The scenario: Your relationship has been struggling for a while now. Maybe arguments have become more frequent, or intimacy has become less so. You’ve thought about getting help more than once, but you keep hoping things will get better on their own. Or the thought of couples therapy just seems too intimidating. But now the problems have gotten hard to ignore. You’ve thought about leaving – or your partner has talked about it. You’ve decided it’s time to take action.
Most couples wait too long to enter couples therapy. In fact, it is often undertaken as a last resort before calling it quits. That’s unfortunate. When resentments have built up over time, expectations of each other (and the relationship) have diminished and the reservoir of good will in the relationship is at low ebb, therapy becomes that much more difficult. That’s the major reason why couples therapy isn’t more successful: it isn’t that therapy doesn’t work, it is that the couple has waited far too long to give it a try.
Working on your relationship is challenging for all sorts of reasons. The issues literally hit us close to home. Even if we feel our partner’s at fault, we worry about opening Pandora’s box and having to face our own stuff. Airing some of the most intimate details of our lives with a third party can feel scary. And we worry: what if it doesn’t work?
Here are some suggestions for making the most of counseling:
- Sooner is better than later. When a relationship is in trouble, every argument, disappointment or cold shoulder can tear at the fabric of your love for one another. Don’t wait!
- Realize that counseling is an investment in what matters most in your life. Working with an experienced therapist isn’t inexpensive, and therapy takes time, energy and commitment. Stick with it. I think it’s an error to stop and start with this kind of work; when you bring up issues that are difficult or painful, you want to work them through to a healthy conclusion.
- A therapist isn’t a judge, and neither of you is on trial. Couples in conflict often waste time and energy arguing about who is right and who is wrong. But a relationship is something you’ve built together. Each of you own the parts that work and the parts that don’t. Effective therapy focuses on growth and solutions, not guilt and innocence.
- Come prepared to take responsibility. How did you help create the situation that is causing you distress? How can you help to make things better?
- Give and take is part of life. The right attitude helps. People sometimes think of relationships as a “50/50 split,” but I think that’s simplistic. Successful relationships move beyond winners and losers and seek collaboration so each person gets what he needs.
Finding the right therapist is important. This is no place for amateurs – or for inexperienced therapists. Your therapist serves as a guide, translator, collaborator and support, an expert who knows something about how relationships work – and how they get stuck. You want someone with strong training, a good reputation and a style that is comfortable for both of you. Both partners should feel supported in the process. Neither should feel the therapist is “taking sides.”
Fortunately, there is now a great deal of good research on how couples can improve relationship satisfaction and what makes couples therapy effective.
I have worked with all sorts of couples, including same-gender couples for more than 25 years, I have written a number of articles to help my clients with relationship concerns. If you have any questions or would like to start working on your relationship, call me at (404) 874-8536 or email me.