Psychologists often work with couples in marriage counseling. As a psychologist who practices cognitive behavioral therapy, the approach I use is often direct and straightforward.
I meet with the couple for an initial session. And then meet separately with each of the partners. Through both interview and specific questionnaires, I seek to identify and clarify the stated problems and issues along with the resources and strengths of the marriage and each partner.
Sometimes, if an individual’s problems are interfering with the marriage, like a significant alcohol, drug, major depression or anger problem, they are referred out to work with an individual therapist. In most cases marriage counseling proceeds with couples learning how to listen, communicate, assert, relax and often modify their unrealistic expectations of themselves and/ or their spouse. The process is less about changing the other person and more about changing and accepting oneself. At times the spouse must change. For example it is not OK for someone to be physically abusive or to squander the families college fund for the kids on gambling.
In cognitive behavioral marriage counseling, the focus is mostly on the present thoughts, attitudes, feelings and behaviors rather than rehashing the past, early childhood and related issues.
Clients are often given skills to practice between sessions to not only feel better but also get better.
A significant part of cognitive behavioral marriage counseling is psychoeducational. For example, a female might state that she feels badly that her husband is not supportive. The husband denies it and says whenever she complains about something at work he always listens and tells her what she should do. The wife turns around and says, “You see, he is not supportive. He just tells me what to do.” In this common example, the definition of “supportive” needs to be clarified. The wife needs to focus on the intent of the husband to be helpful and the husband needs to be more of a listener prior to jumping into the problem-solving role.
In cognitive behavioral marriage counseling, the psychologist helps both partners identify, recognize, support and reward positive efforts made by the spouse. Rather than focusing on what he or she didn’t do, there is more of an emphasis on what was done. The behavioral goal is to “shape up” the desired behaviors of both partners.
Cognitively, it is important for both partners to become more aware of their thoughts and how these thoughts impact their feelings about their partner. It is tough to feel warm and loving towards a partner in the evening if you have spent most of the day focusing-in on all their faults and mistakes. Changing the way we think helps us change how we feel and act. More often than not, positive behaviors in one partner triggers a reciprocal positive change in the other partner.
With committed couples, cognitive behavioral marriage counseling can be helpful in preserving and improving many marriages and often times in a matter of months rather than years.