What to Expect from Marriage Therapy: Difficulties Revealed

What to expect from marriage therapy

Couple’s often come to therapy in crisis, not necessarily for a tune-up.  According to Dr. John Gottman, renowned relationship expert, couples wait an average of 6 years before seeking treatment.  Six years is a long time to build resentment.

The Need to Address the Process vs. the Content

My experience has been that couples often wait much longer than this, giving wounds time to fester. Couples who do not address their struggles in effective ways, discover these injuries exacerbate over time. It’s like a cut that worsens beneath a band aid because it was not cleaned first.

Often it takes couples years to get where they are when they enter therapy. Therefore, don’t expect things to change overnight. Couples may enter therapy with a “fix him” “fix her” “fix us” attitude. Yet, the key to success lies within.  The ability for a couple to have insight into the role they each play within the relationship can be daunting. It requires each individual to focus internally and on the relationship as a whole.

Partners can get caught up in the “content” of the relationship rather than the “process.” Not agreeing with one another on the recollection of an event is a common theme in session.  Emphasis on who is “right” and who is “wrong” only further intensifies disagreements. The ability to focus on the “process” is where the real counseling begins. Learning how your partner came to interpret the situation is of utmost importance.  An understanding of your partners history, insecurities, or potential hurts is crucial.  This is important because these often impact how your partner interprets words, behaviors, intent and motive.

Negative Sentiment Override – A Breeding Ground for Contempt

Resentment that builds over time creates a significant barrier to change. Contempt is the number one predictor of divorce. It is so powerful, that it impacts a person’s immune functioning and health. A couple who are in Negative Sentiment Override (NSO) have difficulties giving their partner the benefit of the doubt. They often see their partner with a skewed view.  Often it is past hurts that hinder a clear view, in the same way a bathroom mirror becomes fogged by a hot shower. It isn’t until we turn the shower off and give it some time that the mirror will again allow us to see clearly.

Couples in NSO often misinterpret the intent behind what is said, or the behaviors displayed by their partner.  Assumptions become the norm.  These assumptions are then responded to without clarification. If the intent is pure yet misinterpreted, it can cause a person to become more resentful. When you and your partner do not dialogue about the feelings around this, further negativity sets in. Additionally, a couple who does not make or accept repair attempts can only further promote negativity and confirm a partner’s skewed view.  Missed bids or missed repair attempts are often not out of malice.  Rather, it is out of misunderstanding and a genuine lack of awareness.

5 Common Struggles Couples Experience in Marriage Counseling

  1. Couples often present with NSO. It takes time to break down the resentment and difficult discussions that a couple have been avoiding need to occur.
  2. Couples are learning a new language. It feels foreign to respond to our spouse or partner in a different way than how we are use to. This takes time, the same way it takes a toddler time, patience, and practice to learn how to talk.
  3. There is a need to focus inward within the context of your relationship if you want the process to work. It’s not easy to look at how we contribute to a deteriorating relationship. This is especially true if you experience injury or are the victim of betrayal.
  4. Anger is easier to express than genuine feelings of hurt, betrayal, or abandonment. That’s why couples express their anger to their partner as opposed to their primary emotions. Sharing these vulnerable feelings become a focal point in treatment.
  5. Expressing our true feelings makes us vulnerable, which often impacts our sense of safety. Being vulnerable means that we are open to possible further hurt. This can feel very scary.

Reprocessing Injuries is Complicated

Reprocessing past hurts and misinterpretations does not feel good. Many times, partners leave session feeling sad. This can be a normal part of the process. I tell couples that when it feels hard, it means they are doing the work. Take for example, if I decide to become a body builder, but have never lifted a weight in my life, I’m betting those first few weeks are going to be painful. Every time I work out a new muscle, I will experience pain.  But over time, with practice, patience, and persistence, it won’t hurt anymore. Furthermore, the pain I may experience from time to time, will be more manageable. The same is with the process of marriage counseling.

Marriage therapy is difficult. It takes time, perseverance, and a willingness to look at yourself in the context of the relationship, rather than focus on your partner. It is learning how to tell your partner what you need or wish for. So, the goal is to share with your partner what you “do want” rather than what you “don’t want.”

You are learning a new language altogether. You will make mistakes. Because of this, you will need to learn how to repair. Furthermore, you will need to learn how your partner repairs so that you are able to identify and accept their repairs. The work entails self- insight as well as insight into your partners world and the distinctive ways they function. Humans are unique in that we all hold a certain mystery to us. Our personalities, how we learn, how we see the world, how we express ourselves, all differ from person to person.

Normalizing Perpetual Problems

Dr. Gottman found in his research that 69% of marital problems are perpetual. Thus, there is not a “solution” to the vast majority of issues between couples. This is because of our uniqueness described above. Couples hear this and there are two types of responses.  Some find relief in this statement as it normalizes their struggles. Others feel hopeless. Those that experience hopelessness can have a more difficult time with the process. But there is hope.  Perfect relationships do not exist. Our personality differences that are often at the core of these perpetual issues, are not wrong or bad. It simply means that you need to learn more about one another and continue to dialogue about these struggles.

“Pride is concerned with who is right.  Humility is concerned with what is right.” – Ezra Taft Benson

It requires you to learn your partners language, bids to connect, and how to turn toward your partner.  Most importantly, you need to learn how to ask for and give forgiveness. Making successful repairs is powerful in strengthening a bond between couples.  I have learned a significant lesson in my years as a marriage therapist, and in my own life. I now understand the role humility plays in fostering successful relationships.  Furthermore, this enables me to allow my partner some grace.

“Grace means that all of your mistakes now serve a purpose instead of serving shame”- Brene Brown

If you are interested in learning more about the process of marital counseling, visit our website or fill out our form to speak to our Couple’s Intake Coordinator.  When you do this you will also receive our free Bids for Connection Guide to help you and your partner get started on building healthy relationship skills! For more information about what we teach our couples, visit our YouTube page to watch our series Relationship Remedies, where you can learn helpful tips from our skilled clinicians