There are few things in life as stressful as a failing relationship. When two people are fighting, feeling distant, and struggling to understand each another, they often turn to couples counseling to help strengthen and rebuild their bond.
Couples counseling can be an intense experience for both partners. Many people have seen their intimacy grow, their communication improve, and their relationship flourish during therapy. Joint counseling can help people see their strengths and weaknesses, both as individuals and partners.
Yet therapy, especially when it involves a couple, often is fraught with strong feelings and emotions. It also can be time-consuming, expensive, and, at times, painful.
Use the following four questions as a guide to determine if couples counseling is right for you. The answers might be yes, no, or sometimes, all of which are perfectly acceptable. Ideally, the time spent in counseling will challenge and inspire you and your partner to achieve a deeper, more fulfilling level of intimacy and joy.
- Are you willing to take responsibility for your role in the conflict? Each person has a role to play when conflict arises in a relationship. The willingness to see how each individual contributes to the problem is crucial to being able to find a solution. When a couple comes in for therapy and each partner is able to state areas for improvement, or can admit fault for their mistakes or shortcomings, it’s a great sign that therapy could be beneficial. Even simply being able to wonder about one’s role in conflict is a great start. However, if one person is intent on blaming the other for all the problems, couples therapy will not be productive. Each partner needs to be able to understand his or her own role in the conflict.
Keep in mind that issues of abuse are a different matter entirely.
- Are you willing and able to commit to the time and financial and personal investment to see therapy through? Therapy is hard. It can bring up incredibly painful topics. Participants may feel embarrassed that another person is learning very personal details about themselves.
Therapy also takes time. There is the 50-minute appointment, but also the drive to and from the therapist’s office to consider. Finding the time takes flexibility, and keeping the appointments is crucial. The therapy hour needs to be a priority for each individual, and may require special arrangements, including child care or leaving work early once a week.
Therapy also is a financial expense, particularly if paid out of pocket. Many people are able to reduce superfluous spending and otherwise cut down on expenses to pay for counseling. If the funds are not available, it may make sense to delay treatment or find help at a low-cost clinic or other resource. Community mental health centers and churches often provide marriage counseling for a free or reduced rate.
- Are you open to compromise? Just as each person shares responsibility for the problems in the relationship, they must share in the solutions. Compromise is the lifeblood of healthy relationships. If compromise can be achieved with a positive, willing attitude, it can make a huge difference, both in the relationship and in therapy. No one wants to live in a dictatorship.
- Are you willing to do something different? This is the last and the most important idea to consider. By the time people come to therapy, they’ve tried many things, most of which aren’t working. Their fights consist of the same few arguments that never seem to be resolved.
When disagreements are predictable to the point of sounding scripted, it’s time to do something different. This is where therapy comes in. A therapist will bring up new ideas, concepts, or suggestions. These suggestions may sound corny, frightening, or like a waste of time. This is where a willingness to try something different is critical. Learning a specific phrase to say when fighting, or using relaxation techniques, or making a point to physically step away from conflict may not sound like it will work, but being willing to try new ways of engaging with a partner is the only way things will change. And change is what therapy is all about.
People often come into therapy with exaggerated hopes of wanting their therapist to ‘fix’ their relationship, solve their problems, or even tell them if they should stay together. This is not the role of a therapist, or of the therapeutic process. Therapy is a process where each individual can learn new skills, gain understanding, and practice communication and conflict resolution in a supportive setting.
Couples often find that the things they have learned through therapy apply not only to their intimate relationships, but to their interactions with friends and relatives, coworkers or even their children. The same communication skills that help partners understand each other can also help when they have a disagreement with their boss or their 15-year-old.
Therapy is an investment in both the individual and the couple. Even if the relationship ends, the skills each person learns will continue to affect their lives. This is the true gift of therapy.