What will marriage counseling be like? We’ve never been to marriage counseling, and we are not sure what to think. Really, we are nervous and a bit afraid.

When couples first come in for counseling this, or something like this, is what almost everyone says. They don’t know what to expect, and they are not sure they really want to be here anyway. But their marital problems have grown to the point that the fear of them overtakes the fear of counseling. So couples come, nervous and embarrassed, and ask these questions. (I’m using the word marriage to mean both legal marriage, and partnership.)

Here is what I tell every couple who comes to me for counseling:

I know this is scary, so let’s talk about what counseling will look like. But before we do that you need to know a few things. First, you will never have to answer any question that you don’t want to answer. You are in charge as far as that goes. For me to demand that you answer me would be to take power, and I won’t do that. Second, I know you don’t know me, and I know you don’t feel safe here yet, and that’s ok. Making this a safe place for you by gaining your trust is one of the most important things I can do in counseling. You have to feel safe in order to open your heart and soul. Third, we have to agree that only truth will be spoken here. As you grow in trust it will be easier to be totally truthful. But we have to agree that there can be no ‘pay-backs’ after the session for what is said here. And please, never use what I say in here as weapons against each other, or to prove your point. I am on both of your sides, not on one side or the other.

Then we begin, and I just ask you each to tell me the history of your marriage, and what you think the problems are. This takes the first session, maybe two, and as we go on, more issues come to the surface. Each person gets equal time, and I don’t let arguments get out of hand. I always joke that I charge triple to be a referee. Early on, usually by the third or fourth session, I meet with each person privately for that week’s session, and I assure each spouse that what they say is completely confidential; I will never mention it or allude to it without their permission, and I won’t answer questions from their partner or spouse about what was said.

We talk about how their marriage got to where it is, when it started to become what it is now, and look for the reasons why this happened. Many of the reasons go back to the baggage we all bring into marriage from our past, so we work through these, too. We talk about how to resolve conflict in a way that builds the relationship, and how to take down the walls they’ve built through unresolved conflict over the years. We talk about authenticity, and about vulnerability and emotional connection. My goal is not to save the marriage as it is, but to make a new relationship based on love, connection, and authenticity. Marriage should not be endured; it should be a delight.

There are other things that we do, but this is enough for now. Here is the bottom line, marriage counseling is not a pre-programed set of questions or rules. Instead, counseling is a relationship where I walk beside you, pointing the way. I cannot fix you, and you cannot change each other. The only person you can change is yourself. But if each of you is willing to do the work of changing together, then the marriage will change.  I’ve seen it happen again and again, and it can happen to you so long as you are willing.