What’s a marriage therapist and how can they help me and my wife, as we fight all the time?
A marriage therapist or couples’ counselor is a mental health professional who has a specialty in helping couples navigate relationships more satisfactorily. They are trained in helping couples identify, understand and change unhealthy emotional and behavioral patterns that can be destructive to a marriage. Unlike individual therapists, marriage therapists conduct most of their therapy sessions with both spouses present. Doing so allows the therapist to see the spouses’ relational patterns unfold first-hand and gives them the ability to intercede in real-time.
Marriage therapists can help people with a broad range of issues, but arguing is one of the most common reasons couples initially seek therapy. Therapists can help couples reduce the frequency and intensity of their arguments by intervening in multiple ways. First, by helping clients understand how they argue. This includes identifying triggers for conflict, learning what leads to escalation, understanding how fights end, what issues are left unresolved, and most importantly, helping each partner acknowledge his or her role in the pattern.
Second, therapists can help couples recognize why they argue. Arguments are frequently not really about the topic being fought over. For example, repetitive fights about spending money might represent a deeper disagreement about the definition of security. Quarreling about sex might really symbolize a difference in how emotional closeness is felt and expressed. Bickering about time spent on independent activities might reflect a difference in how partners define and maintain a sense of identity. Understanding the meaning underneath what is being argued over allows the issue to be addressed directly, increasing the odds of a mutually satisfying resolution.
Armed with this knowledge, a therapist can teach couples new ways to approach the inevitable disagreement. The goal of therapy is not to eliminate conflict, but rather to resolve it non-destructively. This usually includes new ways to communicate with one another in a non-provocative manner, uncovering hidden needs, empathizing with the other partner’s point of view, and fair negotiation.
Marital therapists help people with a wide range of other problems, too. Sometimes couples reach an impasse on major issues and they need help deciding whether or not staying in a marriage is in their best interest. It’s possible that there might not even be any animosity in these situations (though there is usually at least a deep sadness and feelings of loss). At other times couples have already decided to divorce and need help separating. Sometimes therapy is sought well after a divorce has occurred to help people address ongoing parenting issues, which might include how to integrate with new step-families.
Every couple that seeks marriage counseling brings unique issues to the table. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to marital therapy. However, a good therapist can help a couple develop, and put in to action, strategies that they feel will work for them, whether that entails resolving conflicts more harmoniously or deciding to go their separate ways.