Marriage Counselling

Whilst most marriages begin with a high level of excitement, passion and commitment, this so-called ‘honeymoon phase’ rarely lasts. Committing to and sharing one’s life with another person requires certain skills. Without being aware of and using them, it is normal for enthusiasm, romance and commitment to diminish from a marriage.

Some common areas where married couples experience difficulties include:

  • Poor communication
  • Commitment difficulties
  • Reduced trust
  • Reduced intimacy
  • Adjustments and transitions, such as relocations, having children, changing work roles or changing family roles
  • Infidelity
  • Jealousy
  • Differing opinions or beliefs
  • Adapting to living together
  • Conflict – verbal, physical or emotional
  • Marriage breakdowns

Therapists at Strategic Psychology in Canberra rely on marriage counselling techniques that have been empirically demonstrated as effective with numerous and diverse couples. Many of our techniques and resources are taken from the Gottman Institute in Seattle, which has over 40 years of research and clinical experience in counselling couples to improve the quality of their marriages.

The Gottman Institute identified four key aspects of a conflict discussion that are sound predictors of divorce if their presence continues in a marriage – they are known as ‘The Four Horsemen’. These are listed below along with tips on preventing them.

The Four Horsemen

  1. Criticism – A criticism attacks a person’s character. Its antidote is to complain without blame – talk about how you feel and what you need.
  2. Defensiveness – Righteous outrage, or behaving like an innocent victim, in order to protect the self from perceived attack (e.g. criticism). This never solves the problem, but rather blames your partner, which does not resolve the issue and in fact escalates the argument. The remedy is to accept responsibility, even for only one part of the argument.
  3. Contempt – Speaking with superiority, for instance, using sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye rolling and hostile humour, is the greatest predictor of relationship termination. The solution is to build a culture of respect and appreciation.
  4. Stonewalling – Withdrawing from the interaction. The remedy is to practice physiological self-soothing by ceasing the conflict discussion. This will prevent you from exploding or imploding (stonewalling), which are neither helpful nor productive responses. Tell your partner that you are feeling overwhelmed and need a break, which should last at least twenty minutes (it will be that long before your body calms down). It is very important that, during this time, you avoid contemptuous thoughts and do something soothing and distracting, such as listening to music or exercising.

The Gottman Institute also lists the top seven principles for improving a marriage.

7 Principles for Improving a Marriage

  1. Seek support early – The average married couple waits six years before seeking professional assistance for their difficulties. Half of divorces occur within the first seven years, suggesting that couples often delay seeking help for far too long.
  2. Edit yourself – It is not necessary to voice every critical thought when discussing difficult topics with your spouse.
  3. Soften your ‘start up’ – Do not begin discussing difficult topics by making critical and contemptuous comments – this is how arguments often begin. Bringing up problems gently and without blame is more effective.
  4. Accept your partner’s influence – In studying heterosexual marriages, the Gottman Institute found that marriages succeeded to the extent that a husband accepted influence from his wife. Research shows that women are already well practiced in accepting a man’s influence, however, a true marriage partnership only occurs when a husband can do the same.
  5. Have high standards for each other – The most successful married couples are those who, from the outset, refuse to accept hurtful behaviour from each another.
  6. Learn to repair and exit arguments – The happiest marriages are between couples who know how to exit an argument, or repair the situation, before it gets completely out of control. Repair techniques include humour, displaying physical affection and understanding, emphasising that you are a team and will solve problem together, and offering signs of appreciation for your partner. In particularly heated arguments, it is usually helpful to take a 20-minute break and approach the topic again when both partners are calm.
  7. Focus on positives – When discussing problems, make at least fives times as many positive statements about each other as you do negative ones. A good marriage must have a rich, positive environment.

At Strategic Psychology in Canberra, we base our marriage counselling strategies on these and other empirically based, tried and tested, methods. We are passionate about assisting married couples in the Canberra region to address the challenges that may arise in the course of a marriage. Our sessions can be conducted individually, together with your spouse, or through a mixture of individual and couple sessions. Our priority is to ensure both partners are able to find the support needed in order to re-establish a loving, healthy relationship.

If your spouse is not ready or willing to seek help, you can still access individual assistance. This may help you to develop tools and strategies to help stimulate changes, improve your communication and better manage conflict in your marriage. If your spouse later decides they would like to be involved, they are able to join with you at any time to continue working together towards improving the relationship and addressing issues that arise.

Finding assistance

If you live in the Canberra region and feel that you are experiencing marriage difficulties, you can contact Strategic Psychology to arrange to see a psychologist. We can assist you in reconnecting with your spouse and learning strategies to strengthen your marriage.

No referral is required in order to see one of our psychologists, however, you can contact your GP for a referral under Medicare (if eligible) to receive a rebate on services provided.

Want to reflect on the quality of your relationship? Take the Gottman Institute quiz now:


Gottman, J. M. & Silver, N. (1999). Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Gottman, J. M. (1999). The Marriage Clinic. Seattle: Author.

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