“We started seeing a marriage counselor because we wanted to improve our relationship, but now our problems seem bigger than ever!” Surprising as it may seem, this is a fairly common lament among couples who seek professional help in repairing their relationships. Reason: Conflicts can escalate as secrets are revealed and unexamined emotions are brought to light. However, this does not mean that couples’ counseling hurts more than it helps—because the only way to get past problems is to deal with them honestly.

Are you worried about your relationship and wondering whether to see a couples’ counselor? My recommendations…

Tally the signs of trouble. The more of the following that apply, the more advisable couples’ counseling is. You and/or your partner frequently…

  • Feel as though you have fallen out of love or scarcely know each other anymore.
  • Openly or inwardly criticize each other.
  • Argue or maintain icy silences.
  • Feel tense, frustrated, depressed, angry or afraid.
  • Refuse or dread sex.
  • Feel that marital problems interfere with the ability to enjoy other areas of life.
  • Think about having, or actually do have, an affair.
  • Contemplate ending the relationship.

Set a deadline for seeking help. Talk with your partner about your concerns and work together to resolve those problems—but if there is no improvement in three months, consult a professional.

Suggest counseling in a way that invites cooperation. Issuing threats (“Come to counseling or we’re through!”) or blaming your partner (“A counselor would make you see how rude you are to me”) drives a bigger wedge between you. Better: Explain that your intention is to make the marriage better with the help of an impartial third party who can mediate conflicts and facilitate communication, not to get an “accomplice” to gang up on your partner.

If he refuses, go alone. Changing your own behavior can help you respond to your partner in a more positive way. This can bring about desirable change—and may even encourage him to join you in counseling.

Look for a counselor with appropriate credentials. Get referrals from your friends, doctor or insurance company… or from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (www.aamft.org) or the American Psychological Association (www.apa.org). Choose a counselor who focuses on couples and who has experience with your most troublesome issues (finances, sexuality, parenting, etc.).

Interview three candidates by phone to see with whom you feel comfortable and compatible. Ask about the counselor’s approach. In my opinion, the most effective one is an “integrative behavioral/analytic” style that focuses on feelings and actions in the present but also takes past experiences into account. I also advise working with a counselor who meets with both partners together as well as with each of you individually. Ask about session length and frequency, fees and insurance accepted.

Once you’ve begun seeing a counselor, evaluate him or her based on the REASSURE model I developed. The counselor should Reassure you that there is hope for resolving problems… Empathize by being a good listener… Ask about each partner’s feelings, behaviors, needs and goals… Support each partner emotionally… Suggest problem-solving techniques… Understand the significance of each partner’s previous experiences… Refer you to other resources or health-care professionals if necessary (for instance, if a medical problem might be contributing to sexual dysfunction)… and Encourage you to keep trying. Also consider the amount of feedback you have been getting. The counselor shouldn’t just listen while you do all the talking, nor simply tell you what to do, but rather make some suggestions and facilitate your coming to solutions with your partner.

Commit to riding the roller coaster. Remember that marital woes may seem to worsen when you start counseling… and that the deeper the problems, the more tumultuous the emotional roller-coaster ride to resolution may be. Don’t give up too soon! As problems get addressed and solutions are tried, calmer times and closer ties will come. Of course, some couples in counseling do ultimately decide to separate, in which case, a counselor can make that transition less traumatic. More often, however, counseling helps couples build better partnerships based on cooperation, compromise and commitment.

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