by Chris Lewis Ed.S., LPC

Couples come to marriage counseling for a variety of reasons; infidelity, lack of intimacy, frequent arguing, having “grown apart,” and more. The one thing that these couples often share, despite what brought them to this point, is that one or both individuals is questioning whether they should stay in the marriage or leave.

As a marriage counselor, I typically ask this question early on: “Are you here for help staying together or for help coming apart?” Nine times out of ten in that first session, both will say, “Oh I definitely want to stay together,” but whatever the answers are, putting the question out there lets them both know that I know that this is a possibility. It is a way of opening the door for the kind of honesty that marriage counseling requires.

Unfortunately, marriage counseling does not always end in a happier marriage. Sometimes it ends with a couple deciding that the bond has been irretrievably broken, and marriage counseling can then shift to helping couples negotiate through that decision as well. If children are involved, it is especially important for separating couples to do so in a way that minimizes conflict, which is what most harms children.

Couples often avoid marriage counseling because one or both of them fears being put “on the hot seat” or blamed for the problems of the marriage. If there have been infidelities or emotional affairs, the person who engaged in these extra-marital relationships may feel that it is inevitable that he or she will be vilified in therapy; the “bad guy” or “cheating wife.”

In good marriage counseling, there is no “good guy” or “bad guy.” There are relationship patterns, communication styles, and interactional systems that get out of whack, and it is those patterns, styles, and systems that we look at and work to change. A good marriage counselor will work to join with both parties and will be careful not to “side with” or be partial to one partner. Yes, there are times when the focus may be on one partner for a while, then another; the point is that there should always be balance.

It isn’t uncommon for couples to fear coming to marriage counseling because “all we will do is fight more — and in front of someone!” Guess what? This is what you are supposed to do, at least initially! It is much like going to a doctor’s office with a pain, but not showing him or her where it hurts. How will we know what the problem is unless you show us?

Couples will often come in for their first session, sit quietly and nervously for a few minutes while I ask some general questions, and then as if cued by someone off stage, the fireworks begin. After about ten or fifteen minutes of being completely lost in their conflict, one or both will notice me watching and nervously say, “Oh! I am sorry!”

My usual response is “Not at all! In fact, thank you for allowing me to observe what is causing you problems!” When couples are willing to demonstrate where they get stuck, I am much more easily able to begin to diagnose what the problems are and to formulate helpful interventions. If you think that your problems are too unusual, too horrible, or too shocking to discuss in therapy, let me assure you — they aren’t.

Finally, the important thing to remember about marriage counseling, and any kind of counseling, is that it is a partnership. It is a collaboration between you as a couple and your therapist, in which you demonstrate and discuss what is causing you pain in your relationship, and you look WITH your therapist at how to make changes to not only ease the pain, but to learn new skills and patterns that will deepen intimacy, heal trust, and strengthen your relationship.

Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC is a therapist who specializes in Marriage and Family Therapy in Denver, CO. She provides individual, couples, and family therapy through Maria Droste Counseling Center.