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Make changes in couples therapy stick

Repetition of new behaviors is key.
Repetition of new behaviors is key.

If you've gone to couples therapy before to work on issues coming up in your relationship, that's a great first step. And I further congratulate you if you are one of the increasing number of couples using counseling not as crisis intervention - but crisis prevention. But getting in when your relationship needs a little help is only part of the story.

As a couples therapist, I've seen firsthand the loving connection that can occur after disconnection in relationship, the joy that couples can feel remembering what it's like to feel emotionally safe together (in some cases for the first time). As many great things as there are that can happen in a counseling setting, an important question often gets overlooked.

Can the relationship changes be sustained past the counseling experience?

There needs to be tools to sustain the process so the hard work doesn't end up a fleeting memory when conflict arises again. According to Steven Stosny, Ph.D., the “most powerful of neurological principles: habituation,” should not be ignored. Through the study of neuroscience we have learned that, “Neurons that fire together wire together." Couples intent on making the changes made in counseling stick must remember that repetition establishes new patterns.

Here are a few ways Dr. Stosny suggests to facilitate this process

Daily Rituals

  • Incorporate nonverbal acknowledgements at major transitional times (getting out of bed, leaving for work, coming home or going to bed) that demonstrate your partner’s importance to you.
  • Give your partner full-body hugs six times a day, for at least 6 seconds (the frequency and duration increases chance of a release of the bonding hormone, oxytocin).
  • Think positive thoughts about your partner at least five times a day.

The Fire Extinguisher Effect

Find something that can symbolize what you've learned in therapy. For example, create a mini booklet with a few pages of skills, insights and tools acquired - with a picture of a big fire extinguisher on the cover. If things get difficult, you can refer to your “in case of emergency” reminder handbook.

Many couples spend their hard earned money, valuable time and concerted effort attempting to heal their marriages and relationships with the help of a therapist. For the best chance of long-term success, it's important to remember the importance of repetition of actions (re-training your brain) to develop a new more healthy, loving, lasting satisfying relationship.


Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT is a therapist in Marin committed to emotional and relationship health for individuals and couples. With the addition of her new MFT Intern, Marin Therapy and Counseling now offers lower fee options and sessions Monday through Saturday.


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