Many couples struggle in their marriage. And although many couples can manage the stress and strife in their marriage many cannot. Communication problems, a lack of sex and intimacy, financial challenges, difficulties raising children, the influence of extended family and social media, work stress, and infidelity are some of the main areas that contribute to marital and relationship strife and reasons why couples seek out the help of a third party. And because each couple is unique with their strengths and challenges and their marriage story thus far, the type of counseling that is best for them varies. However, what each couple does have in common is needing the space and bandwidth to explore their thoughts, feelings, needs, disappointment, fears and the things that keep them up at night so they can address their presenting issues and make a well-informed decision about their marriage. Different couples, different needs.
Some couples take this type of traditional approach. In couples counseling, a key focus is helping them listen and communicate more effectively. Part of the process is examining their attachment style (anxious, avoidance or secure) and how their style impacts their ability to communicate, bond, and process stress within the context of their relationship. The therapist assesses the strengths and challenges of each couple. In my work with couples, I utilize a solution-focused approach. This approach helps couples become unstuck and look for solutions rather than lamenting and repeating the same problems using the same communication patterns that have proven ineffective and stale any growth and fail to incorporate new information. Couples counseling helps build the necessary skills and strategies to help them resolve conflicts and improve their marriage. Doing this allows them to make more thoughtful and intentional decisions about either rebuilding and strengthening their marriage or deciding to go their separate ways. It provides a safe place and platform for each person to talk openly and honestly about where they are, what they are seeking in the marriage that they feel they are not getting, and the individual changes that will need to be made.
This type of counseling is different than traditional couples counseling as it focuses on helping the couple ‘discern’ or figure out if they should stay or leave the marriage or keep the marriage status quo. For example, if one spouse is not sure if they want to stay married (the leaning-out partner) and/or has doubts that couples therapy can actually help, then this would be a good direction for them. During this process, both the leaning-out and leaning-in partner (the one who would like to stay married) is supported emotionally – wherever they are at the time. Couples in this state are referred to as a mixed-agenda couple. The ambivalence that is expressed by one partner (the leaning out) regarding staying married – or not – is accepted rather trying to overcome or not acknowledge it by working around it. The ambivalence is embraced and as used as a springboard to having greater conversations rather than avoiding it. ‘The goal with Discernment Counseling is what each person would need to do to in order to decide if they should work on the issues – or not.’
Couples in distress do not always choose couples counseling. For some couples, participating in individual therapy is a place they would like to start. This could be because possibly they have tried couples counseling in the past and it wasn’t helpful or maybe they have issues they feel most comfortable discussing individually. Thus, some couples are not ready to embark on counseling together and would rather work on individual changes before they meet together. And sometimes couples do both – individual therapy and couples counseling. Although this means working with a few different counselors, it can and often is beneficial. Both of these paths are beneficial.
One of the most important factors when working with couples is to help them assess where they are, what the issues are, where they want to be, what is holding them back from having a better marriage, and the individual changes they each need to make. This creates a new path on which to embark. Whether couples choose to take the path of couples, discernment, or individual counseling, they all have benefits. It just depends on each couple. Fortunately, there isn’t ‘one way’ but many ways to help couples better understand their challenges as well as their strengths and make an informed decision about their marriage so they can become unstuck and move in a more positive and healthy direction.
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