People looking for a marriage therapist sometimes call and ask what my success rate is. Even if it was possible to answer that question, the results would reveal very little about my -- or any therapist's -- capabilities. What couples need to know is that whether or not a marriage can be saved lies in a multitude of considerations that the two individuals in the marriage bring to counseling. If they've got what it takes, we can expect a good result.
The hard part is that few couples have what it takes.
One issue that makes healing a marriage difficult is that most people come in much later than they should have and a lot of serious damage has already been done. The individuals have been silently disgruntled -- usually for years -- not telling their spouse how they feel until one fateful day the truth comes out: a) one or both can't stand the sight of the other, b) one of the spouses has had an affair or c) one person announces that they want a separation or divorce. It almost always takes a major episode or announcement for most couples to take their problems seriously and make that first marriage counseling appointment.
With a marriage in that sort of condition, it should be obvious that teaching communication skills and asking them to have more date nights is not going to do the trick. Instead, the couple has a stage four (metastasized) marital cancer and they're bringing their relationship in nanoseconds before it takes its last breath. One or both people are not in the mood to be nice to each other or receive that niceness, so it takes a skilled therapist to help manage the crisis to make sure that they don't make a bigger mess than has already been made.
The first order of business is to stabilize the situation -- the marital house is on fire and we need to put out the flames. Read this: No important decisions should be made in the foreseeable future, at least until there are calmer and wiser heads in charge. While working on stabilization, I evaluate each individual ranging from mental and physical health to beliefs, values and family history. I feel them out for the type of people they are, what their goals is and exploring each person's motivation level. Usually, at the end of that first 2-hour session I can tell if the couple has what it takes to heal their marriage.
What I'm looking for is:
• Basic intelligence. Can you, and are you, willing to learn new things. Are you capable of abstract thinking and ideas?
• Humility. Can you release the need to be right, own your marital crimes and misdemeanors, accept responsibility for areas in which you have fallen short and avoid blaming? Can and will you accept insights and advice from someone experienced and knowledgeable about mental health, relationships and crisis recovery?
• Flexibility. Can you go with the flow of what life presents you? Can and will you bend?
• Integrity and honesty. Are you a person who values commitment, keeping your word, telling the truth, and being transparent?
• Empathetic. Are you able to put yourself in other's shoes and see and feel what they may be feeling? Can you understand what effect your actions (and lack of action) have on others and accept responsibility for it?
• Mentally balanced. If you suffer from common mental disorders such as depression, anxiety; attention-deficit, adjustment, personality disorders or addictions, you are actively treating and managing them.
• Person of action and follow-through.
• Calmly & securely attached to those you care about? You're attachment style is peaceful as opposed to needy and grasping, you are emotionally available when needed, and give space when asked.
• Mature. Understand and practice the concept of delayed gratification and being thoughtful and mindful about what you say and do. You do not have the need to control outcomes or others.
• Commitment-oriented. You value sticking with people and situations in a solid, thoughtful way.
This list of characteristics may sound easy, or may seem impossible to attain. Bu they are the qualities of smart and reasonable people who have healthy self-esteem, of people who can work through things in a moderate way and to an outcome that is in the mutual best interest of all. If you don't have many of those qualities, I suggest you start working on them as soon as possible.
Marriage therapy is not for sissies. It takes hard work, determination, and a willingness to take one for the team. Some of my therapist friends have agreed over a cup of coffee that only about 5 percent of their clients see therapy through to a successful outcome. I think that speaks to the fact that talking about being willing to fight and do anything to save your relationship is easier said than done.