Problems have been building in your marriage for a while. You try talking about it and end up fighting. You try again and end up fighting. Maybe you try to change and you try to ask for change, and you’re both still fighting and miserable. So, you gather up your courage and decide to try marriage counseling. You might hope that if you can just get in there for one session the therapist is going to convince your spouse that you have been right all along and amazing changes happen overnight. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but that’s not how these things work. You need a relationship checkup.
For starters, relationship problems are complex. A situation that took months or years to develop isn’t likely to be fixed overnight. And there probably isn’t just one thing that needs to be fixed; it’s a lot of things in combination that need changing to get you to the satisfying, intimate, loving relationship you want.
Why take the time for assessment? Can’t we just get right to work?
Marriage problems are often complicated and require thorough assessment and specialized treatment planning. When we go visit a doctor we expect there to be scans or blood work or family and medical history gathered in arriving at a diagnosis. We expect the doctor to be thorough in the assessment and diagnosis process so that we can feel confident that the treatment we get will address the problems we are facing.
In much the same way, when you come see me for marriage counseling I begin with a thorough assessment. I want to know the unique problems you are facing so that I can be confident that the treatment I give you is addressing the problems you want fixed. This usually takes 3-4 sessions to complete. I’ll describe the process so you know what to expect if you work with me.
Session 1: Relationship History and Identification of Conflict Issues
In the first assessment session we will discuss expectations for marriage counseling—what you want to happen and what you don’t want to happen. We talk about how marriage counseling is different from individual counseling sessions. In marriage counseling the marriage is the client. This means that I am looking primarily at what is best for the health of your relationship. I won’t help you keep secrets from each other or take sides, placing the blame for the marriage problems only on one of you, because these things aren’t good for your relationship. I may ask you to make changes in your habits, attitudes, or ways of communicating based on what will be good for your marriage.
Also in the first session, we talk about the problem or situation that brought you to seek marriage counseling. We discuss some of the history of your relationship—the ups and downs. I’ll ask you to share your ideas about what makes relationships work and the qualities you value in a good relationship.
We finish this session with a discussion of a conflict issue. I’ll ask you to attempt to resolve a conflict issue for 10 minutes while I observe. It can feel a little uncomfortable to have someone watch you fight. I get it. However, I ask all couples who come in to do this because it gives me invaluable information and helps me to help you.
I like to hear your description of problems and also see you as you try to solve them. Because of my position as an outsider in the relationship and because of my professional training and experience, I often see things you may miss. As we move forward in the therapy, I have an easier time helping you because I have a really clear picture of how your fights go and where you get stuck. This is the only time you will come to my office and ‘fight’ without me helping you do something about it.
The Gottman Relationship Checkup
In between the first and second sessions I send you a questionnaire to fill out online. The questionnaire is composed of 480 questions about friendship, intimacy, emotions, conflict, values, and trust, as well as parenting, housework, finances, individual areas of concern, and more. It was developed from over 40 years of scientific research by Dr. John Gottman; this relationship assessment tool relies on intensive, detailed, and evidence-based information on why relationships succeed or fail.
Session 2: One-on-one Time to Discuss Individual Concerns
The second session is split between you and your partner. I’ll spend some time getting to know you as individuals and hearing your individual areas of concern. I may ask follow-up questions about things we discussed in the first session or about your answers on the questionnaire. There is also opportunity for you to ask me questions.
In between the second and third sessions I spend time analyzing all the information I have gathered from our interviews, my observations, and the questionnaires. I prepare to give you the result of all this diagnostic work.
Session 3: Discussion of Results
The third session is part education, part feedback, and part goal setting. I’ll explain the different elements that make a strong relationship and we will discuss which are strengths and which are challenges for you. We will share ideas about how we can address the challenge areas. We will set some goals: which areas are of highest priority for you? what would you like to work on first? how will you know when you’ve achieved a successful result?
If you are thinking of coming in for one session with me, I suggest you commit to yourself to do at least three. You aren’t going to get the benefit of the assessment process if you don’t come for that third one to get the results. It’s like doing all the testing with your doctor and never going in to hear the diagnosis and treatment plan.
You Decide What the Next Steps will Be
There’s a lot of information to take in during this process and no obligation to continue sessions. Some people feel quite discouraged seeing all the challenges they are facing. Some people feel relieved to finally have it all out there in a matter-of-fact manner. Others feel energized and excited that they finally have words to describe what they’ve been experiencing and hope for change.
After you have the results, you decide what to do next. Some couples who were undecided about whether to stay together decide to separate. They may look at the challenges they are facing and decide to end the relationship. Other couples may decide to move forward and work on their challenge areas on their own. And others decide to schedule more sessions and work with me to meet their relationship goals. The choice is up to you. I just give you information to aid your decision making.
If you’re ready to get started with an assessment of your relationship, call me at 951-999-7775 or contact me here.