Sometimes people ask me what my success rate is when working with couples on their marriage. Even if it were possible to answer that question, the results would reveal very little about my — or any therapist’s — skill. Whether or not a marriage can be saved is determined by many factors that the two individuals in the couple bring to counseling. Success can happen if they both have what it takes.
The reality is that few couples have what it takes.
One factor that makes healing a relationship difficult is that most come in much later than they should have and serious damage has already been done. Usually partners have been resentful for years and not telling their spouse how they feel until one day the difficult truth comes out. Why? 1. one or both simply does not ‘like’ the other, or 2. one of them has had an affair or 3. one person announces they want a separation or divorce. It usually takes a major episode or announcement for most couples to take their problems seriously enough to make that first couples therapy appointment.
With a marriage in that sort of condition, it should be obvious that teaching communication skills and assigning more date nights is not going to work. The couple has a stage four (metastasized) marital cancer and they’re bringing their relationship into therapy before it takes its last breath. One or both people are not in the mood to be nice to each other or even to receive that niceness, so it takes a skilled therapist to manage the crisis to contain the mess and not make it worse.
The first therapy goal is to stabilize the situation
The marital house is on fire and the flames must be doused. An agreement should be made to make no important decisions in the near future – ie 3 months or until calmer and wiser heads prevail. While stabilizing the situation, I evaluate each individual ranging from mental and physical health to beliefs, outside stressors, relationship and family history. I feel them out for the type of people they are and what their motivation and commitment. After the initial conjoint meeting and individual assessment sessions with each partner. I can tell if the couple has what it takes to heal their marriage.
Factors that influence this are:
- Flexibility & intelligenceAre you willing to learn new things. Are you capable of abstract thinking and ideas? Can you go with the flow of what life presents you? Can and will you bend?
• Humility. Can you let go the need to be right, own your contribution to the situation, accept responsibility for areas in which you have fallen short and avoid blaming?
- Integrity and honesty. Are you a person who values commitment, keeping your word, telling the truth, and being transparent?
• Empathetic.Are you able to put yourself in another’s shoes and see and feel what they may be feeling? Can you understand the effect your actions and lack thereof have on others and accept responsibility for it?
• Mental health.If you have a common mental disorder like depression or anxiety, or if you have a drug or alcohol problem, you are actively treating and managing it.
• Healthy self esteem. Your attachment style is peaceful as opposed to needy and grasping. You are emotionally available when needed, and give space when asked. You can delay gratification and do not have the need to control outcomes or others.
This list of characteristics may sound easy or impossible to attain. But they are the qualities of smart and reasonable people who have healthy self-esteem, who can work through things in a moderate way and to an outcome that is in the mutual best interest of all.
Marriage therapy is not for sissies. It takes hard work, determination, and a willingness to take one for the team. Being willing to fight and do anything to save your relationship is easier said than done.