How do you know when it’s time for marriage counseling? Often, by the time couples seek them out, marriage counselors are in a really tough spot. Partners are coming to them desperate, disconnected, and possibly even divorce-minded.

It’s as though some couples are seeking a professional marriage coach who can swoop in and save their marriage game, despite the fact that the players don’t know the relationship fundamentals that could help them win.

And some are just looking for a referee to blow the final whistle on the whole thing.

Truthfully, if a counselor comes in with only seconds left on the clock, options are limited, team spirit is low. The couple is a team suffering from a serious lack of hope, burdened by emotional injuries. And worse, the scoreboard in their heads says they’re losing badly and have been for a long, long while.

Does that story sound familiar? Is your marriage a losing game? Do you feel hopeless as the clock counts down?

Getting Marriage Counseling Sooner is Definitely Better than Later

How many times has a great marriage counselor wished for early invitations to join a couple’s team, thinking:

”If only they had sought out a good marriage coach early in the game when things were going well! What if they’d sought help long before the long losing season began when thoughts of teaming up were still just an exciting idea!”

Hopefully, you’re reading this because you want to maintain your winning relationship. Or you figured you should make sure you have the relationship tools you need before you marry. If so, that’s awesome. You’re a marriage counselor’s dream.

But chances are you’ve been in the marriage game a while and you’re suffering. You’re looking for relief and a way to turn things around.

Dr. John Gottman, world renowned couples expert and relationship researcher, has found that the average couple wades through about six years of sadness, disconnect, unhappiness, and resentment before deciding to get help!

Wow. Six years? Is that your story? Day in and day out, suffering the demise of your loving feelings, living the progression from happiness to hopeless? Stuck…until you make that reluctant, “last resort” call to someone professional who might be able help you back from the brink?

You are not alone. It would seem that too few couples know when it’s time to seek to counsel. More partners need to know when and how to secure a marital win early.

Let’s look at a game plan that could make the marriage game a lot more rewarding.

Pre-game: Why Premarital Counseling Before Marriage is a Winning Strategy

Marrying into a new family is both exciting and a real challenge. Premarital counseling is an excellent first play. It can help you learn to work as a team, share your goals, and establish mutual boundaries that will insulate your connection and help you defend against any opposing forces.

Together, you can build solid teamwork and look forward to facing life together equipped with the tools counseling can provide before trouble complicates things.

Essentially, early practice of communication strategies, problem-solving skills, emotional attunement, understanding of patterns, and compassionate support can make all the difference. Relationship tools, learned early and employed routinely, can keep your relationship safer and more resilient when times get rough and the marriage game knocks you around a bit.

Full Court Press: Why Marriage Counseling is a Good Idea When the Game is Going Well

It’s easy to think you don’t need much coaching or support when the game is going well or it feels like there’s not much to challenge your happiness. Still, it’s all too easy to allow a few unresolved conflicts slide or push a few resentments to the back of your mind to fester in order to keep the peace. Unfortunately, as with any team, disharmony and dishonesty breed distrust and disconnect.

This is when communication skill building and teamwork tune ups help make the most of your cooperative effort.

Here too, is where the crux of John Gottman’s work comes into play. His game plan centers around something called The Sound Relationship House. This concept-house is based on more than 40 years of clinical research with thousands of couples. In some cases, the couples were followed for 20 years to see what makes for a happy, successful marriage.  It’s a model for ensuring marital fulfillment and victory for the home team. Consider the following play by play:

The Gottman Sound Relationship House

Maintain a love map.

Know your way around your spouse’s life. Familiarity breeds intimacy. Make and maintain a “love map” of your spouse or partner to keep you in tune with him or her. Stay in touch with who your partner is, his or her internal world (likes, dislikes, relationships, beliefs), how your partner is changing, and who he or she wants to become.

Grow fondness and admiration.

Fondness and admiration are stress buffers and relievers. The idea is that you have a general, and overriding positive regard for each other that interrupts any drift toward disrespect or contempt. Look for ways to foster respect and affection for one another in ways big and small throughout the day, week, and year.

Turn toward your partner, not away.

Romance amid the everyday grind says, “I value you,” no matter how busy, how stressed, or how irritated you are. Padding your “emotional bank account” with little points of connection builds friendship, and passion, that secure lasting love and positivity. Accept your partner’s “bids for connection,” signaling in ways big and small that you are there for your spouse.

Keep a positive perspective and give your spouse the benefit of the doubt

Contempt and criticism are surefire relationship killers. When you’re feeling irritated, give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. Don’t jump to conclusions about motives or feelings. If something hits you wrong, check in with your partner and ask, “Hey, I’m wondering how you’re thinking about this, or what you did that?”

Manage Conflict

Allow for healthy influence.

Don’t confuse your partner’s influence for control. Let influence happen. Good teamwork is considerate and aware. Decision making is mutual. Respect and honor should be a commonplace and enjoyable part of your connection.

Solve solvable conflicts and cope healthfully with unresolvable, perpetual issues

Distinguish solvable issues from “perpetual, grid-locked ones.” According to the Gottman’s research, 69% of the issues that create conflict in your marriage will be things you deal with again and again over time. Whether finances, in-laws, household styles, or parenting, these perpetual issues will get renegotiated and worked out again over time as circumstances change. There’s a need for ongoing communication.

For perpetual issues, address and respect the dreams that are causing the gridlock and stress. What do you or your partner really hope for, and feel blocked from? This helps take the sting out of the issue, and helps you make peace with it, and each other, with hearts of compassion for each other’s longings.

The rest of the issues are actually solvable, so you can deal with them and move on. For any discussion or issue:

“Soften your startup.” Begin discussions without criticism or contempt.

Engage “repair attempts.” Do what you can to de-escalate tension.

Soothe. Calm yourself. Comfort your partner. Say you’re overwhelmed. Take a break. Find out how your partner likes to be comforted.

Compromise. Consider your partner. Start with places you’re willing to compromise and what you have in common. And, communicate honestly about your non-negotiable points rather than letting them simmer unspoken. From there, work out your emotions and goals.

Create shared meaning to attain your marriage’s highest potential.

When you know each other inside and out, when you maintain respect and give each other the benefit of the doubt, and when you have learned how to manage communication and conflict healthfully, then you’re freed up to truly create a life together. Develop your own relationship brand and fashion something loving, rich, and secure. That’s teamwork.

All in all, deciding to face your issues early is worth the effort and initial discomfort. You will reap relationship rewards continually as you become deeply connected in life together, keeping the team together, facing challenges, and keeping your eye on the ball.

Losing streak: Why marriage counseling can help you beat the relationship buzzer

So. What’s the best play if you’re part of that 6-year group I mentioned at the beginning of this post? Is it game over for you and yours? No way!  Don’t quit until you leave it all out on the court.

Marriage counseling can work if you’re committed to making it work. Rebuilding trust through shared commitment. Whatever happened over the course of your relationship can be addressed in a healthier way. There might be some prior damage to heal while you forge a new way forward. You want to know that you have given it all you’ve got.

Your marriage counselor’s job is to be an objective supporter of your relationship goals. Regardless of when you enter the process, the work is worth the effort. Of course, as with anything, early, focused intention will go a long way to head off some of the pain that comes with late intervention.

Marriage counseling is always meant to give you the tools to manage and enhance your life together. Start now building a life of balance, loving kindness, and acceptance. Be willing to give your relationship the very best counsel and coaching from the start.

Ready to get to work?