When couples walk into my office and they are brave enough to admit that they have no idea how this thing called ‘counseling’ works, I am delighted. Because that way I get to explain to them how I work with couples. I get to explain to them, piece by piece, how marriage counseling works.
Sometimes people have this idea that they would walk in and it shouldn’t take more than 2-3 sessions to take care of whatever the issues is they are walking in with. As if that weren’t enough, we live in a time where everything HAS to be DONE. RIGHT. NOW. Here’s my short answer to that.
I don’t have a magic wand. Sometimes I wish I did. But I don’t. To expect that I can make things disappear on command in that short of a period of time is more than unrealistic. Here’s why:
In our first session, all I am doing is getting to know you two and learning what brought you in. I want to know how you got to where you are today. I want to hear from each of you, knowing that you both have your own reality. Knowing very well also, that the two realities you each present may or may not align. And I want and need to know when they do and which parts of them don’t. I want to know what your dance is. Yes, that dance that you have been performing since you met or starting dating. Because only then, only when I know what your dance looks like, can we do something about it.
Then, partly because I am a Marriage and Family Therapist (as opposed to a Psychoanalyst who just sees the person sitting in front of them as if in a bubble), and partly because I have learned that a lot of who we are has to do with where we come from, I want to know a little bit about that. Even though you each come alone, sitting on a couch together, or in separate chairs, you are bringing other people into the room. Sometimes it’s family. Sometimes it your kids. And other times yet it’s your ex-es.
I spend roughly a session with each in the couple – with you both present – talking about your family of origin. Yes, I ask for names and geographic locations and relational histories of the people that end up on your Family Tree.
Then we are done with that, we review your initial hopes and goals and we make a plan. From there, we move forward.
How, you are asking, is counseling like painting then? It’s like painting because it’s a process. You can’t smash all of this information into one, or two, or even three 50 minute sessions.
When we were recently doing some house repair/remodel in our home, we had a deadline. Family visiting from out of town in about a month. People who were hoping to occupy that space in peace and comfort.
As it always so happens, we found one bigger issue that needed to be addressed before we ever would be able to put the walls back up/on and even start picking the colors for the walls to be painted with. I so badly wanted to get the project done in the original time frame but we were told that the cement needed to dry for 10 days, pushing our deadline out way too far.
So, when it came time to paint, I asked what the shortest time period would be that we could do that in. I wanted it all done ASAP. There was so much still to be done after we were done with that.
As much as I tried, the answer was – you can’t hurry the process. I knew we needed a base coat, and then at least two coats of color after that. Maybe three. In my head, I was already mourning not being able to meet the deadline and needing to have family stay elsewhere for a few days when they arrived. Humid weather didn’t help. So we went with it.
Now, we could have done the priming in the morning, and smacked the next coat on before the first one was quite dry, adding another and another, being done by noon.
The risk being – if the walls aren’t dry enough and the colors are thrown on the walls prematurely, the color would not be even. Depending on the level of humidity that day, they could even peel off. They would be been done but there would be a greater chance that we would have to start from scratch a week or two later. All that because we didn’t wait long enough and didn’t let the layers dry as recommended. If you want it done right, you can’t hurry the process.
Often when you come in with one issue at hand, some other issue might surface that also needs your attention. You can’t paint before the walls are up and finished. In the same way, you may not be able to move on unless you take care of this issue at hand.
And then, remember this: You have been ‘perfecting’ your ways as a couple for one, five, ten or twenty some years. You cannot expect that in 2-3 sessions we would undo all that, get you both on track and send you on your way. If you are looking for a three session fix, I am not your girl. I can’t put a band-aid on a wound that requires a trip to the ER.
When couples ask me how long marriage counseling typically takes, there is no magic answer. Generally speaking, depending on what our plan looks like at the end of session four you are probably looking at 10-12 weeks of weekly sessions at a minimum. Three to six months is quite common, with more time necessary if you two have been in great distress for months or years and never talked about the elephant in the room. And maybe by now, it’s a whole elephant family.
Lastly, I do pride myself in always saying and sharing my mantra: “I am in the business of putting myself out of business.”
I don’t want you to need me forever. I want you as a couple to do the work you need to do, process what you need to process, take responsibility for your part in the dance, learn what you need to learn – and go and be able to fish on your own from there.
If you have any questions about any of this, or live in or around Minneapolis, MN and are looking for marriage counseling, please don’t hesitate to contact me.