Keeping a marriage healthy and happy over time takes work, and is sometimes quite a difficult task. It is wonderful when a couple in a troubled relationship is able to recognize and jointly work out their differences. This process is seldom easy, however. Once problems have started to become chronic, each partner feels betrayed by the other and compromise feels unsafe. In such cases, the safe and protected haven offered by a marital or couples therapist can make the difference between a marriage that fails and one that recovers itself.
Marital therapy is probably the best single thing that people in troubled marriages can do to help heal their marriages. A skilled marriage therapist offers support and intervention that can help distrusting disengaged partners to safely address their difficulties and begin the process of problem solving and healing:
- Safety. First and foremost, therapists work to provide a trustworthy and safe environment which can contain and manage couples' anger, frustration and contempt. Therapists remain neutral and do not take sides. They maintain confidentiality and privacy. They limit angry and hysterical emotional displays. They promote calm problem solving. In general, they provide a space in which it becomes possible for couples to step out of defensiveness and work on problems in a productive and rational manner.
- Normalization and Reality Testing. Experienced therapists have "seen it all before" and are able to help couples to understand when their desires and expectations (of each other and/or of themselves), indiscretions and reactions are normal and when they are unusual, inappropriate or even abusive. Such feedback from a relatively objective third party can provide a needed reference point which partners can refer to during their negotiations.
- Traffic Control. Conflicted couples often become easily defensive and have difficulty listening to each other. Therapists function as traffic cops to make sure that partners take turns talking and listening to each other, no one is shut down and unable to speak and all have a better chance to feel listened to than would otherwise be possible.
- Skills Education. Therapists teach problem solving skills which can help couples gain tools to help them better address and manage their conflicts. Communication skills help couples to know how to better speak and listen to each other. Soothing skills help partners to better recognize when they are becoming defensive, and how to calm themselves so that rational dialog remains possible.
- Interpretation. To the extent that the problem appears to be caused by partners' failure to understand one another, therapists will work hard to promote communication. They teach listening skills, promote sharing of feelings and desires that may be difficult to express and encourage partners to repeat what their partners have said so as to demonstrate their comprehension. When necessary, they will interpret partner's meanings so as to better promote each partner's understanding of the other. Therapists may also point out relationship patterns that partners may not have been aware of (for instance, if one partner attempts to treat the other as a child or as a parent) which could interfere with their ability to relate as adult partners.
Marital therapy generally takes place outpatient-style in a therapist's office and is offered once per week with each session lasting between 60 and 90 minutes. One or two therapists may be present in the session. When two therapists are present the process is called 'conjoint' therapy. The number of therapy sessions will vary according to the severity of the presented problems, the therapist's training and technique, and (unfortunately) the couple's ability to pay for services. Many insurance plans will provide partial coverage for marital therapy. Although some therapists will suggest that significant change can be made in one or two sessions, it is more likely that between 8 to 12 sessions will be required before significant and lasting change might realistically occur. On the other end of the spectrum, therapies that last for more than a year or so without producing results are not likely to produce results. In such cases, troubled couples might consider working with a different therapist with a different approach, or to rethink the viability of their marriage.
During sessions of marital therapy, therapists help couples to work through their difficulties which may include estrangement and loss of loving feelings, communication problems, affairs, mismatched expectations, and competitive struggles to determine whose vision and goals will dominate. Couples that have the best chance for recovery are those who are both motivated to keep their marriage alive. Couples who arrive at martial therapy with one or more partners ambivalent with regard to whether to remain committed to the marriage, whose problems are more severe or are characterized by more disengagement, or who are unwilling or unable to compromise are less likely to successfully work things out. Couples who arrive at therapy with one of the partners already emotionally disengaged from the other may be beyond help.