30 Things Marriage Therapists Want You to Know

First of all, eternal marital bliss is a myth.

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If you and your partner want to give marriage counseling a try, listen up: We've asked top marriage therapists to give us the scoop on what you can expect ahead of your first session — as well as what you should and shouldn't do to make the most of your time.

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Marriage counseling is not the same as individual counseling.

"It's a discipline all its own. Do your research to find a licensed marriage therapist. Any therapist can offer marriage counseling, but not every therapist is equipped to do it," says Carrie Krawiec, a couples and family therapist at the Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, Michigan.

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Forget 'happily ever after.'

"There is no such thing as eternal and permanent marital bliss," says Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., who practices at the Caron Treatment Centers. "Every relationship has struggles and challenges and evolves by working through conflicts. The goal is for the quality of the relationship to trend up, not devolve over time."

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You must feel comfortable with your counselor to achieve success.

"Make sure you and your spouse feel comfortable with your therapist and can relate to him or her," says Krawiec. "If you don't feel open, or she is not open to your feedback, find another therapist."

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Your therapist doesn't have to be just like you.

"Training and education give therapists insight on how to replace dysfunctional patterns in your relationship. It doesn't depend on your lifestyle matching theirs (i.e. married with children)," Krawiec says.

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Things are going to get bumpier before they get better.

"In therapy, we're going to shift the system and peel back the couple's layers before healing can begin. It's the therapist's job to manage the pace so it doesn't get too bumpy or scary," says Melody Li, a couples therapist in Austin, Texas.

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Remember that change takes time.

"View it like the stock market. There are many ups and downs," says Wyatt Fisher, Ph.D., who practices in Denver.

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Make at least a three-month commitment.

"Since couples usually seek a therapist when there's a crisis, make a timed commitment with additional three-month check in points so the process is contained, goal-oriented and has a clear beginning, middle, and end," says Hokemeyer.

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Don't bring your partner to counseling to be "fixed."

"I ask couples to close their eyes and point to the person who has the greatest impact on their success or failure," says Marc Bachrach, a therapist in Belleview, Washington. "When they point to their partners, I tell them I agree. Both are right. It takes two to make a good marriage."

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Don't use therapy as a last resort.

"Come when there is still room for negotiation and neither partner has 'checked out,'" says Li. "It's just like hiring a personal trainer. You need to do it before you have major health issues and it's an uphill climb."

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Within two sessions they can tell if it's going to work.

"Sometimes one spouse is looking for a way out and wants me to tell them it's okay. As a therapist, I don't play into that," Li says. "If you want out, tell your partner. Don't rely on me."

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Be willing to look at your contribution to the problem.

"People usually get stuck feeling like the problem is 100% their spouse's. That's rarely the case. Be open to learning how your actions may be contributing to the very thing you hate about your spouse," advises Fisher.

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If both parties are motivated, change will occur.

"Be patient," Fisher adds.

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We see what we look for.

"Research shows that when we view our partners in a loving light, we're more apt to be happy in the relationship," says Holly Parker, a psychologist who lectures on the psychology of close relationships at Harvard.

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Articulate your needs.

"Have a clear understanding of what you need and communicate it clearly to your partner," says Bachrach. "It is your partner's responsibility to support and assist you in meeting your needs, not to read your mind or figure them out."

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Make having fun together a priority.

"Don't put fun aside and deal only with the business of life," says Parker. "Fun is linked to a lifetime of passionate, romantic love."

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It helps if you know your triggers.

Which words or situations provoke aggression or defensiveness for you? "Knowing this in advance can lessen suffering in both and head off problems before they begin," says Gary Brown, Ph.D., a marriage counselor who practices in Los Angeles.

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Prioritize your sex life.

"It's far too easy to dismiss it in a relationship and take care of that long to-do list. Most assume that the relationship influences the quality of the sex, and it certainly can, but it's often the other way around," says Parker. "Good sex contributes to happiness together."

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Celebrate your individuality.

"Couples don't own each other," says Hokemeyer. "Success comes from letting partners fulfill their dreams and professional aspirations."

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Develop a good relationship with yourself.

"Appreciate what you bring to the table. Your self-esteem and that of your partner's shouldn't get jumbled together in the relationship," says Parker. "Each plays a roll in predicting the happiness of the marriage."

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Be grateful.

"When you are thankful for your partner, you're more likely to want to go the extra mile," says Parker. "You can 'leak' messages to your spouse by being more helpful and loving. An honest 'thank you' goes a long way."

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Don't cling to the past.

"The value of marriage is that it provides a frame to deepen intimate relationships," says Hokemeyer. "While it's important to build on the past, it's equally important to let it go and focus on the present."

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Make home a safe space.

"It can be a tough world out there. Strengthen your bond by creating a safe space for your partner to share their fears, disappointments, hopes, and desires," Bachrach says.

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Know that childhood can affect your marriage.

"Prior conditioning is very powerful and can impact your marriage in ways you probably haven't identified or ever thought about," says Brown.

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Make time to talk.

"Commit a minimum of five minutes a day, every day to check in with one another — not by phone, computer, or text, but face to face," Brown says. "You might be surprised at what opens up."

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Don't try to control your partner.

"It sets up a host of negative consequences and is an unhealthy dynamic. Relationships need to celebrate individual freedom, not stifle it," says Hokemeyer.

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Envision your perfect relationship.

"Clarify what you do and don't want in a marriage. Couples should be about 80% compatible," advises Brown.

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Questioning your actions can be a good thing.

"How often do you currently express love in ways that matter to your partner? How often does your partner express love in ways that really matter to you?" asks Brown.

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Become familiar with your body.

"Breathing patterns are perfect barometers and reflect your mood minute by minute," says Brown. "It will help you tune into yourself and your partner."

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Infidelity doesn't have to end your relationship.

"The best thing to do is to explore why and how it occurred," says Hokemeyer. "Properly handled, it can add to a relationship rather than destroy it. But it takes time and needs to be professionally managed."

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It's okay to go to counseling alone.

"Even if your spouse isn't ready or willing to go to counseling, it's still beneficial to go alone," says Li. "It's like a bike: If you change one cog, things are going to happen differently. The same applies to couples: If one person changes his or her coping skills, it shifts the system."

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