Amanda is trying to improve her marriage, but she finding it hard. Changing how she and her husband relate is proving to be incredibly challenging. In her last session she told her therapist, “You keep saying that it’s possible for this relationship to work, but it’s easier said than done!” Amanda’s right, and so is her marriage counselor.
As if being in their thirties and working full time weren’t enough, this couple is going through the stage of life that people find to be most stressful – having children at home under the age of five.
Amanda’s husband too often becomes critical of her, and isn’t nearly as appreciative and adoring as she wants, needs, and deserves. At first, Amanda was very hurt and angered by her husband’s disapproval, but then she simply disengaged from the relationship.
Amanda’s withdrawal further frustrated her husband, who then reacted by making even more disparaging comments. Repeatedly engaging in this doom loop has left these two feeling hopeless and helpless about ever being able to make their marriage work satisfactorily.
So how can the marriage counselor be so positive that it’s possible for the marriage to not only survive, but thrive? Because he’s seen that people make wonderful progress if they follow the seven steps that scientists have found can facilitate a successful change process.
1. Collaboration. The first step is building a collaborative relationship, which begins by developing some ground rules for having respectful conversations. Listening and understanding differing perspectives on the problem is imperative.
To avoid becoming stuck on debating their differences, couples need to develop explicit positive outcomes that they’re willing to work toward. Clients need to create a “video vision” so that both they and their therapist can see the life they want to have when the marriage is working well.
After establishing positive outcomes, it’s useful for the therapist to discuss how their professional expertise can be a part of the collaborative effort to help the clients achieve their vision. Couples must be willing to try the counselor’s suggestions regarding changing their own behavior.
2. Accountability. The second step of successfully changing your life is a willingness to be held accountable. As Amanda discovered, change is not easy because it frequently requires that we do things that take us out of our comfort zone. Our old patterns may not produce the results we want, but we’ve practiced them so many times they sure seem easier. But in the long run Amanda could find divorcing and single parenting to be an even more difficult path.
Effective therapists explain and train people in how to upgrade their thinking in order to improve their performance. They also must hold clients accountable for completing homework they’d agreed to do in order to achieve their vision.
Therapy often fails if the counselor doesn’t monitor and evaluate the client’s progress and appropriately address any underperformance directly and promptly. Counseling can succeed only if the client is willing allow their therapist to be a bit like a personal trainer who pushes them to work hard in order to become stronger.
3. Awareness. The third step involves raising the client’s awareness of when situations are occurring that typically prompt them to act in accordance with their old, subconscious patterns. People must come to recognize when they’re engaging the destructive thoughts and feelings that prompt their negative behavior.
4. Responsibility. This word literally means response ability. People are able to choose their responses to any given situation. Every individual must learn to accept that they are responsible for their reactions no matter how another person is behaving. Therapists are responsible for teaching their clients a variety of more effective responses. Couples are responsible for changing their old patterns by making the choice to use their new skills.
5. Commitment. Permanent change requires a long-term commitment to learning to make healthy choices that consistently create positive results. Motivation is crucial at this juncture, which is why having a mouthwatering vision of a good life and a mentor are so important. Couples who are successful realize that change is a trial and error process.
6. Action. The clients must continually practice taking action to learn how to produce positive outcomes in different situations. They must feel challenged, but not overwhelmed by taking on too much too soon.
7. Results. Focusing on incremental improvements allows people to see that they’re slowly but surely making progress toward their outcomes. That’s how couples build their confidence in their ability to achieve their dreams.