8 Keys to Make Marriage Counseling Work

Specializing in Hope

8 Keys to Make Marriage Counseling Work

Make Marriage Counseling Work

8 Keys to Make Marriage Counseling Work

Over the years we have had the tremendous privilege of helping hundreds of couples find HOPE despite significant marital distress, resolve difficult problems, and rebuild mutually fulfilling relationships.  In the process, we have learned through our experience, training, as well as from marital research, what are the key factors that make marriage counseling work, and for generating successful outcomes.

There are many aspects which contribute to having a good prognosis in marriage counseling, however, in this article we’ll focus on eight.  The 8 Keys to Make Marriage Counseling Work are:

  • Take personal responsibility
  • Humility and courage
  • Build a safe emotional climate
  • Accept influence
  • Feed love and friendship
  • Develop skills and tools
  • Keep working / processing between sessions
  • Stay the course 

 1. Take Personal Responsibility

After the initial assessment, which involves clarifying presenting problems, identifying treatment goals, building a working knowledge of the couple’s personal and relational history, assessing strength and growth areas, etc., the first step to make marital counseling work is taking personal responsibility.  In order for any healing or recovery process to be successful in marital therapy, each person needs to understand and acknowledge their contribution/s to the problems in the relationship.  This may seem like a strange place to start, but hang in there with me, and I’ll explain why.  I know for some couples this seems like a bridge too far.  That’s understandable for two important reasons.  First, by nature and habit, we all tend to blame our spouse for our attitudes, feelings, and behavior/s.  Blame-shifting is a core problem in all of our marriages, and significantly decreases the probability of successful resolution of marital problems; primarily because it undermines trust in a relationship. When one or both spouses avoid taking responsibility for the pain or problems in the relationship, it becomes extremely difficult to collaborate as a team to constructively resolve the issues.  Secondly, the vast majority of couples who enter marital therapy have delayed getting help until a crisis or when there is significant distress in their relationship.  On average, research shows couples wait six years before seeking treatment.[1]  As a result, most couples who come to counseling are in so much pain they are not motivated to, much less invested in, acknowledging their contributions to the problems. Conversely, if one person or both take personal responsibility, it has an immediate and profoundly positive influence on the relationship, and moves the counseling process in a constructive direction.  Recently, I have been working with a couple where the wife, through tears, acknowledged that she is frequently critical and negative towards her husband: “I know I am always angry at Bill* . . . I get upset and talk down to him.”  In that moment Susan* took a giant risk and step forward by taking responsibility for how she was hurting Bill and thereby their relationship.   (*Names have been changed)

 2. Humility and Courage

 Susan’s admission was a decisive breakthrough in our work together. I had been gently inviting her to reflect on her negativity with Bill, and in time she came to realize that she was inadvertently contributing to her own pain and disappointment in her marriage.  To her credit, it took a great deal of courage and vulnerability to look honestly at herself, and acknowledge how her anger and disrespect of Bill was destroying their relationship. In an emotional context when both parties are hurting, and most likely blaming each other, it takes a tremendous amount of humility and courage to own up to your contributions to the problems in the relationship.  To be fair, Susan also had a number of legitimate reasons for being hurt and angry at Bill.  But, in a moment of moral clarity and emotional vulnerability, she chose to own her part of the problems.  When she did this, an amazing thing happened. As is often the case, Bill was spontaneously compassionate with her pain, and was much more willing to acknowledge the ways he was also hurting Susan and their relationship.  The very thing she needed him to acknowledge and take responsibility for was made possible largely because of her willingness to courageously and humbly take the first step. Being honest with yourself and your spouse through humility and courage paves the way to deeper levels of healing, restored intimacy, and making marriage counseling work.

