11 Keys for Getting the Most out of Relationship Coaching

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Every couple hits rough patches. Some may even find themselves suddenly “skidding on black ice.” But whether the problem in the relationship is chronic, causing simmering resentment, or seems to explode like a land mine, almost every couple contemplates getting help at one time or another.

In a tight economy, the pressures that couples experience intensify. This can put you in a push-pull situation: Already strapped for money, you are faced with the additional prospect of paying for a service that has no guaranteed outcome. Yet you suspect that if you don’t get coaching, your relationship won’t survive. You have to weigh the immediate costs of professional help against the potential costs of a breakup, including double rent or an additional mortgage, a forced sale of your home, moving expenses, attorneys, and additional childcare. Even if you aren’t married or don’t have children, breaking up isn’t just hard to do; it can be costly.

So how do you know when the right time for relationship coaching is? How do you know if it’s going to work? How do you know if your relationship coach/counselor is good?

Because each couple’s situation is unique, there are no simple answers to these perfectly reasonable questions. However, there are some things you can do to decide if relationship coaching is a good option and to maximize your chances of a satisfying experience. Here are 11 Keys for getting the most out of relationship coaching:

1. Don’t wait until you feel hopeless. Maybe you’re already at this crisis stage. In that case, don’t delay in getting help. If you’re on the fence about relationship coaching but think you want to salvage your relationship, consider this metaphor: When a scuba diver descends too quickly, her ears may hurt from the imbalance of pressure. At that depth, it won’t work for her to continue trying to relieve the pressure by swallowing. She must swim back up to the point at which the pain began, clear her ears with a good swallow or two, and then descend slowly, checking for pain levels periodically. Successful counseling is akin to the scuba experience. It is often a matter of finding the initial spot where the pain began. This is easier for everyone—coach and couple—if you don’t have so far to travel back or can’t even remember the last time you felt no pain. Crisis intervention leaves little time or energy for exploring the root causes of heartache, which may often include past relationships and childhood events. So, just as you wouldn’t let a physical wound fester without treatment, don’t ignore your emotional wounds.

2. Don’t use your coach as a referee. When couples are angry, they want someone to listen and see their side. That’s expected and reasonable. But don’t expect a good counselor/coach to take your side. That need can be met by friends who may commiserate out of sheer loyalty. A seasoned relationship coach knows that taking sides is counterproductive for the couple. She should listen to both of your feelings, fears, and complaints. She should then connect these to the deeper issues that precipitated your problems or even predated your relationship. A good relationship coach will provide you with useful insights (those AHA! moments), tools for communicating, and homework to raise your self-esteem, which often declines as a relationship deteriorates.

3. Don’t focus on being liked by your relationship coach. She’s not there to take sides; she’s there to help you find clarity, learn relationship skills, and develop higher self-esteem. If you try to be “teacher’s pet,” you may feel betrayed the first time your coach calls you on a behavior, which she will no doubt do if she’s any good. Don’t idealize her. Remember, when she’s not being paid to be the perfect listener and guide, she may not even be someone you’d like as a friend.

4. Commit to the process. Presuming you feel some “chemistry” with one another after the first session, your relationship coach will probably ask you to commit to a minimum number of sessions or length of time. If one or both people can’t make even a minimum commitment, there may not be enough elasticity in the relationship to make counseling worthwhile. If you have one foot out the door already, be up front with your coach. Don’t pretend that you are more invested in working on the relationship than you actually are or you’ll end up fighting the label of “the bad guy.”

5. Unless you have been abused, don’t threaten your partner with leaving during your counseling timeframe. If you’ve committed to three months of counseling, don’t walk in after three weeks and say that you’ve changed your mind. Give your relationship coach a chance to help you through at least one emotional abyss. I once worked with a couple where the husband threatened “the end” in the middle of every session (even though I asked him repeatedly not to do this). After enough of my calling him on his threatening behavior, he was willing to admit that his ultimatums made him feel a semblance of control. But he could also see that his threats fueled his wife’s distrust and provoked her in destructive ways. Once he stopped “crying wolf,” they both became more vulnerable about their underlying feelings and fears. From staunch enemies they grew (in just a few weeks) to become each other’s best friend.

