When to come to couple therapy

When should you come to couple therapy or individual relationship therapy?

People seem to have the wrong impression of couple therapy.

A lot of people seem to think that couple therapy is a last resort. They come when they are so angry,  hurt and disconnected that they are seriously considering separation. They think, “let’s try couple therapy before we split.”

This approach is concerning as couple therapist. What we offer is not a magic pill that can miraculously bring people back together when they are both set on leaving anyway.

Imagine for a moment, this same scenario if it was your car. Not coming to couple therapy at the early signs that you need help would be akin to continuing to drive your car with wobbly wheels, a crunchy gear box and the engine light flashing…. but ignoring it. It would be denying your car servicing or maintenance and only taking it to the mechanics when it is sputtering into the garage on the cusp of break down.

Would you do that to your car?

If you really cared about your car and you wanted it to be around for the long haul, I am guessing, you would take your car for regular servicing. You would look after your car and at the first sign of a problem, you would take it to be checked out.

The Gottman Institute says that couples come to therapy on average 6 years too late. That is a long time to wait for help, especially when you consider that it is probably time in which there are regretful things being said, resentment building, and conflict and criticism being flung about. After all those years of negativity it is much harder to come back to a state of connection than if the couple came to therapy sooner.

Our avoidance of couple therapy can do damage as it allows the problem patterns to take hold, the hurt to fester and the resentment to build. Relationships suffering from this kind of stress and do not feel good, so why do we let it happen?

Here are the 3 main reasons

1. Stigma
A lot of our avoidance of coming to therapy, in this country, comes from stigma. Therapy in general can still be seen as something you hide, and something that you are going to because there is something wrong with you. Then add the aspect of couple therapy…….There might be fear that needing to get help in this area is a sign that the relationship is broken or that we have failed and are doing something wrong. We might feel ashamed as we tend to think we should be able to work this area of our lives out without seeking external input.

2. One partner is unwilling
It is very common for one partner in the couple to be unwilling to come to therapy.
If you are willing for couple therapy but your partner is not, it is a hard position to be in. You want to feel like you are both invested in making this work, but their resistance makes you doubt that that is the case. If you find yourself in this situation, do not fret, there are still things you can try. I have written this post; my partner won’t go to counselling on what to do when your partner won’t go to therapy. In short, if your partner is not willing to come to therapy and you are, individual relationship therapy can offer clarity, skills and healing that can alter your relationship landscape for the better. I have created my couples ‘do together’ online communication course to help.

3. Shame
A relationship is a private and intimate space in our lives, and it makes sense that for many of us we do not want an external party to be privy to this delicate and intimate zone. It may also be the case that we do not feel proud of our own behaviour or patterns and we know that going to couple therapy will shine a light on our less than proudest habits.

I get it. It can be hard to get to therapy. But I want to say this. Us therapists are trained professionals. If you find a therapist who is a good fit for you, sharing becomes a relief. We are not interested in shaming you, nor do we have any agenda or involved interests in your outcomes.

Staying stuck, does not help things get better.

Instead of being a sign that you are failing, getting help with your relationship could instead be a sign that you are a committed and a top-quality relationship participant. Think of it like a highly trained sportsperson, you would expect them to have a coach, am I right? You, making an investment in time, money and vulnerability, shows that you care enough to do the hard thing.

It can be hard to see the wood for the trees yourself when you are in a relationship. You are involved, intimate and invested and relationships are complex attachment bonds that tend to destabilise your inner knowing and mess with your better senses. Relationships have an uncanny knack of flushing up all our wounds and insecurities. This is not bad nor a sign of problems in your relationship. This is completely normal. To make things even harder, however, nobody has ever taught us relationship skills. Most of us have only had our parents as a model and most of them were pretty much winging it too.

Sharpening your skills in relationship is both courageous and honorable work. There is no shame in wanting to get the most out of your car, just as their should be no shame in wanting to learn how to manage yourself better in your relationships.

For some people this learning is possible to achieve through reading books, watching Youtube clips or partaking in online courses. If this is you, I have put together a list of relationship resources for you to try. For others a personal guide, ie; a couple therapist or relationship coach is a better option.

Couple therapy can help with;

·       Gaining awareness of your patterns

·       Feeling more able to communicate your emotions and deeper needs

·       Gaining strategies for clearer communication and less conflict

·       Feeling more centred and stable in yourself

·       Finding and maintaining healthy boundaries

·       Building rituals of connection

·       Releasing resentment

·       Healing attachment wounds

·       Expanding sexual intimacy

From what I have observed, the key element present in successful couple therapy participants is a mutual willingness; both partners being willing to try, learn, accept responsibility and grow. One of the issues with leaving therapy for years beyond its initial sign of problems is that this willingness can diminish. One or both partners may already have one or both feet out the door, and that makes any change much harder to achieve.

I encourage you to ponder the question; Is your relationship in need of a service or a bit of maintenance?
If there are problems but you are not seeking help, what is holding you back?

Perhaps it is time to consider what the most available first step would be for you and your relationship. Would it be exploring books and resources, having individual therapy or taking the step to book in for couple therapy?

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Nicole Mathieson

Hi, I'm Nicole Mathieson, a relationship and body image coach, couple therapist and author.

My relationships blog helps couples learn practical ways to cultivate a deeper understanding of one another, find safety and connection in relationships, navigate difficult conversations and repair after conflict.