First, understand that the "client" in couples counseling is the relationship itself and not either of the two people in it. I use a couple of illustrations to make this point. The best expectation might be that I'll ask you to view your relationship like a garden.
A garden needs to be cared for so that it can do what we all hope for from a garden: grow and bloom beauty for us to sit in and share and be delighted in, produce fruits and vegetables that nourish us. Gardens take time and effort from willing gardeners.
1. Come to couples counseling ready put on your gloves and put in your own effort.
This is one of the hardest things for couples who do not come to counseling until they are seriously considering breaking up. Ambivalence about the relationship has set in and the motivation to work on the relationship is lacking. That's ok. It makes sense that anyone who isn't confident in the future of the relationship would have some apprehension about digging in and doing some hard work. A key to helping increase motivation might be beginning to realize that any of the effort you do put in will always benefit you in the future, regardless of the relationship outcome. Relationships have patterns of behavior because we as humans have patterns of behavior. By recognizing and accepting your own contribution to the problem, you will see the areas that you have to grow in. Whether we leave the relationship or not we will always keep with us our patterns of behavior and the baggage of failed relationships. If you neglect to put effort into caring for this relationship, you will repeat the same unhealthy patterns in your next relationship.
If you are both motivated to work on the relationship the rule holds the same. I will not be taking sides with either person. The side I am on is that of the relationship. The only goal of couples counseling is HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP. Even highly motivated partners often find it difficult to accept their contribution. Again, that's ok. It's hard to be challenged to make adjustments to our behaviors and motivations. The point is that you know that your own effort will be an essential part of the counseling process.
2. Healthy gardens require healthy patterns of care.
Gardens are not like school where we are hoping for a good grade and certificate. They cannot be crammed for and passed the next day. This is the reason that we often become overwhelmingly discouraged when we think that we have done the behavior our partner has asked us to do but it has not produced the result we hoped for. Often, people come in ready to discuss the problem as it relates to specific behaviors. By discussing the behaviors with a relationship expert you will begin to see that there is much more going on than just the cumulation of behaviors. There is a set pattern of how you are relating to each other and that pattern is what is going to need to be understood and adjusted.
What couples who benefit from couples therapy come to realize is that when they have done the work to establish new patterns of caring for your relationship, the upkeep isn't as overwhelming as they'd feared. Once a garden has been established, it grows on it's own. Of course, it will take some Saturdays (metaphorically) when you will both work hard and mend the fencing, do the weeding, remove what wasn't growing, plant vegetation, etc. AND IMPORTANTLY, if there is a pattern of doing those things to care for the garden, it will grow and produce it's desired fruit and flower without you both needing to be working on it or watching it all the time. This is an immensely rewarding experience for a couple. They've come to counseling and put in work and adjusted their patterns and all the sudden they realize, almost without knowing how or why, their garden has suddenly began to produce. The beauty is all the sudden so evident. The grace and support feels so good and it happened right under their noses even though they didn't necessarily see it happening. Gardens can burst into bloom!
3. I will supply you with the tools and education but not with explicit directions or decisions.
There is SO much to learn about relationships! When I was in graduate school I was amazed that I had to go to such a specialized program to learn what I was being taught about something that is such an integral part of all of our lives. Over and over in class or when doing the reading from brilliant psychologists and professors, I found that I was almost hugging myself as the wisdom of relationship science was striking me so deeply. This is an ongoing experience for me in continued education. For this reason, I have a real passion for teaching people established truths about relationships. I have a passion for supplying you with tools to care for your relationships. Just like gardening there is a science to it all and when you have a better understanding of that science, you will be able to be a much better gardener. The tools I teach my clients help them reach their desired goals.
The hard part can be, I am not going to give you lots of advice about how and when to implement that education and those tools. If advice worked, I wouldn't have a job. Instead, it will be up to you how you are going to implement the tools and new understanding you gain from counseling. Much of counseling is an exploration with the guidance of an unbiased professional. We will explore what made something feel right and like the desired goal was being fulfilled and we will also examine what happened that made something feel off and like it wasn't working. In doing that we will find where specific actions helped produce the desired goals of you as a unique couple.
Your relationship is ultimately up to you. I will be honored to be helpful for you and will care deeply about helping you explore ways to grow the garden that you are hoping for.