What Makes
Good Marriage Counseling

That question does not come with a short answer. All marriage counseling has three major ingredients, each of which must be to your liking for it to be good.

The Prime Ingredient

The therapist, in getting to know you and gaining your trust, establishes a professional relationship, called the therapeutic alliance, which is more important than the theories and treatments he/she swears by. That sounds a little far-fetched, but it is a fact (not my opinion). Lots of research has shown this to be true.[1]

It is critical to the success of marriage counseling. So pardon me while I beat you over the head with it to make sure this stays with you: the professional relationship between you and the marriage counselor or therapist is more important than the theories and treatments he/she swears by. It is the prime ingredient for good marriage counseling.

And it makes sense. If you don’t like or can’t trust your therapist, how can you possibly let your guard down enough so she can understand what’s going on in your marriage? Without a sense of collaboration that the three of you are working toward your goals, how can you hope for a positive outcome?

It doesn’t take long to set up this relationship. In fact, if it is not well on its way to being in place by the end of the first session, you probably will want to find another marriage counselor.

You will want to feel that the therapist is friendly, respectful, genuine, empathetic, receptive, affirmative, fair, non-judgmental, a really good listener, and knowledgeable. Your marriage is on the line here, so don’t dare think that’s asking too much of a counselor. A good counselor knows that is what she needs to be for her clients. Of course, you may be thinking it’s fairly obvious that you would want good rapport for marriage counseling to work. However, people too often overlook the obvious in so many situations. You must realize that it is more than just rapport, and that you must give it attention.

Failures and poor results in therapy are almost always due to problems with the therapeutic alliance. The president of an industry association writes: “[T]herapists’ and clients’ negative emotional reactions to each other, even when not directly expressed, are among the major factors predicting early termination or poor outcomes.”[2]

So throughout the course of counseling or therapy, you will want to check on this professional relationship. Is your level of trust strong? Are you comfortable with how the counselor is handling the conversations? Are her comments insightful? Do you approve of the "homework" she offers, and are you actually doing it? Does she seem to be distracted or not actively listening?

Your counselor is a person, too, and will not always be at peak proficiency. A study shows that at any one time only half of therapists are in a state of mind that can be described as alive, engaged and productive. Only half.[3]

She is bound to have her own problems that get in the way of her work sometimes, just like anyone else. If you think something is wrong, you should ask. While it would be totally unprofessional and unethical for her to talk about her problems in anything but general terms, and then only very briefly, her response may put your concern to rest. Remember, though, the counseling is for you, not the counselor. The money only flows one way, and you are not going to become personal friends with this person. If you think your professional relationship, the therapeutic alliance, is not as good as it could or should be, mention it. If you are not satisfied with the answer, perhaps you should get another counselor. Again, this alliance between you and the counselor is most important to the healing of your marital relationship. And it is your marriage that is at stake.

Our question is only partially answered. Click here to get the rest of the answer.

Next: What Makes Good Marriage Counseling Good? - Part 2

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[1] ^ Scott Miller et al., “Super Shrinks: Who Are They? What Can We Learn From Them?” Psychotherapy Networker, Nov/Dec, 2007.
[2] ^ Robert-Jay Green. “Therapeutic Alliance, Focus, and Formulation: Thinking Beyond the Traditional Therapy Orientations.” July 19, 2011. Psychotherapy.net.
[3] ^ Peter Fox. “How to Choose a Competent Therapist.” July 12, 2011. peterfox.com.au