When should you and your partner seek couples therapy?

Unfortunately, there’s not a simple answer. Couples’ reasons for seeking relational therapy or couples therapy vary broadly.  In some cases, couples might only take action when there’s an undoubtable problem.

This is similar to a person waiting to visit the doctor until discomfort or pain is impacting daily life. At this point, there has likely been some type of damage, and the primary goal of seeking help is to reduce discomfort in the short-term, and then work to repair the damage.

Other people seek professional help at the first sign of potential risk. This is like visiting the doctor about an uncomfortable symptom before it worsens.  The primary goal then is to diagnose the problem, reduce the likelihood of further damage, and repair what damage has been done.

Alternatively, sometimes people seek professional help to be proactive. They may have a habit of scheduling annual physicals with their doctor, and paying attention to health recommendations for people of their age.

The goal of this approach to care is prevention. It’s not motivated by an obvious problem, but it can be quite beneficial to get an expert’s perspective on the status quo and learn how to reduce the likelihood of future damage. Taking care of an important relationship can be viewed through the same lens.

Does couples therapy work?

The success rate of couples’ therapy is frequently debated, and some couples who have been through it say it wasn’t helpful.  One reason for this is that some wait until life with their partner is practically unbearable before they seek the help of a professional. By the time they agree to meet with a therapist, they are either experiencing intense conflict, or they’re so emotionally disconnected that they hardly speak to one another.

At this point, there’s a clear sign something is wrong, and the primary goal of therapy has to be damage-repair.  The longer the couple has waited to get help, the more damage has been done. Often there’s so much anger, hurt, and resentment built up that partners may not be willing or able to do the work that would need to be done to rebuild. Some couples come into therapy saying this is their “last resort,” and many of those partners already have one foot out the door.  In short, they’ve waited too long to ask for help.

When does couples therapy work best?

Couples are more likely to feel that therapy is effective if they seek help at the first sign of trouble (or soon after).  These couples may have less damage to repair, and therefore may feel the benefits of therapy sooner than a couple who has been unhappy for many years. They are likely to be more aware of their strengths as a couple, and more willing to be vulnerable in front of their partner. They often come in with a sense of concern about the relationship they want to maintain, rather than feelings of anger and resentment toward a partner who they can hardly stand to be around.

Occasionally, members of a conflicted couple may agree to attend therapy with the goal of changing their partner rather than themselves. In fact, couples therapy is most effective when each partner hopes to understand how they individually contribute to the relationship problems, and what they can do differently to increase the chances of their relationship being satisfying.

Couples Therapy as Preventative Relationship Care

Though most people don’t consider therapy unless there’s a problem, there are many couples who come to therapy for preventative care. These couples may be on the verge of an increased level of commitment, such as moving in together, preparing to have children, becoming monogamous or non-monogamous, or getting married.  They may be brand new couples who want to learn the skills they need to build a strong relationship from the start. Other couples who come to therapy have experienced an unhealthy relationship in the past, and primarily want to know how to do things differently this time around. In any case, couples therapy can be quite beneficial for couples who come in without any major complaint.  Why not recruit an expert to help build a strong foundation?

Are we doomed?

If you’ve been unhappy in a relationship for a long time, it’s likely that a lot of emotional damage has been done. This doesn’t mean couples therapy isn’t a good idea for you, however, you may have to adjust your expectations. The process of couples work is likely going to involve stirring up some past hurts and changing some habits that are deeply ingrained.  Therapy would likely require a long-term commitment, and it may take some time for you and your partner to feel the benefits of the work.

Why do some couples who go to therapy break up?

Contrary to popular belief, the goal of couple therapy isn’t always to keep the couple together. Couples often come in for therapy because they’re unhappy. Ideally, the process of therapy increases their satisfaction in the relationship. Sometimes, though, the process allows them to see themselves and their relationship more clearly, and one or both partners determines that staying together isn’t the best course of action for them. In that case, therapy may serve as a tool to help a couple part ways amicably, process their relationship and what they each experienced, and walk away with increased insight and a new perspective for future relationships.

Support for couples

Thinking about talking with a couples therapist? IntraSpectrum Counseling a range of services including couples counseling, individual counseling, group counseling, and more. All of our counselors have specialized training and experience working with LGBTQI clients. Conveniently located in downtown Chicago and Andersonville, we work with a diverse client base and are committed to meeting the needs of the LGBTQI community and beyond.

References

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/fashion/couples-therapists-confront-the-stresses-of-their-field.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/headshrinkers-guide-the-galaxy/201203/does-couples-therapy-work-keys-success

Atkinson, B.J. (2005). Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy: Advances from Neurobiology and the Science of Intimate Relationships. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

 

Erica Garceau Marriage and Family TherapistErica Steenbergen, M.S., LMFT is the Director of Intake and a Staff Therapist for IntraSpectrum Counseling, a group private practice in Chicago that specializes in the LGBTQI community. She specializes in couples and family therapy. Follow IntraSpectrum Counseling on Twitter and Facebook.

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