Making the choice to go to couples counseling can feel like a very big step. It involves admitting that things are not perfect in your partnership, which is often tough to do, and scary to admit. And if you are not particularly familiar with what psychotherapy is all about, it can feel mysterious and confusing, not to mention it can involve considerable effort: finding an appropriate provider, figuring out insurance and financial aspects of the commitment, coming up with an agreeable time to fit into everyone’s schedule. Many times, the idea of seeing a marriage or couples therapist sits on the back burner, with one or both parties thinking maybe it is a good idea, but also feeling unsure of how to proceed– and whether or not their specific problems can really be helped.
To help demystify the process, I’ve outlined some common issues below that indicate that a couple could potentially benefit from seeing someone. It’s important to remember that most therapists, for both couples and individuals, offer some version of a free consultation to let you know whether they might be a good fit for you. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions; the earlier, the better, so if it is not a good match, you can move on.
1) Trust has been broken. One of the most common reasons for seeking couples therapy is the need for help in overcoming a major breach of trust. Perhaps it was infidelity in the form of sex; perhaps it was an emotional affair; perhaps it was a series of lies or deception about money. In any case, the rebuilding of the foundation of trust can often be helped by establishing a forum where both parties are free to express their vulnerabilities.
2) Arguments are getting more frequent. Do you notice that the rhythm of your day-to-day life is shifting to feel more conflict-oriented? Maybe they are all “small” arguments, or maybe the blowouts are huge and are leaving a lot of drama in their wake. Either way, it’s the pattern of the increase that is important. Perhaps it is a blip on the screen, with one of you going through something tough personally. But it could also indicate a risky trajectory into constant arguing. Even more important, it could indicate significant problems under the surface that aren’t really being dealt with.
3) Communication is poor. Maybe overt conflict is not the problem, but you constantly feel misunderstood or ignored. Or maybe you feel like you don’t even have a good idea of what is happening for your partner emotionally as of late; he or she might as well be a stranger. One of the most tangible outcome of couples therapy is often an increase in communication, and a major improvement in the quality of that communication. A skilled couples counselor will equip you with tools that will help you connect, hear and understand each other much better on a daily basis.
4) Something definitely feels wrong, but you’re not sure what or why. Just like with individual therapy, sometimes couples therapy is useful not only for solving problems but for identifying them. Let’s say something in the dynamic of your marriage has changed, but you can’t really describe it. Or you don’t feel as comfortable with your partner as you used to, or you find yourself chronically resentful of them but you’re not sure why. These are often early signs that interactions are turning unhealthy or dysfunctional. It does not mean that one person is to blame, but rather that the relationship itself could use a tune-up, and a therapist’s office is often a very beneficial place to start that process.
5) There is something you want your partner to know, but you’ve been unable to tell them. Sometimes the beauty of therapy starts with the room itself: it can become a safe and supportive place for you to bring up things that are difficult to talk about in other settings. A trained professional with a warm presence can often help you overcome your fears of telling something to your partner.
6) One or both of you becomes dysfunctional during a conflict. We know from John Gottman’s research that how a couple handles conflict is one of the best predictors of whether their relationship will go the distance. Maybe you or your partner shuts down, or lashes out, or gets vengeful, or passive-aggressive. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of dysfunctional ways to handle conflict– which serve to make the original problem that much worse.
7) You have gone through something devastating that is changing the way you connect with each other. Sometimes the cruel double-whammy of a setback in life is that it’s not just the setback itself that hurts, but also the effect it has on a marriage or partnership. Many couples go their separate ways after the heartbreaking loss of a child, for instance. Other times it is long-term unemployment, a health crisis, or turmoil within one of the partner’s families of origin. You might not think of going to couples counseling in the wake of something so big happening; after all, you have enough to worry about as it is. But keeping your bond strong in your relationship can only serve to unite you and give you additional strength to weather the storm that’s come.
8) You feel stuck in bad patterns. There is no limit to the number of patterns that partners develop in day-to-day life, from how and when they eat and sleep (and in fact poor sleep is associated with marital problems), to how much time apart or with others they spend, to who handles various household chores to how they interact with each other’s families. Maybe a dysfunctional and unsatisfying pattern is as simple as one spouse always using the other as a sounding board about work complaints but never bothering to reciprocate without losing interest. Or maybe it’s more deep-seated, like a long-standing division of household chores that feels unfair (or infuriating.) The longer a pattern sets in, however, the more energy and time it will take to change it. Best to start early, and a therapist can help with the rewiring.
9) Emotional intimacy is gone or deeply diminished. It is almost a cliche for two partners to feel like the ‘spark’ is gone after spending a decade or more together, that they are more roommates than soul mates. Sometimes this is just because the grind of daily life has begun to eclipse the ability to connect, and it’s simply a matter of re-prioritizing. Other times, it can be more insidious and represent two partners who have quietly been growing apart, have been changing in incompatible ways for a long period of time, or have even learning to get their needs met elsewhere.
10) Physical intimacy is a problem. Sexual issues can be both a symptom and a cause of relationship problems, which means it is often at the forefront of a couple’s day-to-day complaints. Sometimes the change is obvious and frustrating– a couple goes from frequent physical intimacy to almost never, and it is jarring. Other times it’s a gradual freeze from being fulfilled by each other sexually to barely being satisfied. Sometimes there is more overt conflict, with one partner expressing frustration, a partner constantly being rejected, or sex being used as a bargaining tool. Whatever the issue may be, a skilled couples counselor can help you start working on it.
For more of Dr. Andrea’s pieces on relationships:
Dr. Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist and keynote speaker on the faculty of Georgetown University. As the longtime voice behind the mental health advice column Baggage Check in the Washington Post Express, she is also the author of The Friendship Fix and the recent Publishers’ Weekly Best-Seller Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World. She speaks to audiences across the nation about emotional health, motivation, and relationships.
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