Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, licensed clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, Boulder, Colorado, and author of Getting Through to the Man You Love: The No-Nonsense, No-Nagging Guide for Women. DivorceBusting.com
Bottom Line: Don’t just discuss your marriage—rescue it.
As a veteran marriage therapist with nearly 40 years of experience, I am one of a growing group of professionals who has found that the format of the traditional “60-minute” therapy session repeated week after week is impractical—even inherently flawed. Instead I, along with a growing number of my colleagues, now offer two-day couples intensives. But can you really turn your marriage around in two days?
Yes, you can.
When a couple starts traditional therapy, it often takes many sessions for the therapist to get enough information about underlying problems for reparative work to begin. Meanwhile, the problems persist, often adding to a deepening sense of hopelessness. Within each session, it can be daunting to discuss profoundly personal subjects, so people often procrastinate, waiting until the end of a session to share their innermost thoughts and feelings. Ending sessions abruptly when people are in the throes of emotionally charged conversations doesn’t bode well for the week ahead.
About 15 years ago, I started looking for better solutions for the on-the-brink-of-divorce couples who frequented my practice. They sincerely wanted help for their fragile marriages, and they didn’t have time for “he said/she said” rehashing of marital woes or endless replays of “I’ll change if you change first” mantras.
Two-day intensives—just you and your spouse or partner (for nonmarried couples) and a therapist—allow ample time to explore issues in depth, to deal with tough emotions as they arise and, most important, to begin to find solutions to long-term problems.
The short time frame often helps get a reluctant spouse to participate. Example: For one of my couples, married for 35 years, a key issue was the husband’s long hours as a small-town physician. The wife felt unloved, and the husband felt misunderstood. But committing to months, perhaps years, of weekly therapy sessions was simply not feasible. A two-day format worked for both of them—and led to a breakthrough.
Bonus: Since two-day intensive marriage-therapy sessions are not available in every part of the country, many couples need to travel out of town to attend them. That allows couples to take a break from life’s routines to focus exclusively on their relationships rather than careers and children—and to enjoy a bit of an adventure in a new place. Many also prefer the anonymity that seeking help away from home allows.
The structure of these sessions stemmed from the work of a team I was on that developed an innovative approach called solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee in the 1980s. Rather than focus on the past to understand why people are experiencing problems, SFBT focuses on the future, identifying the specific steps people must take to achieve their goals. It emphasizes people’s strengths and resources rather than shortcomings. Couples are encouraged to shift from blame over what’s going wrong—arguments, emotional distance, sarcasm—to overlooked times when things go a bit more smoothly…argument-free days…parenting differences handled collaboratively…unexpected friendly texts. Restoring positive feelings happens more readily when couples redirect their attention to their mates’ positive actions and intentions because what you focus on expands. SFBT has been shown to be effective in many clinical studies and is offered around the world.
In a typical two-day session, each day starts at 9 am and ends around 4 pm, with a break for lunch. Instead of spending a great deal of time analyzing what caused problems, time is spent exploring the reasons couples are seeking help, their goals for their relationships and the concrete steps they need to take to stop fighting and achieve more love and connection in their lives. A portion of the sessions is devoted to teaching couples relevant relationship skills. For example, couples who complain, “We just can’t communicate,” learn specific skills to enable them to have productive conversations about heated topics such as dissimilarities in the handling of finances…levels of sexual desire…or beliefs about child-rearing or how free time should be spent.
Example: A couple married 32 years was trying to rebuild trust after the wife’s affair. During their uninterrupted time together in two-day therapy, the husband for the first time had ample opportunity to openly express difficult feelings and ask questions in an environment where he felt safe to take risks. Rather than react defensively to his anger as she had previously, the wife learned to express her genuine remorse and desire to help the marriage (and her husband) heal. For the first time since the discovery of the affair, the husband felt that he and his wife were once again “on the same team,” and they left therapy with a plan for rebuilding trust and restoring emotional and physical connection.
Many couples attending intensive sessions are at a crossroads—one spouse may be seriously considering divorce while the other is committed to working things out. While most couples wind up committing to staying together, in some cases during the therapy they decide to divorce. If this occurs, the focus of the therapy then turns to helping the spouse who is more committed accept the decision…to allowing each partner to gain insights into how he/she contributed to the breakdown of the marriage, which is key to not repeating those patterns in the future…and, if there are children, to discussing strategies for effective co-parenting once the marriage has ended.
Intensives help couples feel that they’ve left no stone unturned regardless of the outcome for the marriage, and that is important for many. Because intensives are geared toward the future, couples leave with clarity about their courses of action, often in the form of written plans. They frequently follow up with twice-monthly phone sessions with the therapist for several months, and some opt for a second in-person intensive six months later to further solidify and maintain the changes made during their time together.
The cost of two-day intensive couples therapy varies from about $1,500 to $5,000 a day depending on the location and the therapist’s level of experience and skills. If you can’t get a word-of-mouth referral to a therapist who offers these sessions, search the therapist directory at AAMFT.org. Explore therapists’ websites to find one that offers this approach, then set up time to talk—be sure to ask about the amount of experience a therapist has in conducting two-day intensive sessions. When choosing a therapist, the most important factors include feeling comfortable and respected and feeling that the therapist has a good grasp of the issues you and your spouse are going through. Beyond that, be certain that your therapist is passionate about the merits of multiday intensive sessions versus weekly therapy-as-usual. That’s someone who knows the difference two days can make.