3. Build a Safe Emotional Climate

 Like most of the couples we see, Bill and Susan, at the beginning of marriage counseling, were trapped in destructive and dysfunctional patterns of conflict.  Therefore, the emotional climate in their relationship was quite adversarial, threatening, and unsafe.  The more she criticized him, the more he shut down and pulled away from her. The more he withdrew from her, the more it hurt her, and only resulted in more negativity and criticism. Chronic levels of criticism, and especially contempt, are “sulfuric acid for love,” and the  emotional health of your marriage.[2] Eventually, out of frustration and self-preservation, Bill completely de-invested in their relationship, and began moving toward divorce.  Their marriage had deteriorated into chronic cycles of criticism, counter attacks, withdrawal, and finally despair.  Not until Susan’s humble and courageous acknowledgment of her destructive contributions in the relationship, and Bill’s empathy for her pain and frustration, did the emotional climate begin to change.  Over time, as they started to feel emotionally safe, they both were able to reinvest in their relationship, work together to resolve the problems, and repair the damage from years of neglect and negative conflict.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, infidelity is not the biggest cause of divorce in North America.  A whopping 80% of divorce is a result of couples who become emotionally distant, de-invest, and eventually give up on their relationship.  Social scientists call this all-too-often condition in unhappy marriages “emotional gridlock.”[3]  Ultimately then, divorce is a friendship failure where intimacy is impoverished, and the emotional connection is lost.

In addition to being stuck in an emotionally adversarial climate (attack-defend cycles), another common problem we help couples resolve is an emotionally disconnected climate (blame-withdraw cycles).  In an adversarial climate your spouse feels like an unsafe enemy or adversary, but in a disconnected climate your spouse feels more like a stranger.  As a result, we often hear couples describe their relationship as if they are “roommates.”  In Bill and Susan’s case they were struggling with both.  Over time they learned to track the emotional movement in their relationship, and “down-regulate negative emotion”  and escalation during conflict.[4]  Instead of turning against or turning away from each other emotionally, they learned to move toward each other to build an emotionally safe climate.

 4. Accept Influence

 Marriage is a bi-personal relationship—there are two “me’s” and an “us.” In a healthy marriage you make room for both of you, as unique individuals (the me’s), and at the same time you are living and functioning together as a team (the us). Building this kind of “oneness” in marriage is a lifelong challenge in all of our marriages. However, when couples are stuck in emotional gridlock, it feels like every man (woman) for himself (herself); there is too much “me” and not enough “us.”  Understandably, the more hurt and frustrated couples are, the more they become entrenched in their own points of view, and lose the positive connection and sense of partnership (friendship failure). With chronic states of emotional and physiological agitation like Bill and Susan, there is high predictability of distress, and if unchanged, it will lead to eventual divorce. If fact, we can actually predict with a 90% accuracy which couples will get divorced based on chronic levels of destructive conflict.  Furthermore, chronic physiological agitation—fight or flight reactions—is also a major danger sign, and highly predictive of divorce.[5]  Even the perception of being attacked or the anticipation of being criticized triggers intense physiological reactions, especially for men.  Therefore, an important part of the antidote is to make room for your spouse (i.e., their needs, feelings, opinions, expectations, etc.).  In other words, learning to accept influence from their side of the relationship opens the door to your spouse’s heart, and moves couples out of gridlock.  You create appreciation in your spouse when you accept / share influence.  Dr. John Gottman, a leading pioneer of marital research, goes so far as to say, “Accepting influence is the primary indicator of a healthy relationship.”[6]  In Bill and Susan’s case, as they learned how to collaborate to build a safe emotional climate, down-regulating the negativity, they both became much more open to understanding and meeting each other’s needs.  Mutually accepting influence helped them function like a team again, and they no longer felt like roommates.

