Earlier this year I was certain my marriage was doomed. It had been a rough couple of years, and my husband and I were in a really, really low point together. Without getting into the gorey personal details, suffice to say the “D” word had been tossed around quite a bit. But even on days when we felt certain we were headed for divorce, there remained a lingering shred of doubt; a little voice telling us not to give up yet; a remembrance of a better time; and a sweet little toddler reminding us on the daily that we had something to fight for.
Rather than wait for our marriage to continue deteriorating into oblivion around our feet, we decided it couldn’t hurt to give counseling a shot. We were certainly open to the fact that it might help, but I wouldn’t necessarily say we were hopeful. In fact, we both kind of had the attitude that, at a minimum, going to counseling was a box we could cross off on the pre-divorce checklist. A way for us to genuinely tell people “we tried everything” when they some day asked us why our marriage failed. Talk about optimistic, huh?
I remember when we first started talking about counseling, I searched high and low for blog posts from others about what to expect from our first session. And I came up with a big fat nothing. I found plenty of articles from counselors preaching about the merits of counseling and how to prepare… but real life FAQs? Nowhere to be found.
So for any of you mamas looking for the same, here are some of the honest things I wish someone could have told me about couples therapy before we started. It wouldn’t have changed anything, but it certainly would have made me feel a little less scared and lonely walking into that office for the first time.
1. Admitting you need or want counseling can be really, really tough
You might feel like a total failure, or you might feel embarrassed that your marriage is in such dire straights that you have to spend money to have a stranger help you. You might feel the overwhelming need to hide the fact that you’re going to counseling from family and friends. You might even wonder if you’re just overreacting and don’t need counseling at all. And that’s okay. All of these feelings are normal.
The truth? There is nothing to be ashamed of and counseling doesn’t signal failure or weakness. All couples have room for improvement, and sometimes outside help is one of the only cards you’ve got left to play. Think of it this way: relationships are just like any other skill – like playing sports or learning to cook – and often requires coaching, some formal training or classes, maybe a few recipes or books, and lots and lots of practice.
2. You might wonder if you’re jumping the gun
I read a shocking statistic early on in my research about counseling. According to relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before seeking help. Can you imagine (and maybe some of you reading this can) the amount of resentment and anger you would build up over the course of SIX years? That is a lot of baggage to work through before getting to the important work in counseling.
I say why wait? Once you are certain there are real issues that you and your partner are unable to solve by yourselves, and once those issues begin driving a wedge between you… be proactive and fix the problem. Maybe you don’t need counseling right away: you can try self-help books, discuss with a trusted (and helpful) friend or even meet with a church leader. But you should definitely do something before you one day wake up and realize six years has passed and the hole you want to dig yourselves out of in counseling is way deeper than you ever intended it to become.
3. It’ll take time and effort to find the right counselor
So turns out people don’t really write many Yelp reviews of marriage counselors (wink wink). Finding a counselor was a total pain in the butt, and we actually ended up dumping one therapist after a few weeks before finding one we both felt comfortable with.
There are a few websites where you can research providers and see “grades” from some of their patients, but the only thing I found to be helpful was reading the websites of dozens and dozens of different counselors. I read their bios to make sure they were experienced and shared similar relationship values/philosophies. Reading about their preferred techniques, I looked to see if they were passionate or specialized in any specific relationship problems (like alcoholism, intimacy, infidelity, abuse, etc.). I marked whether they offered after-hours sessions or childcare assistance (because both of those things exist!). And yes, I totally judged them by their photo- did they look like someone I could trust and open up to?
Once I had my short list, I did a bunch of free phone consultations. If you do nothing else, do the free consultations! These were usually ~20 minutes and honestly, the simple act of doing those consultations cemented the fact that I was making the right choice by looking for help.
4. The first session is going to be a little awkward
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: the first session is a little weird. There will likely be a lot of emotions running through you — fear, excitement, nervousness, anger, sadness, relief and more. And it might be a bit like pulling teeth to get both you and your partner to really open up to your therapist. He or she will probably use this initial session to get to know you both, to get a little history on your relationship, and to understand your goals for counseling. Don’t expect to leave this session with a rejuvenated relationship… the real work will start in subsequent sessions.
5. Secrets aren’t allowed, even if you do a session solo
There was one time early on in our counseling where my husband got stuck at work and couldn’t make our session. Rather than incur the cancellation fee, I decided to just go by myself. Doing a solo session was actually kind of nice; it allowed me to open up in ways I hadn’t with my partner sitting next to me, and I think it gave our therapist a little more color into some of the issues we were having.
