Your marriage is at the brink of dissolution. You and your spouse have lost trust and faith in each other; your mutual anger is so palpable that you can no longer go out as a couple without breaking into a verbal sparring match or an out-and-out fight. Past hurts and wrongs haunt both of you, coloring your interpretation of the present; and perhaps most damaging, one or both of you have engaged in an extramarital affair.
Despite such problems, couples can and do put their marriages back together, although only through extremely hard work. But both members of the couple must do the work, or it will be doomed from the start. Generally, the best approach is finding a marriage counselor to help you.
Therapists come in as many styles as this year's wall calendar. The question is, what should you look for in a marriage counselor? What kind of therapist is right for you?
Some of the best advice we've heard comes from Dr. Mitchell Baris, who works with the divorced and the divorcing every day. Couples should look for someone who can help them restructure their communication and react to their partner in terms of the real situation, not ghosts of the past, Dr. Baris advises. “Some counselors look into the couples' deep past; they help them go over their own childhood experiences, their early family dynamic. Couples might explore the impact their past had on their marital choice and on the negative (and positive) patterns they carried into their marriage and up to the present.”
Conflict resolution is a peaceful and mutually satisfactory way to end or significantly—and hopefully permanently—de-escalate a conflict.
Although different marriage counselors emphasize different strategies, we have seen the highest levels of success among those who focus on conflict resolution. When one spouse gets excited or angry, the ideal strategy for the other is to try to defuse the anger by soothing his or her partner. Going to war—or worse yet, dredging up the past—will only fuel the fires of conflict and weaken the relationship already on its last legs.
Couples in trouble might also benefit from lessons in fair fighting. In this technique, each partner listens to the other without being vicious or defensive—or striking back with hurtful insults or references to the past. One well-known doctor, who pioneered the technique of “restructuring” couples so that they can fight fairly, has this amusing approach: He keeps a piece of linoleum in his office and hands it to one person at a time. “Here, you hold the floor,” he says to the person holding the linoleum. The other person cannot speak until the linoleum is handed over. The lesson for couples here: learn how to hear the other one through, and do not interrupt, especially to escalate the conflict.
How do you find the right therapist? The best way, our experts tell us, is to get referrals from satisfied friends. Make sure, of course, that you select someone who specializes in couples and relationships and that he or she is well-regarded by other professionals. Make sure that whoever you choose feels “right.” Is there a rapport among all three of you? Can you communicate easily with the therapist? Sometimes one spouse will come to feel the therapist has allied with their partner against them;if your spouse feels this way, perhaps it would be best to seek help from another counselor, one who can strike a better sense of neutrality as the sessions go on.
Once you find a therapist who meets these criteria, give therapy a fair chance. Be open to the possibility that your marriage can be saved—and be ready to do the work that it requires. Remember, therapy isn't always easy, especially if you're carrying painful emotional baggage from your childhood. But, if you and your partner truly love each other and are willing to alter some basic patterns, therapy can succeed.