5. Feed Love and Friendship

Contrary to what our culture teaches us about love, marital love needs ongoing maintenance.  It is not static. It needs to be fed. “Every successful marriage is the result of two people working diligently and skillfully to cultivate their love . . . One of the great illusions of our age is that love is self-sustaining. . . Love must be fed and nurtured . . . first and foremost it demands time.”[7]  Bill and Susan’s relationship was starving for love and attention.  Like most couples we see, their relationship was not only being torn apart by destructive conflict, but was simultaneously suffering from emotional malnourishment. Predictably this had a devastating effect on romance, affection, and sexual intimacy. Emotional neglect and chronic arguing are the twin pillars of an almost certain divorce.  Sadly, one leads to the other in self-perpetuating negative cycles.  The pain and frustration of not feeling loved or cared for, soon leads to angry protests and/or withdrawal.  As couples act out the hurt and frustration, they inevitably stop nurturing their relationship.  The conflict disrupts the mutual feeding of the relationship, and impoverished love and connection fuels the conflict.

Bill and Susan significantly reduced the conflicts and negativity in their daily lives together, which freed them to reinvest time and energy into feeding their love and friendship.  They became increasingly more motivated to make deposits in each other’s emotional bank accounts.  As they worked together on their relationship, the momentum quickly picked up steam in the other direction.  The negative cycles were replaced with hope-producing positive ones. As they fought less, the more they fed their love.  The more they fed their love, the less they fought.  They collaborated to repair hurt and frustration so that bitterness stopped poisoning their relationship, and at the same time were encouraged to feed their love. In time, they learned to value and reprioritize their friendship, intimacy and emotional connection. The spark of passion and mutual sexual enjoyment naturally came back on line.  They were becoming intimate friends again; responsive, accessible and engaged both emotionally and physically.[8]  In a very real sense they fell in love all over again; or rather, they grew to love each other again.

6. Develop Skills and Tools

 Most of us have not been taught how to deal with conflicts and disagreements.  To make matters worse, we have often had poor models for communication and conflict resolution.  Research shows that 70% of couples have a significant skill deficit when it comes to effective communication and conflict resolution.[9] The majority of the couples we work with report having problems with negative conflict, and communication difficulties are frequently the #1 presenting problem.  Sadly, research also suggests that couples actually become quite skilled in hurting each other.[10]  If we’ve been married any length of time, we know which buttons to push (words that hurt), and what the nuclear options are.

As we all know, disagreements and conflict are an inevitable part of all our marriages.  Therefore, developing new relationship skills to repair the unavoidable hurts, disappointments, and frustrations is a central prerequisite for maintaining a healthy and mutually fulfilling marriage.[11]

If you think about it, communication is the life-blood for all of our relationships. When the communication flow is shut down or primarily negative—exactly what was happening in Bill and Susan’s relationship—the marriage literally withers up.  Part of what they learned how to do was to slow down their communication, and focus more on listening and understanding each other versus insisting on their own point of view.  By adding increased structure to their communication (regulating their emotional and physiological reactions, taking turns listening without interrupting, paraphrasing, checking out their interpretations, and validating each others’ feelings), they started having stress- reducing conversation.  They also learned how to provide empathy and emotional support, which created a climate of mutual respect and appreciation.

 7. Keep Working / Processing Between Sessions

 Couples often develop unhealthy patterns of either avoiding important discussions or unconsciously sabotaging emotional intimacy.  As we have seen, over time this begins to starve the relationship, which in turn perpetuates cycles of destructive conflict.  Marriage counseling seeks to create a safe context to talk about and work on difficult problems.  In the initial phases of marriage counseling, couples may need to wait to address larger problems with the therapist present to avoid further emotional damage.  Eventually however, as the couple stabilizes and begins to deepen their understanding of the dynamics in their relationship, and puts into practice new communication and conflict resolution skills, it is crucial that they continue working on and processing the issues between sessions.  Without sustained work and focus on creating a “new normal,” it is inevitable that couples regress back into old and firmly established patterns.  We are all creatures of habit, therefore successful outcomes in marital therapy depend in large measure on the couple’s willingness to replace unhealthy habits and relationship rituals in their daily lives with new ones they are learning and developing in the therapy process.

