By Gwyn Herbein
When to consider couples counseling
The landscape of relationships and marriages is changing drastically in the United States. The average age of marriage has been steadily increasing over the past 50 years, and according to a December 2011 report by the Pew Research Center, now stands at 28.7 years for men and 26.5 years for women. More unmarried couples are cohabitating than ever before, and some are choosing never to get married. In fact, in 2010, only 51 percent of American adults aged 18 and older were married. The economic downturn of the past few years has made paying for a wedding more difficult, and many younger Americans find the institution outdated. Those who do get married at some point are likely well aware of the work that goes into making a marriage last. Marriages end for reasons as varied as infidelity, finances, lack of intimacy, stress and general feelings of no longer being in love. The reasons for breakups are as different as the individuals involved in a relationship.
There are few statistics about the number of couples who seek counseling at any point in their marriage, or the number who feel they have had success in counseling. Some couples see a counselor in an attempt to solve problems, and some use counseling as a preventive measure before problems crop up in their relationship. When considering whether or not to pursue couples counseling, there are many factors to consider, such as your rapport with a therapist and the approach he or she might take to helping you and your partner strengthen your bond.
Many counselors agree there is no hard-and-fast rule about when couples should seek counseling. But the word “communication” comes up a lot in the context of marriage counseling. “It’s important to create good patterns in communication and relating [to one another] before marriage,” says Matt Hunter, an associate professional counselor at the Anxiety & Stress Management Institute (ASMI) in Marietta, Ga. Premarital counseling can be a good way to set the expectations for a marriage. Dr. Lisa Rubin, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of the Student Success Center at Life University, agrees that most counseling focuses on communication. “Usually for couples, [seeking counseling] has to do with arguing or feeling dissatisfied in the relationship,” she says, although she notes that some people are proactive and see a therapist with the intent of keeping their relationship strong.
It is important for couples to realize that the therapist’s job isn’t to fix or cure their problems, but rather to be a part of a process that helps them grow as a unit. “Most people perceive what we do as fixing something that’s wrong,” says Rubin. “But we are here as a support network.” Common marriage-endangering threads include feeling disempowered in a relationship and external stressors. In the case of the latter, the couple may be too overwhelmed by stress to focus on the relationship. “At times, we need to start with the problem first and work our way back to the relationship in order to get past survival mode,” says Rubin.
One of the first steps to a successful couples counseling experience is finding the right therapist. This can feel intimidating, as there are so many therapists and counselors to choose from, each with individual expertise and approaches to the process. “I always talk to students in class about this,” says Rubin. “I ask them, ‘How would you recommend a chiropractor?’ They give answers like, ‘Someone who was a colleague,’ ‘Someone who went to school with me’ or ‘Someone who is certified in this particular technique.’” But Rubin finds her students don’t have such concrete answers when asked how to go about finding a counselor. She suggests asking trusted friends or colleagues for a recommendation. Hunter says that, for some couples, gender, race or sexual orientation of their counselor may be important. He also suggests investigating a counselor’s area of study or expertise, to see how it relates to the issues the couple knows they want to deal with.
Rubin believes that any potential counselor should be willing to have a phone conversation with you so that he or she can answer any questions you may have. “Start out simple: ‘What would be your approach?’ ‘What is your theoretical orientation?’” she says. Hunter agrees that fit is an important ingredient for a successful relationship between couple and counselor. “If it were me, I’d be curious about someone’s theoretical approach. What are their understandings of relationships?” he says. For example, many counselors at ASMI focus on cognitive behavioral therapy, which Hunter notes has been shown to be effective in managing various anxiety disorders. In addition to gathering information about a therapist’s education and areas of expertise, couples should also be in tune with their intuition, and a good rapport is a must. “Sometimes it’s the tone of voice,” Rubin says. “Or you get kind of an inner response.” Hunter agrees. “It’s a mix between what speaks to you and feels helpful to you,” he says.