That said, before we even started the session that day she had me sign a “no secrets” waiver. It was basically a piece of paper stating that “the couple” was her client and as such, her responsibility was to counsel both of us equally. If anything popped up in individual sessions that was critical to the help she was offering our relationship, there was no guarantee that she wouldn’t bring it up (with tact, of course) in later sessions with my partner. It gave me pause for a moment, but I ultimately signed it because it made total sense. And I figured if I had any secrets that I needed to get off my chest that I wasn’t willing to share with my husband, then the relationship was either doomed anyways or I should probably just seek my own therapist.
6. There will be homework assignments, and they might be hard
While it sometimes felt a little silly or cliché, we had homework assignments nearly every week. These included exercises like writing a list of the reasons we love each other, visualizing what waking up to the perfect life might look like, practicing using “I” language and more. At times it felt ridiculous or childish, and at times it was one of the hardest tasks of my week. But in the end, it opened up conversations in a space where communication had all but died. And believe it or not, there were actually times in counseling we would laugh and giggle while sharing our homework with each other.
My advice: pour your heart into those homework assignments, because what have you got to lose?
7. Some days you’ll want to give up, and other days you’ll leave hopeful
Oh boy, is this ever true. There were times our sessions felt like a total waste of money, times we left wanting to kill each other, and times we left laughing and holding hands. It’s a roller coaster of a ride, but you’ve got to hang in there through the good sessions and the bad. Depending on the state of your relationship, you might have more bad days than good (or vice versa) but no one said this was going to be easy. Hang in there.
8. You’ll get frustrated when the therapist refuses to tell you the “right” answer
The counselor isn’t there to tell you who is right and who is wrong, or give you the magic answer to all of your problems. He or she is there to mediate, teach and guide you down whatever path the two of you decide is right for you. Why won’t they just tell you the answer you so desperately need when it comes problem X, Y and Z? Because if they did, you wouldn’t learn how to communicate or problem solve and you’d just become dependent on your therapist instead of learning to make decisions yourselves.
Does it make sense? Sure. Is it annoying as hell when you’re searching for answers? You betcha.
9. You might wonder if you’ll be in counseling forever
It’s hard to know how long you’ll be in therapy, since its dependent on so many factors. But if you and your partner are truly committed to working together, and you’ve chosen a great therapist… then you shouldn’t need counseling forever. After a few weeks or months you will know whether it is “working” or not, and this will help you determine how much is enough.
We were fortunate enough that our therapist was very honest about how much time we should be spending in her office; after about 5 months, we started making improvements and she suggested we cut down to every other week to try and ‘make it on our own’. Eventually she encouraged us to fly the coop. Our relationship hadn’t been restored back to perfection or anything when she suggested this (if we had waited for that to happen then yes, we’d be going to therapy forever) but we had built up a decent kit of tools to help us make it out in the wild. We have her number any time we need a check-in, and there’s no shame in going back for a stint of time as needed.
10. It’ll be a waste of your time and money if you aren’t open to change
Like I mentioned earlier, when we first started therapy my husband and I kind of had the attitude that this was just something you have to do before you can get divorced. Like somehow the guilt of splitting up would be less intense if we had tried counseling first. Well, that attitude pretty much spoiled the first few weeks of counseling since neither of us were really, truly trying. Sure, there were lots of emotions and tears and arguments… but we didn’t start seeing REAL improvement until we stopped assuming we were doomed and starting believing we could make it.
It sounds so simple, but the simple act of mentally re-committing is what turned things around for us. We no longer viewed this as “divorce counseling” and instead truly embraced it as “marriage counseling”. We no longer assumed the other person was wrong or terrible, and instead tried to see the situation from each other’s perspective. And in time, we no longer viewed our relationship as headed down the road to divorce, but as navigating the choppy waters of life together.
The first day we stepped foot in a counselors office was about a year ago and I can’t even begin to tell you how different (and better) life is now. We’re not all sunshine and rainbows, but we’re a million miles away from where we were back in those dark days and I feel like we’re on our way back to happiness. Therapy wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t a silver bullet… but it got us TALKING again and thinking about the future, and that alone was worth the effort.
To be honest, I still don’t know what exactly the future holds (will I ever?) but I do know that, at least for now, I don’t want to spend my days anywhere else but at home with my husband and our beautiful little family.
I know that not every relationship can be saved, and in fact some are probably better off ending anyways. But if you have that little voice somewhere inside of you telling you there is still a chance and that you want to get back on track, I encourage you to give counseling a shot. After all, if you’re miserable and/or headed for a breakup anyways…what’s the worst that could happen?