Making it Work


STORY BY Kim Polyniak PHOTOGRAPHY BY André Chung

It was over. After 13 years together, six years married, Sharon and Chris split up. Their relationship had faced issues many couples have struggled with, including alcohol abuse and an a air. They had gone to couples counseling on two di erent occasions during their time together. And now divorcemake-it-work-risa-ganel was looming. “We were getting papers drawn up,” Sharon says. Chris decided to consult a relationship coach, and Sharon eventually began sessions as well. “I just needed an outlet,” Chris says. “It seemed like I was losing everything I had been working so hard to accomplish.” As the couple worked with Coach Dave Elliott, their relationship began to change – this time for the better. According to marriage and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, co-founder (with his wife, Julie) of the Gottman Relationship Institute in Seattle, the average couple waits six years before seeking help for marital problems. “I’d say more o¬ en than not, people come in here when things are really bad, when they’re almost ready to walk out the door, and it’s their last stop,” Lori Hollander, LCSW-C, couples counselor, who founded Owings Mills-based Relationships Work with her husband, Bob.

Couples seek help for a variety of reasons — from lack of sexual desire to money or parenting issues. The good news is, it can work. “Studies show that in the hands of a good therapist, couples counseling is successful 70 to 80 percent of the time,” says Risa Ganel, LCMFT, owner and principal therapist at Together Couples Counseling in Columbia. While couples counseling and relationship coaching both have bene ts, the methods can vary. According to experts, therapy explores how a subject’s past led to current behavior, while coaching focuses on the present, looking to change habits moving forward. Some counselors incorporate both therapy and coaching. And while most relationship coaches receive some type of training, it’s not a requirement. Mental health professionals who counsel couples can have di erent backgrounds. Most, however, have a master’s degree or doctorate, as well as a certain number of hours of supervised clinical experience in order to be licensed by Maryland’s Board of Professional Counselors and Therapists. Sharon and Chris’ coach, Dave Elliott, recently moved from Baltimore County to Australia, but continues coaching clients in the U.S. by phone. “It’s important to nd someone who has a track record of success,” he says, suggesting you look for testimonials from former clients. Once you’ve decided to seek help, either with a couples counselor or a relationship coach, the road to repairing your relationship begins. Here are some tips for success. Pick the right expert for you and your partner. Do research, ask friends, check with professional organizations to and recommendations.

Couples counseling, Hollander says, is a specialized area. She suggests choosing someone who has experience working with couples. It’s also important to nd a counselor or coach with whom both you and your partner feel comfortable. One partner in the relationship may even prefer a male or female counselor or coach. “People have di erent life experiences that leave them either comfortable or less comfortable with one gender or the other,” Ganel says. It’s an issue that therapists should also be sensitive about, she adds. If the rapport with a counselor or coach doesn’t feel right, keep looking until you nd a better t for you both. Be vulnerable. What are you feeling? Whether it’s sadness, fear or another emotion, expressing your deep and genuine feelings in a session is bene cial to repairing a broken connection. That’s easier said than done, however. “It’s easy to feel anger. It’s harder to feel and acknowledge and talk about sadness, fear and hurt,” Hollander says. Keep an open mind. When seeking relationship help, listen and soak up the advice being o ered, so you can turn it around and, if necessary, change the way you think. “When couples are open to the therapist’s perspective and reflect upon it, they generally get a lot more out of the treatment,” says Brad Sachs, Ph.D., a family psychologist based in Columbia.

Practice. Anticipate putting the work from each session into practice. You should be willing to actively use the advice or tools learned from the expert in your everyday life. This will obviously take time and e ort on your and your partner’s parts. If clients were willing to devote the work and energy to their relationships that they do to their careers, says Hollander, “we’d have a lot more successful marriages.” Be patient. Don’t expect change to happen overnight. Even though you may feel relief a¬ er the rst few sessions, Ganel says, that’s when the real work starts. “Lasting change doesn’t happen in two or three sessions,” she says. “It happens when you discuss the really di cult stu .” A few months into relationship coaching, Sharon and Chris decided to get back together, and for now, they say they are in a much better place. While the couple plans to continue relationship coaching, they feel they now have the tools to make their relationship successful. “I get so much joy in telling my friends and family – the people who have been with us since day one – that I’ve never been more in love with Chris than right now,” Sharon says. *



  • Committed relationships require maintenance. What can you do to help ensure your marriage or relationship is a loving and lasting one? Our experts offer some tips.
  • Communicate. People are busy and often don’t take time to talk to one other. So be sure to stop to chat with your husband, wife or significant other.
  • Feed the marriage or relationship. Make time for your relationship – without distractions (and that can mean kids). Try establishing date nights or, if possible, schedule night or weekend getaways. Even spending 15 minutes together each evening will help you reconnect.
  • Live your marriage consciously. Hit the pause button on your life once a week to ask yourself: How’s my marriage going? Am I being loving to my partner? Am I getting my needs met?
  • Learn to forgive. Forgiving someone can be tough, but it can be meaningful. Letting go frees you from hurt and pain, which then allows your relationship to grow.
  • Know when to seek help. When issues persist, don’t put off talking with a professional. Bad feelings may grow the longer you wait.

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