This is one of the most common questions couples have and truthfully, one of the hardest to answer. The experience is different for every person and every couple.
Add into the mix differences among therapists and you’ve got quite a unique experience. The process of marriage counseling has some common elements however.
You and your partner will generally meet together with the therapist. Occasionally, the therapist may need to meet with you or your partner separately.
Early in the process, usually in the first or second session, you and your therapist will identify the goals you and your partner will work on. It is this plan that will guide the process and your therapist will strategically guide you through the plan towards your goals.
Unlike individual counseling, marriage counseling focuses on the relationship and the dynamics between partners. Of course, each partner brings individual wants and needs into the relationship but the focus is firmly on how these dynamics come together. If there are individual needs that need to be addressed (such as an active addiction), the marriage therapist will make appropriate referrals and recommendations.
With the therapist guiding the sessions, you and your partner will learn to express your feelings and needs to each other in ways you’ve maybe never done before. Part of the process is learning to communicate in ways that enable each partner to hear and understand the other. Your therapist will help you learn ways to do that. Expect a lot of feedback from your therapist as you learn.
No doubt, there will be things that your partner says that may surprise you or even upset you. You may not agree with each other and it may be very difficult to hear what your partner really thinks. What sessions are NOT are opportunities for free-for-all screaming matches. Your therapist is not a referee and will not allow either partner to be berate the other. Part of the process is learning to handle emotions in constructive, loving and respectful ways.
As sessions progress, the therapist will offer practical, honest feedback to each partner. Your therapist’s role is not to take sides, although it can sometimes feel that way when you’re on the receiving end of feedback. Each partner contributes to the dysfunction or the success of the relationship.
Your therapist will ask the hard questions and get you each to think about how and what you do impacts the relationship. It will be exciting and enlightening as you learn things about yourself and your partner that you never knew.
Your therapist may have you and your partner do activities during the session such as exercises to improve communication, teamwork or listening skills. You and your partner might be given homework assignments to practice skills that you’ve learned in session or to complete certain tasks. We learn by doing, and homework gives you and your partner a chance to practice the new skills you’re learning.
So “what’s marriage counseling like”? Expect that it will be anxiety-provoking, uncomfortable and at times, overwhelming. It’s an experience of learning and self-discovery where you and your partner can explore all the facets that make your relationship unique.