• Consider Seeking Couples Counseling

    Consider Seeking Couples Counseling

    As I work with couples, I often find myself wondering:

    Why do we tend to wait so long before seeking therapy with our partner?!

    It can be difficult for some individuals to get themselves into individual counseling. Common reasons include the following: lack of time and energy, financial commitment, competing priorities, difficulties with scheduling, feeling overwhelmed at the thought of finding the right therapist, uncertainty about its benefits, personal shame, societal stigma, obstacles related to whatever is causing you to seek therapy in the first place, and not feeling like the problems are “bad enough.” Getting two people in the same household to get to therapy together seems to increase the difficulty and reduce the probability that it will happen.

    While there is probably much to be written about these other reasons (posts for other days), today I want to focus on the last reason: Our problems are not bad enough for us to go to couples therapy. 

    Let me start with this question: What would indicate to you that things are “bad enough” to go to therapy? When you don’t like each other anymore? When things are so difficult you rarely have a calm or productive conversation? When things are so bad you want out? When the connection is gone? When you start to consider an affair? When one or both of you don’t trust, respect, or love each other anymore? When one or both of you have mentioned divorce? When you have separated?

    If these are the criteria you use to determine if things are bad enough to go to therapy, I would like to propose that it will take not only an extraordinary therapist, but more importantly … herculean efforts and likely a significant investment (in both time and money) by BOTH of you once you are in therapy.

    I would like to help us cultivate a different perspective: It is helpful to go to therapy before things are too bad!

    It is much easier to repair and improve a relationship from a moderately difficult place than it is to improve it from a place of severity. Your capacity to work through your challenges, to really listen to each other, to be vulnerable, to see your relationship as something work fighting for, to sacrifice, to forgive, to respect, to love, to connect, to use humor and other methods of reducing stress in conflict…all of these things are difficult, but easier before you have layers and layers of difficulty and hurt to work through.

    Based on working with couples in therapy and wishing they had come in sooner, here are a few suggestions of when to consider or seek couples therapy:

    • You want more tools for connection, communication, and healthy peacemaking.
    • You want to build habits and gain resources to strengthen the relationship and protect against breakdown.
    • You want more for your relationship and you are struggling to figure out how to make it happen.
    • You regularly feel disconnected from your partner and find it difficult to turn towards your partner for love, support, or connection.
    • Your relationship is consistently creating stress for you and it feels like you aren’t able to resolve the stress together or stay connected despite the stress.
    • You find it difficult to respond well to your partner’s attempts to repair disconnection or hurt.
    • You are not able to respectfully seek understanding.
    • You often replay particular moments of hurt from your relationship.
    • You start to feel hopeless or helpless in your marriage.
    • You want to shut down or protect yourself rather than asking for what you need or risk reaching out to your partner.
    • You feel communication with you partner rarely goes anywhere.
    • You feel unable to be a healthy individual in the relationship.
    • You want to shut down or protect yourself rather than asking for what you need or risk reaching out to your partner.
    • You start to notice any of what John Gottman calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are serious symptoms of (and further contribute to) relationship breakdown:
      –  Criticism: verbally attacking your partner’s personality or character
      –  Contempt: attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse them
      –  Defensiveness: viewing yourself as the victim in efforts to ward off a perceived attack and reverse blame
      –  Stonewalling: withdrawing from relationship as a way to avoid conflict in efforts to convey disapproval, distance and separation
    • You don’t want things to get worse.
    • You experience the situations, described at the beginning of this post, that people often feel qualify for “bad enough” to get help: You don’t like each other. You rarely have a calm or productive conversation. You want out. The connection is gone. You consider an affair. You’ve started an affair. You don’t trust, respect, or love each other anymore. You are talking about separation or divorce, but want to repair things.

    If you are in a committed relationship, please consider these questions:

    • How much do you value your relationship? Is it a priority for you?
    • How high is your stress related to your relationship?
    • How high does your relational stress need to be to seek outside help (i.e. professional therapy, mentoring, spiritual guidance, support of friends or family, etc)? Said another way, what red flags would trigger the alarm that you need to follow through on seeking help as a couple?
    • What keeps you from seeking help for your relationship?