For those who want to incorporate a vitalistic philosophy into their counseling sessions, a conversation with a potential therapist is especially important. Rubin points out that most therapists come from a clinical, rather than a more vitalistic, background. “From my perspective, I think vitalism is a wonderful model to help with a marriage,” says Rubin. But the right counselor will be willing to work with a couple to achieve goals that align with their health philosophy.
Even after a couple has found the right counselor, one partner may be hesitant to talk about intimate problems. Rubin says this is an understandable and common issue. “You need to think about it from their perspective,” she says. “They don’t know what kinds of questions will be asked. It feels uncomfortable and no one wants to be blamed.” In order to ease anxiety, Rubin suggests taking baby steps before jumping onto a therapist’s couch. She notes that couples workshops, life coaching or discussing a relationship-focused book together can help ease anxiety about opening up in front of a third party. Hunter recommends books like “Hold Me Tight” by Dr. Sue Johnson or “10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage” by Dr. John Gottman as resources couples can use to start the process.
Getting away from the blame game is an important step in successful counseling. Rubin notes that if one partner goes to counseling simply to satisfy the other, it will likely be an unproductive process. Hunter agrees that couples should shift to a mindset that says counseling is about finding ways to make a relationship better. “You should try to get the other person to focus in on whether the relationship feels good to them or not,” he explains. If the answer is no, that can be a good starting point for a therapist.
While therapists primarily serve in a support role, couples should also look to them for guidance on how the sessions will run. “It’s not the couple’s role to figure out what to say in session,” says Rubin. “It’s their responsibility to share emotions with each other.” Setting ground rules can be another important aspect of the therapeutic process. “There needs to be honesty and integrity,” says Rubin. “When couples come in, one of the things I tell them is ‘Whatever you say to me is open ground for discussion to both,’ so if one person arrives before the other, they know that anything they say during that time can be discussed in session.” The reason for this is simple: “They are the unit, and I’m trying to reignite that unit,” says Rubin.
For some couples, doing individual counseling prior to couples counseling can help the relationship grow stronger, especially in cases of past trauma or abuse. Because issues in a person’s past may affect his or her ability to relate to a partner, having a counselor can benefit both the individual and the relationship. “Each person comes to a relationship with his or her own bag of stuff, and no one comes through childhood unscathed,” says Hunter. “Some people have been through and worked through more than others, and some have more self-awareness than others.”
Ultimately, a willingness on the part of all participants to put in the necessary work determines whether or not counseling is beneficial. Since it is the vitalistic view that couples are a self-healing unit, working together is key to a successful marriage. Rubin notes that, in her observation, people grow apart because, at some point, they stop living their lives as a couple. “The most successful marriages are the ones that have the most communication,” she says. “They use one another as sounding boards in a growth process.” She also tries to help clients remember the feeling they had when they first fell in love. Hunter’s goals are to build what he calls relationship efficacy, in which both parties feel comfortable asking for what they need in the relationship. While no relationship can ever be free of conflict, Hunter tries to help his clients reach a point where they can have productive conflict, which he views as a situation in which both people are able to put on the table openly and honestly what their needs are so that they can work together to find creative solutions. Reaching a resolution creates a sense of unity because the couple can look back at what they have accomplished together.
Like many aspects of counseling, there are no firm indicators that reconciliation is impossible. “I steer away from making a call [as far as whether it’s too late to save a marriage],” says Hunter. “I leave it up to the client to determine whether things can be salvaged.” If a couple chooses to end their relationship, Rubin tries to help them disengage in a positive way. “Having a breakup that is positive and intact is something just as important as staying together,” she explains.
No one can deny that making a lasting marriage requires time and commitment from both partners. As with all relationships, marriages go through periods of ups and downs, as people grow, change, raise families and experience personal and professional setbacks. Marriage counseling can be a healthy way to identify and work through problems, hopefully resulting in a stronger bond between partners.