To help facilitate this process, we give couples practical exercises and assignments to work on together and individually between our sessions.  Bill and Susan desperately needed to replace the hurtful exchanges with positive and encouraging ones.  For example, the Affirmation Exercise we have developed was like a gourmet meal to a malnourished and shriveled-up relationship.  Feeding their “love banks” between our sessions not only helped maintain the treatment gains, but began to help them rebuild trust and mutual commitment to each other.  In one sense it’s making the work during the session stick until the next session, and so forth.  Ultimately, our job as marital therapists is to work ourselves out of a job.  Working between sessions not only speeds up the healing and recovery process, but also decreases the chances of relapse.

8. Stay The Course

Marriage counseling isn’t for everyone, and it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart.  It often involves difficult and painful discussions, and collaborative work. But, the long-term benefits and growth can be quite dramatic, especially considering the amount of distress couples are in at the beginning of counseling.  Sometimes one spouse or the couple is not invested in the work/change, but primarily wants symptom relief (i.e., wanting immediate relief from the pain or crisis that brought them to our clinic). Again, that’s understandable. Who doesn’t want relief when you’re suffering?  When the crisis is over however, and they are feeling better, they stop coming to counseling.  The sad thing is that their relationship continues to be in desperate need of systemic and characterlogical change.  It is inevitable that they will relapse and fall back into the previously established unhealthy patterns.  Often these couples will return to counseling after realizing they prematurely terminated, and didn’t give their relationship adequate time to heal and rebuild.  As we’ve seen, we are all creatures of habit, and without character change, and adequate time to develop a “new normal,” we default back to longstanding relationship patterns and rituals.  We ask couples to make at least a 12-week commitment on a weekly basis. Most couples have been struggling for years, and in order to be helpful and effective agents of change, we need to have enough time and opportunity to help them heal, reestablish trust, develop new skills, identify and transform unhealthy patterns into new and healthy ones, and rebuild a mutually fulfilling relationship.  As marriage counselors, we count it a unique privilege to come alongside hurting and struggling relationships like Bill and Susan’s.  I often marvel at the amazing healing and transformation that takes place when couples stay the course and courageously walk together through these 8 keys to make marriage counseling work.

Biblical Considerations

For couples who want to affirm their biblical values and apply those principles to their relationship to make marriage counseling work, consider the following brief list:

  • Take personal responsibility
    Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” James 5:16
  • Humility and courage
    Show proper respect to everyone, fear God, and honor the King.”  1 Peter 2:17
    “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” James 4:6b
  • Build a safe emotional climate
    “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.”  1 Peter 3:8-9
    “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”  Proverbs 12:18
  • Accept influence
    “Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice.” Proverbs 13:10
  • Feed love
    “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8
    “Love is patient and kind . . . keeps no record of wrong.” 1 Corinthians 13:4, 5
  • Develop skills and tools
    “As iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17
    “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”  James 1:19
  • Keep working / processing between sessions
    “Be very careful then how you live—not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”  Ephesians 5:15-16
  • Stay the course
    “And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”  Galatians 6: 9-10



[1] Gottman, J. M. and Gottman J. S.  Level 1 Clinical Training : The Gottman Method Couples Therapy. The Gottman Institute, Inc., 2014.

[2] Ibid

[3] https://www.gottman.com/blog/managing-conflict-recognizing-gridlock/

[4] Gottman, J. M. and Gottman J. S., Op Cit.

[5]  Markman, H., Stanley, S., and Blumberg, S. L. Fighting For Your Marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994.

[6] Gottman, J. M. and Gottman J. S., Op Cit.

[7] Parrott, L. and Parrott, L. Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.

[8] Johnson, S. Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations For A Lifetime Of Love. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2008.

[9] Markman, H., Stanley, S., and Blumberg, S. L. Fighting For Your Marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994.

[10] Ibid

[11] Gottman, J. M. The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.

8 Keys to Make Marriage Counseling Work

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1854 W. Auburn Rd., Suite #210, Rochester Hills, MI 48309

Phone: 248-844-2647

Email: info@oaklandhillscounseling.com

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