From early in my graduate training, I began seeking out extra coursework and clinical experience with couples and families. In addition to my 4 years meeting with individuals and couples at the University Counseling Center, I also completed a year-long specialty practicum in Marriage and Family Therapy. This specialty practicum included several doctoral-level classes, plus supervised counseling experience with married and unmarried couples, children, and families. Common concerns included effective parenting, improving communication, and helping both adults and children adjust to divorce. As often as possible, I also provided couples therapy during my placement at a Community Mental Health Clinic in graduate school.
My style in working with couples, families and step-families is to first get to know each person and their story, plus I would like to hear a little about each relationship. For some, it may be equally important to hear about relationships with extended family or an important teacher as well. Depending on your individual situation we may decide to meet with everyone together at the first appointment, or we may decide to have some separate appointments before coming together, or before having the children join us.
Among other concerns, I will find it helpful to understand what conversations (and arguments) are already happening at home, and what messages or conversations are perhaps going unsaid? Are there specific past hurts that must be healed before peace and enjoyment can be restored? And how do perspectives differ about how current problems arose, or can be best settled in the future?
I work to rebuild mutual respect, peace, acceptance, improved communication, and forgiveness– which typically requires meaningful change by all parties. Finding the most helpful approach for your own relationships will vary, so we will work collaboratively to find a plan that is both effective and comfortable.
Dr. Hill’s Philosophy on Marriage and Couples Counseling
Some couples specifically ask me about my personal philosophy on marriage or how I see my role as a couples therapist. This is certainly a fair question, since no therapy can truly be “value neutral.” My intent is to help couples improve the happiness and sense of fulfillment in their current relationship so they can live out their original commitment to each other, if that’s possible. Sometimes this isn’t possible, and I respect this as a decision each partner has to make. If couples come to me with one or both partners still deciding whether to reinvest for the long-term, I certainly respect this and simply ask that all parties are honest with each other about where we are starting from, so no one is working in therapy under mistaken assumptions.
When I am hired as a couples therapist, I view my job as helping couples see what might be possible for their relationship before they call it quits, and to learn how to achieve this change together. I believe that the large majority of distressed marriages or partnerships can indeed evolve to a much more satisfying and rewarding relationship given enough time and effort from both parties. Excellent couples therapy is complex, and may require many months to be fully successful. In part, this is typically the case because most couples have actually felt distressed for quite some time before finally seeking counseling. However, 6-8 visits should be enough to tell if therapy is at least being helpful and is moving your relationship in the right direction.
As hinted above, I do not ask partners to make a lifetime commitment before beginning couples therapy, but I do need to know from the outset if both partners can commit to working hard to salvage their relationship and will firmly take separation or divorce off the table for a period of time. If this cannot be established in the first few sessions, I may instead recommend some individual therapy for each partner to make this decision, before couples counseling can be successfully renewed.
My view of marriage and my role in couples counseling is based on a combination of my personal values, my professional experience and numerous research findings. In several studies approximately 40% of divorced persons express regrets about their divorce, with most of these saying they wish they and their spouse had worked harder to save their marriage. In another study, even 5 years after a divorce many people state they are not any happier than while in the distressed marriage. Given such information, and the known impacts of even an amicable, cooperative divorce on the spouses, their children and their extended families, I encourage couples to make slow, careful decisions about separation and divorce, and to first thoroughly exhaust therapy as an option to rebuild peace, love and fulfillment.