What Makes Couples Counseling Successful?

Let’s face it. In some circles, couples counseling has had a bad rap. Some believe that it is not worthwhile and rarely leads to a positive outcome. Others may have heard of someone who didn’t have a good experience. Couples counseling skeptics, who end up giving it a shot anyway, will unfortunately face the cruel irony that they are unlikely to have a successful outcome in couples counseling. The worst part is that they mostly have themselves to blame. Attitude affects everything, including therapeutic outcomes.

In their book The Heart & Soul of Change: What Works in Therapy, Mark A. Hubble, Barry L. Duncan, and Scott D. Miller examined what factors matter the most in determining therapeutic success or failure. They concluded that there are four factors which determine therapeutic success. Of these four, their research concluded that “client factors,” impact therapeutic outcome the most! So what are “client factors”? Client factors can be thought of as what the client brings with them into the therapy office. This includes their attitudes (about themselves, their partner, their therapist, etc.), beliefs (about couples counseling), and even the amount of social support that they have in their lives.

Interestingly, at the bottom of the list of most impactful factors is the specific therapeutic technique, or approach, a therapist uses in therapy. The second most influential factor is the relationship between therapist and client, which illustrates the importance of finding a good match in counseling.

The bottom line, however, is that while your marriage counselor plays an invaluable role with his or her guidance, observations and suggestions, how hard you work with, and implement the tools and suggestions offered in couples counseling, is far more influential than the actual tools or techniques presented to you.

This research is in fact very consistent with my experience in working with couples: Those who are motivated, have at least some hope, and work hard on improving their relationship, do in fact have the most successful outcomes! One other very important factor (not part of the above research) influencing the success of couples counseling is how long a couple has endured an unsatisfying relationship before seeking help. The longer a couple waits to come in for couples counseling (research suggest the average duration is six years), the more likely at least one partner is short on hope or motivation in working on the relationship.

If a client isn’t persistent in working with their partner or therapist in marriage counseling, it may be telling of their attitude toward the relationship in general.

Unfortunately, couples are too often looking for (or even expecting) a quick fix. When that magical fix inevitably isn’t realized, sometimes one partner will give up and stop coming to the counseling sessions, saying it didn’t work. Another pitfall that leads to a less-than-successful outcome is when one or both partners experience a mild improvement in their relationship, and end couples counseling prematurely, before some of the deeper issues are explored and worked through. For the vast majority of couples, attending couples counseling for less than 8 to 10 sessions is not going lead to lasting positive change in their relationship.

Here are five recommendations to improve the likelihood of a successful outcome:

1. Realistic expectations are needed. Five years of resentment won’t disappear in a few sessions. The longer issues have been festering, the more time it will take to resolve them.

2. Look inward. Start by first focusing on yourself, instead of automatically blaming your partner. Follow the Mahatma Gandhi quote, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world [or in your relationship!].”

3. Be persistent and continue to hold out hope. There really is no substitute for persistence and hard work.

4. Don’t wait — as soon as you recognize things could be improved between you and your partner, get the help your relationship deserves!

5. There is no magic wand. Working hard, both inside and outside of the therapy office, is what makes a big difference in a successful outcome.

So, clearly getting the most out of couples counseling depends largely on what each partner brings into the therapy sessions. It’s the therapist’s responsibility to point out unrealistic expectations, but ultimately, they can only provide the tools and the roadmap for success. It’s up to the couple themselves to use them, work hard and follow the necessary steps to improve their relationship.

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