6. Don’t withhold. If you have some big secret, there are many ways to handle this. Here’s how not to handle it: Don’t tell your relationship coach your secret in private and ask her to keep it from your partner. That’s poison for any relationship. If your counselor reinforces you in any way in keeping your partner in the dark, find a more ethical counselor. You don’t want to work with someone who colludes on secrets. How can you trust that she isn’t holding a secret of your partner’s that you would want to know? You’ve probably heard the saying, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” Your secret, be it about infidelity, credit card debt, or herpes, is already eating you up or you would have shared it with your partner. Because secrets reinforce our fears, they inevitably damage our relationships. Here’s what you can do if you have been keeping a secret from your partner: If you can’t imagine telling your partner outright, then go ahead and talk to your relationship coach privately. Tell her you need help finding the courage to share your secret. She won’t sugarcoat the consequences. Yes, you may lose your partner. But in my experience as a life coach, the relationships that almost certainly end are the ones where one or both parties had a secret they were unwilling or too afraid to confess. Think about it this way: You are afraid to tell because you are afraid of being abandoned. But the reality is that you are likely to be abandoned if you don’t tell. Why? Because your relationship is a mirror. If you are afraid of being abandoned, your relationship will mirror that fear in some way. If you think you are unworthy of your partner because of your secret, they will unknowingly mirror this back to you. Secrets set up a Catch 22, no-win situation. So you might as well offer the truth and find out if your partner can forgive you as you learn to forgive yourself.

7. Be truer to your values than to your fears. No one wants to be abandoned. But if you abandon yourself or your core values to keep somebody in your life, you will regret it. Most of us have done this at one time or another and know how bad we end up feeling about ourselves. Yet we sometimes try to “work around” our values in order to avoid loneliness or dissention. If your partner is behaving in ways that offend your moral sensibilities, speak up. If you try to talk about other, less sensitive topics in counseling when you are bothered by something bigger, you are wasting your precious time and money. Give your counselor an opportunity to help you honor your values and to explore your partner’s core values. Maybe your partner is behaving in ways that go against his/her own ethics and feels ashamed. If so, there’s a good chance that a relationship coach can help your partner realign with his/her values.

8. If you disagree with your coach’s interpretation, speak up. Even the best relationship coaches have filters based on their own life experiences. But a good coach doesn’t care more about being right than about the success of your relationship. While you don’t want to be rude, you don’t want to worry about objecting. You’re not there to coddle your coach’s ego just as she isn’t there to massage yours. She may disagree with your point of view and you may feel defensive. That happens. But you shouldn’t feel bullied, intimidated, or humiliated.

9. Don’t shoot the messenger. You may not like what you hear from your coach. But if it rings true, even if it bruises your ego, don’t blame her for doing her job well. Ignoring the truth translates to you and your partner suffering needlessly. Try to remember that a hard truth is better than a soft lie if your priority is a healthy, happy relationship.

10. Talk openly about financial issues. If you are wobbling about coming to a counseling session because of financial difficulty, let your counselor know before your next session. Obviously, it is respectful to give her time to think about how she wants to handle this. But perhaps even more importantly, she may make a connection between your financial difficulty and other issues in your relationship. Being truthful about financial stresses will help her put the pieces of your puzzle together in a way that could be quite illuminating as well as financially stabilizing.

11. Practice compassion.
You might not be in counseling if this were already so easy, but if you can’t find any compassion for your partner’s emotional wounds or the fears that drive his/her counterproductive behaviors, it’s hard to move forward or find hope. Ultimately, the capacity to create a successful, intimate, joyful relationship lies in our ability to recognize and remember that everything that doesn’t look like love is simply a disguised cry for help. Your relationship coach should demonstrate enough compassion that it “wears off” on you. It is compassion that promotes healing, vulnerability, truth, and forgiveness. Although there are few promises that can be made about the outcome of your time in counseling, I guarantee that the more compassion you practice, the more satisfied you will feel about the experience.

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