One of the questions I am most frequently asked is what makes for successful marriage counseling. Naturally the training and background of the therapist is very important in making for a successful marriage counseling experience. However, I am going to focus on that in a separate article which addresses specifically what you should look for in a marriage counselor.

The focus of this article is on what couples should bring to marriage counseling in order for it to work for them. In close to 20 years of working with couples I have come to believe there are three necessary ingredient couples must have for marriage counseling to work.

Marriage Counseling Secret Ingredient #1: Own Thy Own Stuff

By the time most couples come to my office for marriage counseling they are very practiced in using the word “you” as in “You do this”, “You don’t do this”,“ You’re too cold”, “You’re always complaining” etc, etc… Sound familiar?

People who say this are usually coming from a place of genuine hurt and frustration and are desperately trying to get this across to their partner. The problem is that starting off any sentence with the word “you” puts the other person on the defensive. More often than not there is more than just a hint of anger or accusation in your voice which makes it all the more unlikely that your partner will actually listen to what you are saying. Who wants to hear what someone else has to say when they feel as if they are under attack?

The only person you have control over in this relationship is yourself and the irony is that the more you own your own role in creating the problems that led you to marriage counseling the more likely it is that your partner will own up to his or her role in creating the problem. I know this is not an easy step to take – it can feel very risky to expose yourself or perhaps you honestly feel that your partner has more of the blame in the problems in your relationship.

Regardless of what it is that’s preventing you from owning your own stuff the approach you are taking is not working or you would not be feeling frustrated and hurt to the point of seeking marriage counseling.

Marriage Counseling Secret Ingredient Number Two: Listen to the What your Partner is Really Saying, Not What You Think They Are Saying.

Remember how it was when you first started dating? How you would take the time and really listen to each other? How you really worked to understand the other person’s point of view instead of instantly casting them as the enemy when you were trying to make up after a fight? What happened?

Well, unfortunately there are a couple of things wrong with the way our brains are built that get in the way of us being able to resolve conflict. The first thing to understand is that our brain is built to be a problem solving machine and when you first fall in love it looks at your partner as this wonderful shiny new toy that fills it with all these yummy neurochemicals which make your brain feel so good.

Unfortunately, after awhile the brain starts to think “I’ve got this person figured out” and in essence assigns labels to your partner. It does this as a mental shortcut because if we really had to process every bit of information that we come across our brains would quickly become overwhelmed. Our partners are no exception to this rule. We all have anywhere from five to fifteen or so labels for our partner, some of them good, some not so good and everything he or she does gets filtered through one of these labels.

While this might make for efficient use of brain power, it doesn’t make for good understanding of one another. Without even being aware of it you stop trying to understand what your partner is really saying or doing and instead filter it through one of those labels. If it goes through a good label no problem. If it gets filtered through a bad label its seen as a problem.

Most couples I see in marriage counseling are at a point where the number of times they use a negative label far outweighs the number of times they use a positive one. The irony is that the better we know our partner the more likely we are to stereotype him or her. Think about it for a moment – what labels do you have for your partner?

The sad thing is that, even though it may not feel like it, underneath all that muck is pretty much the same person you fell in love with. It might be hard to see beyond all the fights and hurts that have piled up over the years, but I can promise you that 9 times out of 10 the essence of the same person you fell in love with is there. Things on the surface may change – you’ve got more responsibilities, kids, different interests perhaps, but underneath the bare essence of personality that you once found so entrancing remains. One of the things that make him or her look so different are the labels you are using.

Marriage Counseling Secret Ingredient Number Three: Patience

Chances are you didn’t get here over night and, as much as I wish I could wave my magic Dr. Phil wand and make it go away in one or two marriage counseling sessions, things are probably not going to get better over night either. Emotions are tricky things, they involve a different part of the brain than the thinking part of your brain.

Because of that I can’t simply tell you to do x, y and z and everything will be fine. That’s sort of like listening to a lecture on skiing and expecting to go out and schuss down a black diamond slope the next day. Instead you would go out on the bunny slope and practice and probably fall down a lot, but if you stuck with it you would get better.

A successful marriage is really not all that different. It’s a skill that you can learn and with practice get very good at. So patience is key. While it may have taken you years to get to the point of feeling like you need marriage counseling it doesn’t mean that it will take years for things to get better. I typically see couples for marriage counseling somewhere between 15 and 35 sessions. Sometimes there is a quick fix and it only takes a couple sessions. Sometimes the problems run deep and it does take more time.

Regardless of how long it takes or how impossible it may seem I can promise you that if you approach marriage counseling using these three ingredients you are already half way there to the marriage you want.

Go to www.MarylandMarriageCounselor for more free info on what makes for a successful marriage counseling experience.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Joe James is a psychologist with close to 20 years experience working with couples. He maintains a private practice in the Washington, D.C. area.