The Single Most Important Determinant in What Makes Couples Counseling Successful

A couple of weeks ago a colleague of mine was curious about what it was like to work with couples. She specialized in treating individuals and had no experience in working with couples, so she started to pick my brain. Moments later, she asked me what felt like the million-dollar question:

What is the single most determining factor that makes couples counseling successful?

I then thought to myself, what is the difference that makes the difference? What is the main difference between couples who see the greatest benefit from counseling versus couples who don’t?

This felt like an overwhelming question to answer on the spot. So I told her that I needed to think about it and get back to her. As I went home that night, I decided to look back at the couples I had served through the years and begin to examine what made the difference. As I looked through my notes and opened up the memory bank of working with hundreds of couples over the last several years, one consistent theme became evident:

Couples who showed up and were committed to the counseling process inevitably experienced a positive change in their relationship.

Whether this positive change was in their communication, intimacy, trust, connection, or teamwork, couples who consistently attended couples therapy reap the benefits of it and went from struggling in their relationship to thriving together.

I want to be clear that when I talk about showing up as the most important factor to success, I am not speaking about years and years of couples counseling. Many couples show up on the first day and imagine it to be an overwhelming process that seems endless, with no finish line in sight. Ironically, what is most astounding about working with couples is how quickly change can occur within their relationship. I have seen that when couples commit to 2-3 months of counseling on a weekly (or every other week) basis, couples start to experience a major difference in their relationship. I have found that 10-12 sessions tend to be a magic number that yields impactful changes. This leads to the next important question:

How is it that spending one hour every week or two in couples counseling can really make a difference?

1. Couples counseling is effective when it focuses on depth and quality rather than quantity.

What do I mean by this? As an experiential therapist, my focus is on creating a fertile ground and context for couples to experience each other in a more intimate, open, and vulnerable way. I believe that having one vulnerable and connective experience can be enough to spur generative and lasting change. In other words, what is solely experienced in the counseling room begins to take hold and become an experience that the couple has in everyday life. The seeds that are planted in session begin to sprout outside in their life together.

As one husband said to his wife toward the end of our time together:

“Being in counseling helped me to see a completely different side of you that I had not seen in years. I was so used to seeing you as a threat and as the enemy, that having that space where we could let our guard down and be vulnerable with each other helped me to completely reinvent my conception of you and what was possible in our relationship.”

2. With Consistency and Commitment Comes Trust

When couples consistently show up and put in the hard work that couples counseling entails, they gain a sense of confidence, not only within themselves but together. Couples discuss that having the weekly touchpoint of therapy together inevitably had them feeling more like a team.

As a wife told her husband on their last day of couples counseling:

“Seeing your willingness to show up with me every week to therapy for the last 3 months really helped me to trust you and see you as my partner, companion, and teammate. It was nothing you said, but more you’re actions, intent, and just knowing that you were alongside me in this process…that’s what made the difference in helping us regain our sense of trust.”

Learning By Osmosis