Posted March 25, 2012 by Anne Parkford in Marriage

The Key Cornerstones to Effective Marriage Counseling

Working with couples who are trying to maneuver through rough waters of broken trust and betrayal can be a challenge as a marriage counselor. In counseling, I teach couples how to improve the depth and quality of their communication with one another; this can be one of the most difficult parts of repairing and building a relationship. Being in counseling for many couples is like having their pattern of communication and way of relating to their partner rewired. It may feel awkward and contrived to talk and listen in this new way, but feeling closer and emotionally safer in their interactions with one another is one way this can help the couple.

When in marital distress, a couple can come into counseling angry, fighting, miserable; ready to give up. Helping them slow the reactive process down by pausing to assess their situation before making a hasty and possibly regretful decisions is my first task. This will allow them to make wiser and clearer decisions in regards their future as a couple and will help them manage their emotions better. Being human, even if it were to mean a separation or divorce, we sometimes just want the emotional pain to STOP. But it is a bad idea to make a major life decision when we are in a crisis. When the relationship is in turmoil, it can take years to heal these wounds. The pain may not stop or even subside for awhile, and in many cases, the relationship is not able to survive because the wounds are to raw and deep to allow for that. The tool that will help a couple navigate this process, regardless of the outcome is communication.

The main goals of marriage counseling are: help them learn some basic mindfulness – acceptance of where they are in this moment, and awareness that this process takes time and much hard work on both parts; and next teach them basic ground rules for communicating; and some basic listening/speaking tools that they can practice in session and at home that incorporate aspects of good communication! The first task is to help both parties understand that no matter who or what triggered the crisis, that they are both on this journey of healing, and both need to own the process of recovery and repair of the damage. Clear, empathic communication is the first step.

In the first session, it is customary to focus on promoting a safe and secure place where both parties can express the anger, hurt, grief and frustration they feel in a structured and courteous way. Each individual in the relationship needs to be heard and learn how to listen to the other party especially when clear listening may be disrupted by defensiveness and accusations. I give them avenues of communication that are fundamental and make for the foundation of their repair and recovery process in the initial stage of treatment. The ground rules are gone over and they represent necessary basic skills of communications skills for each person.

Using “I” statements and committing to no name calling and no interrupting are the basics most therapists teach couples. These are the fundamentals of basic listening/skill building. In my many years as a couple’s therapist, I have come up with a list of 28 “don’ts” for ways couples’ can communicate. I have them read over the list and choose five that they use the most, and then we talk openly about which one they will work on during the week before the next meeting. They can learn to accept the fact that all humans use these “dirty fighting” methods at some point in time by talking openly about their specific communication hang-ups, and that all these things can be improved upon and step by step.

Anne Parkford is a marriage counselor serving Santa Barbara activein assisting couples through tough times, and teaching them tools to enhance their communication and deepen their intimacy. She is one of the many talented marriage counselors you can find on

Anne Parkford