Marriage researcher John Gottman, PhD, found that unhappy couples take an average of over six years before seeking professional help. “And that’s a crying shame,” says relationship therapist Linda Bloom, LCSW, because skilled, experienced counselors and relationship workshops are so widely available.
Linda and her husband Charlie Bloom, MSW, both marriage counselors, have co-authored four books about marriage and relationships. They lead couples workshops around the world. In this video, they shed light on why couples stay in denial for so long.
Denial of Problems Maintains Them
As a marriage counselor myself, I see how couples’ denial of their need for help can cause them to struggle for much too long before they’ll contact a professional. Neuroscience explains how patterns of relating — for better or for worse — become entrenched in our brain’s circuity over time. So, longstanding bad habits are much more difficult to change than newer ones. This is why it’s important to notice pretty quickly when we’ve not been able to resolve a frustrating relationship issue on our own.
When one partner wants counseling and the other refuses, they may become resigned to living together unhappily, thinking this is as good as it can get. Or they might separate in order to escape the ongoing pain caused by a lack of knowledge about how to manage their differences.
A great agreement for couples to make early on is that if either one of them wants marriage (or relationship) counseling, the other will agree to go. Such an understanding can save many marriages.
When a couple whose relationship has been hurtful for both partners for 10, 20 or more years comes in for counseling, it typically will take more than a few sessions for their relationship to improve significantly.
Success Comes Sooner for Proactive Couples
When an engaged or recently married couple decides to see me, I’m happy. They’re being proactive, so change for the good will probably happen soon. They’re not likely to be entrenched in negative communication patterns. Like a young child who absorbs a new language easily, a “newish” couple will learn healthy ways to relate much more quickly than one who’s been locked into dysfunctional patterns for some time.
For example, Francine and Tyler, both in their early fifties came to see me after becoming engaged. This was a second marriage for both. They were clearly excited about having found each other and seemed well-matched. But they recognized some problematic communication: Instead of asking Tyler for what she wanted, Francine would either criticize him for not doing it or sulk. Tyler would become upset and withdraw, which left Francine feeling abandoned.
After just three weekly sessions, they were basically done, but they wanted to come back a month later just to make sure they were still applying what they’d learned. Francine was a quick learner. She reported that she would catch herself promptly now. She’d turn a complaint that was about to come out of her mouth into a wish that she would share with Tyler. During their last session, he complimented her and said he was impressed by how quickly she’d made the change, which made such a positive difference in their relationship.
Counseling Helps Couples with Longstanding Issues Too
I’m glad to help couples with longstanding issues too, though it tends to take them more time to make important improvements. Typically, their negative habits are firmly entrenched. So, they’re likely to take longer to feel comfortable applying much what they learn in counseling sessions into their daily lives. Communication skills that are explained and demonstrated during their sessions can feel quite foreign to them. They may not do “homework” assignments that they’ve agreed to, exercises which could speed up their progress, because it feels too hard for them to go against the grain.
On the other hand, the engaged couple, Francine and Tyler, who’d known each other for less than a year, came in with a relatively blank slate. They liked the idea of weekly marriage meetings and began holding them on their own after I coached them through the meeting’s agenda and communication skills during their first session.
Why Couples Wait So Long to Seek Help
So, why do so many couples wait so long before getting help? Denial that a problem exists is fed by a culture that elevates the idea of independence and devalues dependence. As Charlie Bloom notes, they don’t want to think, “I’m a loser.” It takes grit and courage to overcome this cultural influence.
Another common reason for resisting couples counseling is that one partner fears being criticized by the other, or by the counselor or therapist. A skilled, counselor is not judgmental, stays neutral, and actively strives to keep the focus positive.
Also, a drawback for some is the perception that counseling will be expensive. They may think that they’ll be roped into coming for weekly sessions for a very long time. Yet people who reach out for help early, as the above example shows, can often get what they need within a few sessions.
Good marriage counselors are glad to work with couples for as long as it takes for their clients to accomplish their goals. Still, seeing success happen quickly is immensely satisfying. We want to be out of a job.