What to Expect In Your First Session for Marital Communication

There is nothing more frustrating than feeling like you and your beloved are not on the same page and can’t seem to communicate with one another enough to get there. Conversations go round and round without getting anywhere, leaving you both exhausted, frustrated, and isolated. The space between seems to be growing, and try as you may, neither of you are to be able to keep it from growing further. Maybe it has just begun, maybe it’s been this way for a while, or maybe this is your last effort before throwing in the proverbial towel. Wherever you are, I want to say that I am so glad you are here! On average a couple experiences relational distress for 6 years before seeking therapy, according to marriage researcher and expert John Gottman. That is a long time to be struggling through the pain of disconnection and trying everything you know to get back to it!

So whether you are here before, at, or after that average, we are so glad that you are pursuing healing and health for your marriage. The cycle you are stuck in does not have to last forever, and you can return to a place of connection again. Considering the stigma around counseling that still unfortunately exists in the world, you are taking an incredibly brave step by inquiring about help. You likely have some questions about what to expect in your first session, especially if this is your first time coming to counseling. Even if this is not your first time, this field is as wide as it is deep, and there are nearly as many forms of counseling as there are counselors. This article is written to ease some of your anxieties as you wait and prepare for your first session for help with communication in your marriage. 

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In the article that follows, we will help you to know what to expect in your first session by: 

  1. Explaining what kind of therapy to expect and what that might look and feel like from your therapist
  2. Discussing what questions your therapist will ask you and why
  3. Exploring how change occurs over the course of therapy and how this guides what your therapist does in session

When you first enter your initial session, you will meet your therapist and he or she will tell you a bit about themselves, and the way they are as a therapist. There are a few things that you should know about therapists at MCO. First, you are working with incredibly hard-working, passionate, and gifted therapists who are undergoing, or have already undergone, rigorous training to be their very best. The way that this translates to you is in a warm, inviting presence, genuine interest in you, your story, and your healing, and an understanding of how to get you to your goal. Next, you should know that all clinicians at MCO identify ourselves as faith-integrated, attachment-based, emotionally-focused, and experiential therapists

  • What that means is that God, faith, Scripture, and a Christian worldview will likely be apart of your sessions in ways that are encouraging, life-giving, and inviting and never judgmental, condemning, or shaming. Please feel free to ask your therapist to pray with you if that is something you would like, and know that regardless, he or she is certainly praying for you as they come alongside you in your journey.
  • It also means that we understand how our families growing up shaped the way we view the world, ourselves, and others, and that when attachment figures (parents/caregivers) are not accessible, responsive, and engaged we can become anxious, avoidant, and sometimes even chaotic in our relationships. The good news though, is that security and safety can be earned through relationship with healthy, strong, wise others, such as your therapist, spouse, mentors, friends, etc. 
  • Emotionally-focused means that we tune into the right brain feelings and body sensations which are always trying to communicate with us, but which many of us have not been taught to listen to. There is wisdom in your body. I often tell my clients that I could teach you how to use “I statements” and rules for fighting fair like other therapists, but what research has shown is that in the midst of an argument, your brain goes into it’s “fight or flight” mode of operating and sees your spouse as a threat, and all of that information is not accessible to you as you respond to them from pure emotion- fear, anger, sadness, disgust, etc. So we might as well use what we know about the brain and tap into the power of emotion as a resource to draw you and your partner out of this escalated place and into connection. 
  • Finally, your therapist is “experiential,” meaning that their focus is not going to be on homework or books you can read to resource yourself, but on the “here and now” of the session, because who you are in the session is the same person you are in the world, so attending to every moment of the session is more effective in helping you to make changes than any task you might do. What we do and how you are in session and will eventually become who you are and what you do outside of it. 

