Tips for Success in Marital Counseling
At this point in my career, I have been involved with a lot of divorces. Occasionally, the parties will decide to suspend the legal proceedings in order to attempt reconciliation. As a part of the reconciliation attempt, the parties will usually attend marriage counseling. I'm obviously not a licensed mental health professional...but I have had the opportunity to observe what works and what doesn't, and these are my observations.
Meet on Neutral Ground
Marital counseling works better when the counselor is mutually chosen by the spouses. What tends not to work is using a counselor chosen by one spouse when the other doesn't want to go, or using a counselor that one spouse has been seeing for a long time for individual counseling. This tends to make the other spouse feel "ganged up on" or "attacked," and does not result in the kind of openness and problem-solving behavior that saves marriage. It takes two to tango, and choosing a neutral counselor tends to make it more likely that both parties will at least try to join the dance. If both parties are not willing to try, I generally do recommend that a spouse desiring reconciliation go to counseling alone...but the old adage that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" definitely applies here and you shouldn't drown your spouse attempting to force him/her to drink.
Also falling under this category, unfortunately, is marriage counseling with clergy of one spouse when the other spouse does not share the same faith. Attempting to save a marriage on (for example) the principles of Christianity when one spouse is a Buddhist is not effective. In fact, this may even emphasize the division between the spouses, worsening the marital disharmony. Seeking out the wisdom of spiritual leaders makes intuitive sense to most people, but in my experience, if the spouses have different religious views, it may be better for each spouse to seek guidance from his/her own leaders individually rather than as a couple. Otherwise, the result is often that one spouse feels blamed, excluded, put-upon, ganged up on, etc...and these feelings are counterproductive to reconciliation.
Discontinue the Offensive Behavior
The first step to healing an infected splinter is to remove the splinter. If you leave the splinter in, the infection will never resolve. If the source of your marital conflict is another man or woman, your marriage counseling process is unlikely to succeed unless you break it off. This seems obvious; after all, most of us wouldn't want to be polygamists even if it was perfectly legal. But you would be shocked at how many people just won't quit. A spouse who undergoes marriage counseling while continuing an affair is either not truly committed to reconciliation or a total narcissist.
By the way, this advice is not limited to affairs, but to anything or anyone viewed as close in importance to the other spouse: alcohol, gambling, an opposite-sex co-worker, pornography, etc. Although I know all my readers will not be Christians, the words of Jesus on this are wise: "If a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand." If addiction is an issue, tackle the addiction before working on the marriage because otherwise, the bondage of the addiction will prevent the marriage counselor from working effectively.
Don't Play the Blame Game
Marriage counseling is an opportunity for change, but all too often, the spouses give in to the temptation to focus on the only thing that can't be changed: the past. If counseling is used to bash one spouse and make him/her feel like the dirt on the bottom of the other's shoe, the result is defensiveness by the "blamed" spouse and retrenchment and reinforcement of the negative emotions of the "blaming spouse."
My advice is to view the marital counseling process as a series of problem-solving sessions. Ask not "what has my spouse done to anger me in the past?", but instead, "what needs to be done differently in the future to improve our relationship?" Effective marital counseling is forward-looking - it envisions a future in which the spouses have worked out their problems and are happily married. The temptation to use the counseling process as a chance to finally air your grievances against that good-for-nothing spouse of yours can be overwhelming, BUT you will have better results if you view divorce as a common enemy and marriage counseling as a weapon to attack that enemy. Join forces with your spouse in order to push toward a future together.
Finally, this may be intuitively obvious, but if you go into marriage counseling with the fatalistic idea that it won't work and divorce is a foregone conclusion, chances are, it won't work. Why? Your motivation to do the necessary work to repair your marriage will be missing. Why on earth would you work hard to do something that you've already decided can't be done? Don't go to marriage counseling just because you're going through the motions. That is a waste of time, resources, and breath. If you can't, perhaps it's best not to go at all. So before you go, resolve to try.