Couples often wait way too long to go to therapy. “According to John Gottman, couples wait an average of seven years from when a ‘therapy-worthy’ issue arises before they reach out for support,” said Anna Osborn, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and relationship specialist.
However, it’s key to seek counseling early instead of putting off something that warrants professional help — before your issues become too entrenched and your relationship is in shards.
“If you wouldn’t cast your own broken arm without a doctor, then would you expect to heal your own relationship without a relationship expert’s support?” said Osborn, who practices in Sacramento, Calif., and virtually coaches couples across the country.
Below, she and other experts shared the red flags and subtle signs that indicate it’s time to try therapy. You’ll also find tips on picking a good therapist.
- You’re concerned about your “communication issues.” Most of the couples Osborn works with come to therapy citing communication problems. However, the real problem lies underneath; it’s what’s driving the poor communication, she said. For instance, Osborn commonly hears these complaints: “He just doesn’t listen to me. She asks and asks, but I’m not even sure what she wants. He agrees and then does the opposite thing. It doesn’t matter what we do; we just can’t communicate.” The underlying issue is a lack of safety and security, she said. (She also added that therapy is “much more than building ways to communicate more effectively.”)
- You avoid each other and live in silence, or you argue a lot, said Susan Orenstein, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist and founder and director of Orenstein Solutions in Cary, N.C. These might seem like opposite concerns. But they actually have something in common: You “are disconnected and probably feel very alone.”
- You’ve stopped confiding in each other, Orenstein said. You no longer “share [your] feelings, thoughts, frustrations, stressors, hopes, wishes and dreams.”
- You confide in someone else about your relationship, instead of talking directly to your partner. This might be a friend or family member, who’ll generally take your side, Orenstein said. “When you’re sharing private information about the relationship to others, your partner can feel vulnerable, embarrassed and betrayed. We owe it to our partner to protect their privacy and be sensitive to their personal issues.” When you go to therapy, you work with a neutral third party in a confidential and safe setting, she said.
- You’re seeking pleasure outside of your relationship to fill in the disconnections you have, said Kami Storck, MA, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Sacramento, Calif. This might take many forms, she said: “overworking; spending money; over involvement in new hobbies; [and] emotional and physical affairs just to name a few.”
- You feel misunderstood on an emotional level, Storck said. For instance, you feel like your needs aren’t being met or your partner forgets important conversations, she said.
- You stop having each other’s backs, Osborn said. You complain about each other in public to your friends or poke fun at your partner, she said. (This criticism only creates distance.) “When we stop having our mate’s back, it’s a big indicator things are in need of support to repair and heal the connection.”
Finding a Good Therapist
“Finding a therapist can often feel like searching for a needle in a haystack because you’re typically in a place of overwhelm when you’re searching,” Osborn said. “Finding a couples’ therapist can be even trickier because both partners need to feel comfortable and connected to the therapist.”
Osborn stressed the importance of shopping around. Orenstein suggested looking for a therapist who specializes in couples therapy and has been seeing couples for at least several years. “It is definitely a specialty, and you need a therapist with experience and training specifically in couples work.”
Storck suggested being honest with yourself. If you have certain preferences for clinicians (e.g., male or female; younger or older; specific life experiences), don’t hesitate to look for them, she said.
Also, according to Orenstein, a couples therapist shouldn’t tell you what to do or make a decision about your relationship. Instead, the clinician “should work with the partners, helping them be the adults in the relationship who make decisions that are in the best interest of each partner.” This way, “agreements between partners are mutual, sensitive and fair.”
You can start your search by using Psych Central’s Therapist Finder. Research further by reading each therapist’s website. See if you like what they have to say. Then call them. Osborn stressed the importance of interviewing potential therapists for 10 to 15 minutes to get a feel for their style and expertise. Make sure you “feel like they understand where you’re coming from.”
Again, be selective, and make sure you feel comfortable. As Storck noted, “There really is the right therapist for everyone.”
“Couples therapy takes time and a willingness to be real, be honest, and go outside your comfort zone,” Orenstein said. “There are no quick fixes.” But the rewards are powerful. Couples are able to strengthen their connection and resolve underlying issues. They learn to take care of each other and grow personally, she said.
Unhappy couple photo available from Shutterstock