According to relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before getting help. That’s an awfully long time to feel unheard, misunderstood, lonely, disappointed, discouraged, as well as helpless. These relationship dynamics may develop into resentment and bring about the worst in any person. When working with couples, I realize that they have been suffering for a long time before making the courageous decision to seek help. So, I want to ensure that they feel validated in their experience and find hope in the therapeutic process.
Our journey together often begins by establishing boundaries and creating a safe and nurturing environment that is conducive to the development of interpersonal skills, sharing of emotions and experiences, and having their needs met by their partner in a healthy manner. I hope that this safe space that we create will eventually extend to outside of the office, once they see the effectiveness of their effort.
For Couples Counseling to be effective both members of the couple must be committed to the process. “Commitment” means that both members are willingly attending sessions, being honest in-session, open to trying new things, and practicing new skills learned between sessions. Commitment to therapy also requires that each partner disengages from extramarital relationships, and enters the process with the goal of reconciliation, and not of divorce.
While ending a relationship may sometimes be the healthiest choice, some couples may wish to try to salvage the union. When couples encounter problems or issues, they may wonder when it is time to seek couples/marriage counseling. Here are some signs that help may be needed:
1. Communication is poor.
Communication is the most common issue that couples identify as a goal in couples counseling. Negative communication can include anything that leaves one partner feeling depressed, insecure, disregarded, or wanting to withdraw from the conversation. This can also include the tone of the conversation. One of the most tangible outcomes of couples counseling is an improvement in the quality, as well as the frequency, of communication. A skilled clinician can provide you with tools that will help you connect, hear, and understand each other much better on a daily basis.
2. Trust has been broken.
Another common reason for seeking couples counseling is to overcome a major breach of trust. This includes infidelity in the form of sex, an emotional affair, or a series of lies or deception about various things. Rebuilding trust after an affair is not impossible, but it takes a lot of work. It takes commitment, a willingness to forgive, and energy toward moving forward. There is no magic formula or allotted period of time for recovering from an affair. But, if both individuals are committed to the therapeutic process and honest during sessions, the marriage may be salvaged. At the very least, it may be determined that it is healthier for both individuals to move on.
3. Difficulty resolving disagreements
Maybe they’re "small" arguments, or maybe huge blowouts that leave a lot of hurt and resentment in their wake. Either way, an increase in frequency, duration or intensity of arguments can be a sign that help is needed. You may notice that your partner is increasingly irritable, dismissive, aggressive, or distant during disagreements. When a couple disagrees or argues, a break can be very helpful. However, when a timeout turns into an overnight stay away from home or eventually leads to a temporary separation, this may indicate a more serious problem. Research by John Gottman indicates that how a couple handles conflict is one of the best predictors of whether their relationship will survive.
4. A lack of intimacy
This may include when a couple feels more like roommates, rather than a married couple. It may feel as though you are simply “co-existing” or perhaps emotional or physical intimacy is gone or deeply diminished. Some partners may feel that the “romance” or “spark” is gone and yearn for the connection that once brought them together. It might just be the daily grind or two partners that have been growing apart for a long time and have learned to get their needs met elsewhere.
Sexual issues may be another aspect of intimacy that is affecting the relationship. Issues related to sex may be both a symptom and a cause of relationship problems. It may be a gradual shift in sexual intimacy or an abrupt change. Regardless, improving sexual intimacy is a common goal in treatment and a skilled clinician can help sort out what is missing and how to get it back by providing information and helping couples talk to each other about sex in safe and nurturing environment.
5. A devastating event is impacting your relationship
Devastating life events may come in many forms and cause a relationship to deteriorate. These events may include the loss of a child or loved one, long-term unemployment, or health difficulties, to name a few. Unfortunately, the strong bond that may see you through these difficult times may begin to deteriorate, leaving you to feel lonely and helpless. The support of a therapist can help to strengthen your bond and unite you during a difficult time of healing.
Success in couples counseling doesn’t mean that the couple walks away into the sunset holding hands through a wheat field. There are no guarantees in couples counseling and marriages do not always survive. Sometimes through the process of counseling couples discover that it’s healthier to be apart. Regardless of the outcome, we truly believe that with commitment, the process will improve the lives of the individuals attending counseling. My hope is always that the relationship will flourish and that the couple will be reminded of the reason that they fell in love.