A Case for Marital Intensives

By Shanon Roberts LMHC

Working in private practice in counseling for well over twenty years, I’ve seensome of the more frustrating times in couples counseling. Research has revealed that a typical couple waits approximately four years to come into counseling, despite experiencing the need earlier. Many times, by the time the couple appears in the counselor’s office, one or both of the partners have already reached a level of indifference or lack of desire to work on their relationship. This is the most challenging and scary place for couples to find themselves. By this point, their primary motive in attending counseling sometimes is checking this off their list, indicating that they tried everything, before heading to a divorce attorney.

Other times, couples come into counseling in the heat of a crisis, despite the luke-warm or cold temperature of their relationship before this point. Now, the couples are bleeding and hurting badly. The actual issues of the marriage have to be triaged, attending the crisis first, before even addressing more layered complications of the relationship. For a couple, waiting to get the first available session, waiting patiently through the first 1 to 2 sessions of information gathering, and then sitting through assessment and treatment planning can be grueling. Traditional outpatient settings of 50-90 minute sessions once a week can sometimes postpone any relief to months after the crisis begins.

Research has revealed that in many scenarios, the traditional outpatient dosage for counseling is not providing the most successful and effective treatment outcomes.

Why is this the case?

  1. Unspecialized Counselors – Many counselors try to incorporate the same model of counseling within the same allotment of time for a couple as they would working with a single individual. Typical cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in a 50 minute time-frame once a week is not cutting the mustard for most couples. Many couples report that the counselor may just sit and listen to them rehash their issues as they repeat the same arguments in the office from home. Specialized training specifically for couples within the new framework of neuroscience and attachment theory with creativity in blocks of time has proven to be more successful.
  2. Session Dosage Level – Much time is lost in typical 50 minute sessions once a week. After the typical ice-breaking of a session, setting the agenda, working through current events from the week, and working to get the couple back to the place from the prior week’s session, there may be 20-30 minutes, at most, left to work on real issues of the marriage.
  3. Life Happens – In a couple’s typical life, much happens between sessions. Many times the couples will come in needing the counseling session to address a situational event that has presented itself between sessions, not allowing the couple to begin the real deep work set in the treatment plan that addresses the relational challenges rather than just the symptoms in which these challenges present. The counselor, if not seasoned, becomes a fire-fighter rather than a facilitator of real change.
  4. Not Enough, Too Long – By the time couples finally land in a counselor’s office, couples want answers quick. Getting initial momentum can be challenging. Finding a minimum of an hour a week for most couples is a challenge in itself. Two-working professionals with children’s schedules initiated the challenge to the relationship originally. Prioritizing the marriage in scheduling can be difficult. The realization that scheduling could be an issue for 4-6 months can seem daunting and discouraging. Couples may have to miss many times a week due to work demands, holidays, sickness, and school calendars. This further puts off the ability to get momentum and see results. Many couples drop out before treatment objectives are met due to the sheer difficulty of scheduling.

What is the answer?

Marriage intensives offer a very good solution. Research shows that these settings, similar to inpatient settings, have a higher rate of long-term, sustained improvement for marital counseling. A marriage intensive is where one couple works with one therapist for 2-3 days in a row. The couple is able to get six months of outpatient counseling in just a few days. Couples find this option refreshing. It gets results quick. The couple doesn’t have to worry about incorporating or prioritizing the counseling into their already strained calendar. The intensive setting allows the focus to avoid distractions of everyday living demands. Many couples like the idea of “getting away” to a different location working with a therapist where they are able to just focus on the counseling. Picking a venue/city of interest can also allow the couple to tack on a couple of days of rest, relaxation, or a well-needed vacation afterwards, capitalizing on the work that they have done. Men, in particular, enjoy this option. Couples are given the choice to tackle relationship issues in 3 days or 6 months with just a few days taking off work with vacation time. The dramatic results of relief and change in a few days can bring immediate encouragement and water to a relational desert. It has brought new efficacy in the arena of couples counseling and success and honor to God’s call on marriages.

“Serve each other with love. The whole law is made complete in this one command, “Love your neighbor/spouse as you love yourself.” “If you go on hurting each other and tearing each other apart, be careful or you will completely destroy each other.” Galatians 5:13b, 14, 15 NCV