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Solution-Focused Couples Therapy to Improve Your Marriage

Dr. Yvette Stupart is a clinical counselor and educator. She gives insights on how to experience emotional health and relational well-being.

Find solutions for your marital difficulties through finding exceptions.

Find solutions for your marital difficulties through finding exceptions.

A Solutions-Oriented Approach to Couples Therapy

Solution-focused therapy helps you to do more of what is already working in your marriage. The therapist can assist you to find "exceptions," that is, where the problem is absent. Then you can use these exceptions as the pathways to future solutions.

In fact, finding solutions begins at your first telephone contact with the therapist, when you set up the appointment. A solution-focused therapist is likely to encourage you to consider your goals, and what change would look like for your marriage. This will help you to start thinking about solutions to the issues in your relationship.

Good communication is critical to developing a healthy, satisfying marriage relationship. Solution-focused therapy could help you to enhance your attending and listening skills, and so improve your communication patterns.

In the video below, therapist and author, Yvonne Dolan, gives an overview of brief solution-focused therapy and its efficacy,

Overview of Solution-Focused Therapy

What Is Solution-Focused Therapy?

Solution-focused therapy aims to identify what is working, as well as the resulting solution sequences. The main proponents of this model are Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg.

Solution-focused therapy assumes that small changes are usually all that is needed to effect progress, since changes tend to produce a ripple effect. Thus the focus is on "exceptions" that suggest solutions.

In his book, The Solution-Focused Marriage, Elliott Connie explains that solution-focused therapy is different from traditional therapy and "invites clients to look towards creating their desired future as opposed to removing a particular problem". Thus the approach is a short-term approach, usually about eight sessions, and emphasizes solutions rather a problem focus. In this approach, the concern is with change.

Right from the start of therapy, the therapist joins with the couple in a therapeutic conversation, encouraging them to think about solutions and look for positive signs of change. The thread of finding solutions or looking for exceptions continues through the sessions.

The miracle question is an important strategy used in solution-focused therapy. It was developed by Steve de Shazer one of the creators of solution-focused therapy. It is a goal-setting question and is used to help clients set goals for a preferred future. The video below demonstrates how the miracle question is used in therapy.

Using the Miracle Question

Case Study Using Solution-Focused Therapy

Consider Mary and John, who need to improve the communication patterns in their marriage. Improving communication is important for many reasons. This could facilitate the couple's sharing and making decisions together on how their finances are managed. This could guard against one spouse controlling all the financial decisions in the marriage.

The steps outlined will help you to understand the strategies used in solution-focused therapy to find solutions and improve the marriage relationship.

Session 1: Identify Goals

The identification of goals was the important focus for Mary and John in the first session. The therapist collaborated with them to clarify their criteria of ending counseling. This was done through a variety of questions that were geared at getting the couple's attention on the process of change, and the future.

From this first session, the therapist sought to move from “problem talk” and reframe dialogue strategically with the question: “What do you still like about your relationship?” Here, the therapist was looking for exceptions, times when the problem did not rule their marriage, and strengths in their relationship that they can build on.

The therapist also used scaling questions to help the couple rate their marriage and to assess their commitment to change. In addition, scaling techniques were used to help the couple identify their goals. For example, both Mary and John said that their communication level would move from 3 to 6 (on a scale to 10) if they started setting the budget together.

Move from problem talk to being solution-focused conversation that generate solutions.

Move from problem talk to being solution-focused conversation that generate solutions.

Session 2 and Beyond: Identify What Has Changed

The second and subsequent sessions with Mary and John were centered around two areas. The first area of focus began with the therapist asking the couple the question: "What has changed or gone better since the last session?" This question was intended to focus the minds of the couple on solutions and exceptions, in order to set the direction and tone of the sessions.

In that session, the couple's responses indicated that positive changes were occurring, and the therapist supported the changes outlined by Mary and John. Even more, the therapist tried to help the couple to see that these changes were meaningful and significant. Steps were also taken to highlight the changes by asking the couple for more details.

The therapist sought to consolidate these changes by encouraging the couple to be specific in their answers. She also posed questions about what the couple needed to do to maintain the changes, and build on the changes in the future.

Move to a clear vision of your desired future and improve communication in your relationship

Move to a clear vision of your desired future and improve communication in your relationship

Reviewing Homework

The third focus in these sessions centered on reviewing the previous week’s homework assignments. The couple's tasks were designed to help them to repeat exceptions and observe what happened. The objective was to encourage Mary and John to continue whatever they were doing at the time when they experienced exceptions.

The couple did not complete one part of the homework they were given in the second session. They explained that they found this challenging, as it required them to work together in planning the budget for the month. The therapist reassigned the homework to the couple for the next session. The emphasis was on teamwork, which required effective communication and negotiation. This would result in prioritizing the items on the budget through dialogue and compromise.

The therapist then used the scaling techniques to gauge the couple’s commitment to this new step in their relationship. Could Mary and John commit to change, stick to it, and even improve their efforts? Both said that their commitment level was at 10. This suggested that commitment was one of the resources that the couple continued to draw on in order to solve their problems.

Pay attention to the changes that are moving you to greater intimacy in your relationship.

Pay attention to the changes that are moving you to greater intimacy in your relationship.

Important Questions in Solution-Focused Therapy

SessionsSpecific QuestionsObjectives


The couple is challenged to start thinking about their goals

Set goals - identify what change would look like

Session 1

"When will you know that you no longer need counseling?"

Set goals that are SMART - specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, set within a time-frame; positively focused


Scaling question: "Where are you now"?



Exception question: "Tell about a time when the problem did not occur?"



The Miracle Question:"Suppose while you are sleeping a miracle happens, what would be different?"


Sessions 2 and beyond

The second session: "What has been better since the first first session?"

To identify and strengthen positive changes that have taken place


Reinforcement question: "What are the helpful things you would want to keep doing in the future?"

Identify helpful behaviors that occurred, and continue with them

The Final Session

In the final session, session five, the couple expressed satisfaction with how the intervention went. They reported that communication improved in their relationship which resulted in greater intimacy and marital satisfaction.

In addition, the couple had finally started planning the finances together, and this had a positive ripple effect on many other areas of their family life. They expressed a strong commitment to the process of change in their relationship, and specifically to continue to communicate with each other on their finances.

Mary and John were now mobilizing the resources that they needed to develop workable solutions for their situation. However, it was their expressed wish that the therapist continue for a few more sessions. They pointed out that although they had learned what the solutions were, and how to accomplish them, they felt they needed more of the therapist's guidance.

Follow-Up Sessions

In response to the couple's request, the therapist scheduled two follow-up sessions. In these sessions, the therapist explored areas of how the couple’s spiritual resources could enhance the change process. For example, the couple decided to get involved in the couples’ ministry in their local church. Also, to help the couple maintain counseling gains, specific questions were asked like, “What are you currently doing that you want to make sure you are still doing one year from now?”

These questions were intended to help Mary and John focus on what they had accomplished, and what they wanted to continue. The therapist assisted the couple to develop a plan for maintaining their gains. This included identifying specific measures the couple wanted to use to continue progress and suggested reading to help them improve in specific areas in their relationship.

References and Further Reading

Oliver, G., Hasz, M., & Richburg, M. (1997). Promoting change through Brief Therapy in Christian counseling. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Walter, J., & Peller. J. (2000). Recreating Brief Therapy: Preferences and possibilities. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Yvette Stupart PhD