Marriage counseling: For two people in a relationship—and perhaps to anyone who’s the least bit interested in popular culture—those two words can seem loaded with a foreboding future. The term is often seen as a last resort, a Hail Mary pass toward possible happier times. “If we grit our teeth and sit on opposite ends of a couch in front of a stranger, maybe things will get better,” this type of consensus says, but that’s not necessarily the case. According to Alysha Jeney, the founder and relationship expert behind Modern Love Counseling, the majority of couples who schedule sessions in her office are doing fine.
“I’d say that about 70% of my couples are actually seeking me out for more ‘preventative’ and ‘enhancement’ counseling to boost their already great relationship,” she notes. “Relationship counseling can help any partnership. It offers a safe space to discuss difficult or uncomfortable topics openly, can help clarify certain assumptions or expectations, and can enhance emotional and sexual intimacy.”
Jeney refers to the idea that marriage counseling should be used only during difficult person as a “common misconception,” although she understands why the stigma exists. “Many of us didn’t learn how to effectively emote, communicate, or work together in an intimate partnership,” she continues. So when things can get heated—or when we’re not sure how to approach a difficult situation—it’s easy to feel as if we’re failures in our relationships. You can probably thank pop culture for that assessment, too.
“There is no such thing as a perfect relationship,” Jeney says. “Regardless of marital status, how often we have sex, or how good we are at communicating, we are all humans with stressors, insecurities, and demands that often get in the way of our ability to show up for each other all the time.”
So let’s say that you want to take a proactive stance toward the health of your relationship, or perhaps you’ve noticed some cracks that you want to address now. Jeney agrees that making the call to a therapist is still intimidating, so she’s providing some insight into what to expect. Here’s everything you need to know to go in order to go about finding a marriage therapist—or really, any type of relationship therapist—and how to make the most of your time on the couch. There’s no need to grin and bear it, either, since this will likely be a more positive experience than the average consensus has led us to believe.
“There is no shame in needing some additional tools to learn how to effectively support yourself and your partner for long-term fulfillment,” Jeney says. “Like anything, this is a learning process that may possibly be the best investment you have ever made for yourself and your relationships. I know it was for me.”
Step One: Find a Therapist Who Makes You Comfortable
“It’s highly important to shop around for the ‘right’ therapist,” Jeney says. “Every therapist is different because every therapist has a certain expertise and a different style.”
“First, the best practice is to ask family members and friends to see if they have any recommendations,” she continues. “Another option is to search online for your specific need and try to be as specific as possible. Once you’ve selected a few options in your area, you can call the therapists directly and ask for a free consultation. A free consult allows you to meet with your potential therapist and ask any questions about their practice, beliefs, and style that can be helpful in making your decision.”
Step Two: Prepare for the First Sessions
“It’s important to mention that every therapist’s process is different,” Jeney says. “If a couple is working with me, they can anticipate our first session to initially cover the informed consent rules, which cover policies, expectations, legalities, and the ethics of our relationship. Once partners have agreed and signed, we can switch gears and discuss the ‘why’ of their attendance. We discuss goals and desires, as well as what areas of their relationship they are wanting to enhance or change. I also prompt questions around conflict and conflict resolution, to assess what their communication and conflict style looks like.”
“Moving forward, couples can expect to meet with me one time separately, where we discuss more individual content, such as family background, history, conflict style, current stressors, and their perceptions of their relationship,” she continues. “After that second session, we meet weekly as the three of us work toward the goals we set in our initial sessions.”
“Clients are welcome to bring content into session to discuss,” she says. “However, as the therapist, I direct the sessions and help couples slow down communication and become more self-aware of their emotions, body language, and covert communication. We’ll also discuss certain topics on a more vulnerable level and help create the speed and safety needed to open up to each other more intimately.”
Step Three: Make the Most of Your Sessions
Know what you want from this experience. “It is incredibly helpful for you both, as well as for your therapist, to understand exactly what it is that you’re trying to achieve in your counseling,” she says. “This helps you all identify expectations, create realistic goals, and allows you and your partner to feel as though you are on the same page, or at least at an understanding.”
Be vulnerable. “Without vulnerability, change, and growth are not possible in counseling,” she says. “If you’re unable to break down your walls, it may be a good indicator that individual therapy can be a helpful resource.”
Be honest. “You may be nervous initially to express your needs, feelings, or thoughts, but try to remember that those components are why you are in therapy,” Jeney continues. “Part of working through things with the therapist’s support is to allow yourself to be fully transparent. You may find that it’s not as scary as you have chalked it up to be.”
Be uncomfortable. “Change is uncomfortable, and exposing yourself differently is uncomfortable,” she says. “No one feels super confident going outside of their comfort zones initially, but by allowing yourself the space to work through discomfort, you will find a lot of your growth.”
Be patient. “The process of change is not only uncomfortable, but it is also slow moving,” Jeney adds. “Being patient with the process, yourself, and your partner is a necessity to build on your foundation in a safe way. This will promote healthy growth and change.”