Getting Help

by: Jim Duzak, JD

I’ll never know for sure if counseling could have saved my first marriage (which ended in divorce after seven years), but I do know this: I was stupid not to give it a try.

Back then, I was young enough and arrogant enough to think that no one could possibly tell me something about myself or my marriage that I didn’t already know. What I failed to realize is that everyone, myself included, has blind spots. In fact, our biggest blind spots are the ones right in front of our eyes.

People can be too close to their problems to understand them or even recognize them. People often can’t break out of familiar---but destructive---habits of communication, especially at times of stress. People don’t always know what to do next if they try something and it doesn’t work. And people lack the humility to admit that the problem might be with themselves.

At some point in married life, just about everyone needs outside help. Perhaps the most common form of outside help are articles like this one or books on enhancing marital communication. Another common form of outside help is advice from friends or family members, especially those who have gone through similar experiences.

Unfortunately, though, the author of a book doesn’t know you personally, and has only an educated guess about what a typical reader’s issues might be. A friend or relative may be well-intentioned, but is probably unskilled in analyzing problems or offering solutions. And a friend or relative may---like yourself---be too close to the situation to be objective, or may be unable to keep confidential the information you’re disclosing.

When your marriage has reached the point where there are issues that won’t go away, it’s time to start looking for a marriage counselor. But don’t wait until your spouse has one foot out the door. Don’t wait until someone does something that can’t be forgiven. Start the counseling when things are still going reasonably well, when there is still enough good will and co-operation between the two of you to get the most out of it.

The biggest challenge in marriage counseling may be the initial one: finding the right counselor. Getting a personal recommendation isn’t always easy; asking your neighbor for the name of a good marriage counselor is not the same as asking for the name of a good handyman or cleaning service. If you’re a member of a church or synagogue, your instinct may be to seek help from your clergyman. But all pastoral counselors (as they’re called) are not created equal. Some are highly skilled but others are well-meaning amateurs. And Internet searches can leave you scratching your head over the bewildering array of backgrounds, degrees, and methods that different counselors will have.

I think, though, that if you meet with two or three prospective counselors, and you’re not afraid to ask questions, you’re likely to find at least one who would be a good fit. Questions I would ask include:


  • How long have you been doing marriage counseling?
  • Is marriage counseling all that you do, or is it one of many types of services you offer?
  • Have you worked successfully with couples with our particular problem or problems?
  • Will you give us specific advice or will you just ask questions and try to lead us to the answers?
  • How many sessions are we likely to need?


The “right” answers to these questions really depend on you and what you’re looking for. Some people want the counselor to tell them what’s wrong. Others prefer to have the counselor ask questions and guide them to the answers. Some people are looking for a quick fix. Others need a more in-depth exploration of their issues.

The only thing I would insist on is feeling comfortable about opening up to this person. Marriage counseling involves sharing a lot of information, fears, and emotions. If something about the counselor is causing you to hold back, it’s a red flag. Find another counselor.

And finally, don’t be afraid to ask about fees and whether they’re covered by health insurance or an employee assistance program. I wouldn’t, however, put off counseling solely for financial reasons. Your marriage is worth spending time and money on. And besides, the most expensive counseling is always cheaper than a divorce.

Jim is a graduate of Boston College Law School, and practiced divorce law in Boston for over twenty years. After moving to Arizona, he became a full-time mediator for the family and divorce court in Phoenix. His experience in working with divorcing couples, plus his own life experiences---he was a 20 year-old husband and father, and a single father for several years after his divorce---prompted Jim to write a book (“Mid-Life Divorce and the Rebirth of Commitment”) that helps people avoid divorce by teaching better ways to communicate and resolve disputes.Jim is currently an advice columnist, relationship writer, and personal coach. He also puts on workshops dealing with marriage, divorce, post-divorce dating, and other aspects of men-women relationships. Jim writes for HopeAfterDivorce.org, FamilyShare.com, CupidPulse.com, and LAFamily.com. See Jim’s website at www.attorneyatlove.com


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