There are different ways to address these problems and some of them work better than others, depending on the situation. Some couples read self-help books or consult the Internet. Others look for guidance on TV, trying to relate advice from Oprah or Dr. Phil to their situation. Some people ask friends or family members for help, and others turn to professionals, such as a priest or therapist. While all these approaches have merit, they also have some setbacks.
Self-help books and the Internet provide a lot of useful information but can be overwhelming and not specific enough. It is often difficult to identify what exactly the problem is which makes finding the right resource even harder. The unrealistic depiction of relationships in movies or on television, even in shows with psychological themes, doesn’t provide any concrete help and often reinforces erroneous beliefs. Friends and family can be helpful because they know the couple well, but they might not want to be involved, or they take sides easily, which can exacerbate conflicts. However, many people try some or all of the above before they seek professional help, and at that point, they are often desperate.
Numerous couples who engage in counseling have experienced years of arguments, bitterness, blame, lies and sometimes even affairs or abuse. Damage has accumulated to a point where it is very difficult to repair. The longer a couple waits to address problems effectively, the more challenging it will be to change behavior or to forgive mistakes and let go of grudges. This makes it hard to repair relationships and rediscover love and affection. This is not to say that it is impossible to improve a relationship even after many difficult years, but it will be harder than if the couple had addressed the issues after noticing the first indicators that something is wrong.
Unfortunately, indicators of problems in a relationship are highly subjective. For some people, the infamous “leaving up the toilet seat” is a huge problem, other people have a much higher level of tolerance. For instance, if you keep arguing about the same thing over and over, if you feel uncomfortable when your partner is around, if you can’t talk to your partner about things that are important to you, or when you are just not as happy as you think you should be in your relationship, those are situations when couples counseling might be a good way to go.
A therapist will be able to provide an outside perspective and to explain common dynamics and misperceptions. Just learning about a variety of ways to express love or about the differences in brain structure between men and women can initiate a positive change in a relationship. Ongoing therapy can help to identify hurtful patterns, improve communication, and increase understanding between partners. And couples counseling is not only beneficial for people who have been married for years. Newlyweds or even teenage couples can improve their relationships and prevent major problems by improving communication skills or learning about common dynamics that interfere with relationships. Couples counseling can also be valuable for non-traditional relationships such as same sex-couples who often face a unique set of difficulties.
A common reason that people sometimes hesitate to start couples counseling is that they are afraid they will be blamed for all the problems, or they fear their partner and the therapist will “gang up” on them. It is important that both partners are comfortable with their therapist. In well-structured therapy, the focus will often shift from one person to another, but over the long term, they both will feel like they are getting something out of it. Each partner will experience being heard and understood and both will receive feedback on their behavior and specific information on how to change and for what reason.
Counseling is not about who is wrong or right, or who wins an argument but it will strengthen the bond between partners. It will lead to a better understanding of one’s own self and the other person so that a “happily ever after” is possible.
Antje Rath, is a clinical mental health counselor who has a private practice in Moab. She can be reached at 435-719-5550, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.