Next, your counselor has three guiding questions which will echo the intake document that you completed when you scheduled your session. Those questions are: 1) What has brought you into counseling at this time and whose idea was it? 2) How has your relationship evolved over time and how did we get to this place of concern? 3) If you got everything you wanted out of counseling, what would you want to be different on the other side of it? (i.e. what are your goals?) We will explore these questions in greater detail below. 

  1. What has brought you into counseling at this time and whose idea was it? As I often say, in order to know where we are going, we need to get honest and acknowledge where we are. Depending on if you are seeking therapy preventatively or reactively, this may or may not be a difficult, sobering conversation. If you are coming to counseling, at the very least, it is likely an uncomfortable one to have. It is helpful here to be loving, yet honest about your personal perspective of the relationship. What is your personal experience of the relationship, meaning how do you feel in it? Where do you find yourself stuck in it? What draws you close and pushes you away from your spouse? What happens when things go wrong? If I were a fly on the wall, describe what I would see. 
  2. How has your relationship evolved over time and how did we get to this place of concern? I want to know the story of how the two of you came to be. How did you meet and what attracted you to each other? What were the early years like and how have things evolved over the course of major life events like children, illnesses, job change, etc. These are important questions for your therapist because we want to know what your strengths are as a couple and the resources that your relationship has when times get tough. We also want to know how the problem has evolved and what strategies you have used over time to combat it, and how these helped or didn’t. We want to pay attention to when the issue worsens and gets better, as these all help to inform how and where your therapist will enter to be of best help to you. 
  3. If you got everything you wanted out of counseling, what would you want to be different on the other side of it? (i.e. what are your goals?) Now that we know what the problem is and an idea of how it came to be, we want to discuss what you would like to be different and how life would be on the other side of counseling. We often hear things like wanting to argue less and connect more, to have more understanding of one another and feel more understood and accepted. Feel free to dream big here. It can be difficult to imagine and wonder what life could be like once resignation or emotional numbing has set in. Your body is wise in the way it shields you from the pain of disconnection, so allowing yourself to dream, may also give way to grief as you re-engage your emotional world. But this indeed is why you are here; because you have not given up on hope, and you believe for better for your marriage than what currently exists. So take the leap, and jump in with both feet, as you allow yourself to imagine what could be. 

The last piece to fully prepare you for your upcoming journey in couples counseling is to let you know a bit about how change occurs across the therapy sessions. In the process of Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), which is what MCO therapists use for couples counseling, you will noticed your counselor asking you what happens when you disconnect, or get into conflict. They will track this process with you, unpacking it bit by bit and helping you each to understand why the things that trigger you trigger you and why you respond the way you do, and they will help you to feel understood and validated in the ways that you cope. As I truly and firmly believe, all behavior makes sense if you understand it’s context. The first goal then is to establish a safe therapeutic environment for both of you to explore this, and this safety becomes the foundation of the rest of the therapeutic process. As your counselor tracks your cycle of disconnection, they will give emotion precedence, knowing that it is indicative of something deeper within you, likely painful and difficult, and help you to feel safe to speak what is true for you. Vulnerability then, is the next goal. Sharing with your spouse from this emotion-laden, vulnerable place becomes very important, as it creates a new pattern of communication and undoes the old one. The more safety and vulnerability in your communication, the more comfortable you will be to share deeper and deeper things; childhood hurts and wounds, parts of yourself you don’t like and hide away, and views and values you hold as a result of these. Sue Johnson, psychologist, couples counseling expert, and founder of EFT, calls this type of sharing “Hold Me Tight conversations.” When we feel safe to be vulnerable, we are more willing to risk reaching for our partner to comfort our inner most distress and fear. This final goal then, is to engage a new way of bonding and connecting in which you are each fully known and fully loved by one another and both feel safe and secure in that bond. 

You are taking an incredibly brave step in believing the Lord for better for your marriage, and taking steps in that direction. My prayer is that this article has helped to provide some information and alleviate any anxiety about starting this process. You are in great hands with an MCO therapist and held in the arms of the Father as you move forward toward health and wholeness in your marriage.

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