What is Marital Therapy?
Marital therapy is a type of counseling specifically for couples, focusing on improving their relationship. It helps partners address and resolve conflicts, enhance communication, and strengthen their emotional connection. The therapy is conducted by professionals trained in addressing marital issues, aiming to create a healthier, more fulfilling partnership.
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.
The Marital Therapy Journey
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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.
When to Seek Marital Therapy
Recognizing the need for marital therapy is a critical step in addressing the challenges within a relationship. It involves being aware of certain signs that indicate underlying issues and understanding how early intervention can be beneficial.
One of the key indicators is the presence of frequent arguments that often escalate without resolution. This persistent conflict can lead to a breakdown in communication, where discussions either lead to more disagreements or are avoided altogether. Alongside this, emotional detachment, where partners feel disconnected from each other's lives, is another significant sign. This detachment might manifest as a lack of interest, intimacy, or shared activities.
In addition to these signs, trust issues such as infidelity, dishonesty, or keeping secrets can severely impact the relationship. A general sense of dissatisfaction or unhappiness, where partners feel stuck or hopeless, also suggests that therapy could be beneficial.
Early intervention in these situations can prevent negative patterns from becoming entrenched and more challenging to resolve. It fosters healthier communication, helping couples navigate future challenges more effectively. Addressing issues promptly can also aid in rebuilding trust and intimacy before they suffer irreparable damage. Couples can also acquire tools and strategies through therapy to handle future conflicts, enhancing the resilience and overall health of the relationship.
Effective Marital Therapy Techniques
Marital therapy employs various techniques, each with its unique approach to addressing relationship issues. Two notable methods are the Gottman Method and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT).
The Gottman Method, developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, is grounded in research on marital stability and divorce prediction. This method focuses on nine components of healthy relationships known as the "Sound Relationship House Theory." These include building love maps, sharing fondness and admiration, turning towards instead of away, maintaining a positive perspective, managing conflict, making life dreams come true, creating shared meaning, and using effective conflict resolution skills. The Gottman Method is particularly known for its emphasis on enhancing emotional connection, improving communication, and fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation between partners.
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)
Emotionally Focused Therapy, developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, is based on attachment theory and focuses on emotions and their role in relationship patterns. EFT aims to help couples identify and understand their emotional responses and underlying attachment needs. By doing so, partners can learn to express their emotions and needs more effectively and respond to each other in more supportive and constructive ways. This approach is particularly effective in rebuilding trust and security in a relationship, helping couples develop stronger emotional bonds and a more secure attachment.
Both these techniques aim to address core issues in relationships, such as communication breakdown, emotional disconnection, and unresolved conflicts. By focusing on the emotional underpinnings of behaviors and improving interaction patterns, these methods help couples move towards a more satisfying, healthier relationship.
Choosing the Right Marital Therapist
Selecting the right marital therapist is a crucial step in the journey towards improving a marriage. Here are some guidelines to help couples choose a therapist who can effectively address their unique needs:
- Licensure and Credentials: Ensure that the therapist is licensed to practice in your state. Look for credentials in marriage and family therapy, such as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), which indicate specialized training in marital issues.
- Experience with Specific Issues: Consider therapists who have experience dealing with the specific issues you're facing in your relationship, whether it’s communication problems, infidelity, or emotional detachment.
- Therapeutic Approach: Different therapists use different approaches (like the Gottman Method or Emotionally Focused Therapy). Understanding these approaches can help you choose a therapist whose methodology aligns with your preferences and goals.
- Cultural and Value Sensitivity: It's important that the therapist understands and respects your cultural background and personal values. This can significantly impact the comfort level and effectiveness of the therapy.
- Tips for Finding a Therapist Who Aligns with the Couple’s Values and Needs
- Referrals and Recommendations: Start by asking for referrals from trusted sources, such as friends, family, or healthcare providers who understand your needs.
- Consultation Sessions: Many therapists offer initial consultation sessions. Use these sessions to gauge your comfort level with the therapist and discuss your goals and expectations.
- Research and Reviews: Look up potential therapists online. Read reviews and testimonials to get a sense of other couples’ experiences with the therapist.
- Compatibility: It’s essential that both partners feel comfortable with the therapist. Pay attention to how the therapist communicates and whether they create a balanced and neutral space for both partners.
- Logistics: Consider practical aspects like location, availability, session length, and cost, including whether they accept insurance.
Choosing the right marital therapist involves careful consideration of their qualifications, experience, approach, and compatibility with your needs and values. Taking the time to research and consult with potential therapists can lead to a more fruitful and satisfying therapeutic experience.