obviously, we prefer that people come and work on their relationship before it is a problem, similar to preventive maintenance. Imagine a couple coming in the first year of the relationship… They are ahead of the curve and can anticipate issues that might come up and they don’t have entrenched problems, so any problems should be easier to fix. Consider talking with your partner as soon as you’re exclusive about this idea - say you read it on a blog and wanted to try it - and see how receptive they are. Keep in mind that a partner willing to go to therapy is a partner who sees a future with you, is adaptable and generally more easy to get along with!
How do you bring it up in a non-threatening way so it doesn't seem like there are real problems?
I joke that when a couple leaves my office, they should check out all the skid marks on the floor from all the people that are dragged into counseling! When the couple realizes that I am not trying to keep them in counseling forever, that I want them to do their homework and not be dependent on a counselor, there is usually buy-in.
My suggestion is to have couples watch some YouTube videos of John Gottman, PhD or Susan Johnson, PhD before they consider bringing their partner. Couples counseling has changed because of these two researchers. It has become much more educational and less intrusive than traditional counseling. You learn more skills, attitudes and techniques to help yourself.
Here are some great ones from Gottman:
How often should a couple go to counseling?
My suggestion is to have a couple come either once a week for 3 weeks or every other week for 6 weeks. With multiple sessions, we get some momentum and they have homework to practice and they can come back to polish the skills they have been practicing. If there is a long standing problem or gridlock, it will often take longer to get momentum, perhaps many months. But either way, the goal is not eternal counseling sessions; it is to learn skills so they no longer need the counselor. You should definitely hire a counselor who has this mentality.
A client once said: “So you’re saying that you want to put yourself out of business, by making us rely on the skills, rather than rely on you?” The answer is yes.
What content and “homework” can they expect?
I work a significant amount with validation and clarification. I have links on my website and I have a YouTube channel with those described for clients so that they are not dependent on me to learn or review. Those skills reduce conflict significantly.
To prevent conflict, on my website, I have an article about the job description of the listener and the talker. Each person has a distinct role and when they each play their role, they don’t need me to be there. The listener has the harder role, in that they have to put their needs on the back burner while listening. Most couples struggle with being the listener. The main part for the talker is to keep it short and sweet 4-5 sentences at the most before they ask the listener what they heard. Most people cannot track more than that and then the talker gets upset that the listener cannot keep track.
How do you suggest choosing a therapist?
My suggestion is to use Yelp to search for reviews, and then cross-reference by searching for their profile on LinkedIn. You should see at least a few solid endorsements of their skills on LinkedIn. See how long they have been doing it and ask them what model they use. What is their approach and do they give homework? How long does the average couple stay in therapy with them? If they do not have a fair amount of training specific to couples, they are unlikely to effect change.
If you’re religious, it’s good to know that places of worship often have free services. The Catholic Church has tried very hard to ensure the success of marriage and has multiple programs: Engaged Encounter and Marriage Encounter, Pre Cana, Retrouvaille among others. Some churches have the couple meet with a priest or with a married couple a few times. I have had a number of pastors refer clients to me for 6 sessions before the pastor will agree to perform the ceremony. They want to give the couple a fighting chance -- pun intended.
What if it ends up creating problems that didn’t exist?
Therapy does stir up issues from your past and present. But that can be a very valuable exercise for you and your partner in processing any past pain and learning how to be a better you. And let’s take the worst case scenario of it leading to a breakup. If that happens, therapy wasn’t the problem...it only identified problems that were already existing or were going to emerge. So therapy can be a real time-saver in making sure you’re compatible from the start. Even if you break up, you walk away with valuable insight for a future partner and create space for a better match to enter your life. The only downside of going to therapy is the time and money invested...but because it's designed to be short-term, it's well worth the investment.
Any other videos couples should check out to help them in their journey?
Yes, here are some audio-based videos from Boice Counseling and Mediation:
If you’re interested in talking with Don about your own relationship, check out www.boicecounseling.com, visit his LinkedIn profile, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He's amazing at what he does and no matter where you are in your relationship, can help it stand the test of time.