My Ex-Husband & I Saw 6 Couples Therapists During Our Marriage. Here's What I Learned

Photo by Guille Faingold / Stocksy

In an interview with Good Morning America on Friday, Michelle Obama opened up about her and her husband, former President Barack Obama, seeking out marriage counseling during the tougher times in their relationship.

"I know too many young couples who struggle and think somehow, there's something wrong with them," she said. "I want them to know that Michelle and Barack Obama—who have a phenomenal marriage and who love each other—we work on our marriage, and we get help with our marriage when we need it."

She talks about how many people assume marriage is "supposed to be easy"—and she's absolutely right. When I got married in 1990, I had just turned 23, and my husband was 29. We received premarital compatibility tests from the minister who would perform the ceremony but no in-depth counseling. We were too giddy to take very much of it seriously, anyway. We had dated for three months when he proposed and then spent the next year preparing for the wedding.

My husband and I stayed married for 12 years, and we started counseling within our first year of marriage. We needed to learn how to communicate better and to not escalate arguments. This was fruitful. We were both open to obtaining tools for speaking and listening, and while we still argued, we learned how to de-escalate the volatility.

Per my prompting, my husband and I entered into counseling five other times at different junctures; the last time was when our son was 15 months old. While our marriage didn't last, I learned a lot about what it takes to make marriage counseling a successful endeavor. Below are the most important lessons I took away after seeing six different couples therapists over the course of more than a decade:

1. Both partners must be invested in counseling.

I was the cheerleader in our relationship when it came to addressing our discontent. The issues in their simplest form were that I wanted to feel connected and heard, and he wanted me to feel that he was capable of making me not feel angry anymore. What was not given any attention at all was whether or not he really wanted to be in counseling. As we danced in and out of our mutual invalidation and over years of going to counseling with little progress, it finally dawned on me that he wanted our problems to go away without any effort on his part. As an interminable optimist, I was devoted to helping him see what would help me feel connected and heard, and since he never rejected the idea of counseling outright, I believed he wanted to learn, too.

It is important that both parties be invested in counseling and are not simply going along to appease the other partner. I didn't realize the extent of my husband's "going along to get along" until we had been divorced for two years, and he confided he'd been seeing a counselor on his own and told the counselor to keep the pressure on him to do the work—because he wouldn't otherwise.

2. Get help early.

Accepting your life as a couple often comes with an unspoken passivity about things that gnaw and chafe. The agreement to be together relaxes the tension of trying to impress someone or to win them over, so your interactions with each other shift more into being yourselves. You have someone, you have committed to the relationship, your partner loves you, and you love them, and so you don't feel tension around this part of your life anymore.

But acceptance doesn't always equate to satisfaction. So don't be lazy and lapse into a belief that whatever is bothering you will go away because it won't. It may get shoved to one side, buried under the "To Do" of the day, or collapsed underneath another crisis, but it is still there, and the sooner there is an open conversation about it, the better.

Timing is everything when it comes to marriage counseling. Among the 40 to 50 percent of couples who divorce, the average first marriage lasts eight years. Many couples tend to wait too long before seeking help—they see it as a last resort toward the end of a combusting marriage. But experts agree that marriages have the greatest chance for success when counseling occurs early in a relationship. Be honest with yourself about what is working and what is not in a relationship, and speak with your partner about seeking help sooner rather than later.

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3. Make sure to choose a counselor who is qualified.

An MSW does not a marriage counselor make. A person may have several years of counseling experience but not with couples. The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists lists professionals who have training, education, and expertise to treat couples seeking help.

My husband and I were not picky and chose individuals based on word-of-mouth or a brief biography. We didn't ever receive erroneous advice, but it became evident quickly who had a strong skill set in treating couples and who did not. We didn't hesitate to stop seeing someone quickly who seemed lost or weak. This truncated our efforts at seeking help. Our bond then turned toward unification over agreeing the counselor was no good, which was a relief momentarily but did not serve the larger purpose of working on our underlying discontent.

This being said, a trained expert in couples counseling is not the only criterion for your choice. Both of you have to believe you can work with this person and that she or he is not going to be prejudicial in favoring one person over the other in sessions.

4. Goals are critical, even in love.

Goal-setting is an important part of any endeavor, and couples counseling is no different. Go into the counseling with a goal of how long you're invested in doing this for the immediate and longer term. Decide whether there are things you can work on outside of a counseling session that will help or whether you are dependent on having the therapist guide you.

Much of what counseling helps you discover are tools for interacting with each other so that you can navigate the relationship more harmoniously. Obtaining the tools is the first step to changing a habit or behavior pattern; creating a goal around using the tool and establishing a new pattern is key to making sure the rest of the steps are taken. Agree upon a timeline for how you hope to implement changes and new patterns.

The parameters of relationship-building can be nebulous because of a variety of factors (day-to-day responsibilities, children if you have them, family crises), so having agreed-upon timelines and milestones for shifting away from what was not working, practicing with a new tool to change the behavior, and feeling successful with its implementation are all a means of providing a structure.

5. Don't take on 10 years of grievances all at once.

Break down the issues into manageable bits that are tangible. The problems didn't happen overnight, and it will take some time to unpack them. You don't want to overwhelm the opportunity to look at things.

Make a short list of things that are troubling, and include examples of what you mean with something that happened recently. For example: (1) I feel ignored when you ask me how I am and then walk away into another room. (2) I don't like it when we have to cancel plans with friends because a deadline at work came first. These two issues point to a common theme, actually: feeling invalidated. There may be an example that feels raw but happened three years ago, but this event is going to require more reflection and conversation to understand why it is still a sticking point for one person years later.

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6. You and your partner must both recognize your own and each other's limits.

You must be willing to concede that your partner might only be able to do so much or go so far, and it's important to speak openly about whether that is enough. You can and should concede that behaviors you have aggravate your partner and make an effort to minimize tension around these incidents; at the same time, everyone needs to feel safe in a relationship and not constantly be expected to change. It is important to assess the effort toward minimizing points of tension against things that a person can't or won't change. Is this OK? Can it be tolerated? Where do you draw the line?

7. Relationships are works in progress, always.

No one is perfect. No relationship is perfect. Think of your relationship as a work of art that you are constantly reshaping based on who you are and who your partner is. Know that people shift and change, and all of us need support regardless of where we are or what is going on. Events happen and affect each person differently. But this impact doesn't have to translate to a point of no return. It is possible to sustain love when both of you are committed to being together.

Marriage is one of the biggest decisions that anyone makes in a lifetime. There will always be rough patches, but you can learn to attune to a more harmonious navigation with your partner. Once you recognize the relationship as a work in progress with care and love at the center, counseling does have the potential to provide a vast array of tools to interact healthfully for many years to come.

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