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  • Anne Devine, MS, LMFT

Engaging Couples Therapy: Is it time, does it work, are we ready?

Most folks think about couples counseling as being a last ditch effort required to save a failing relationship. That’s not the only time or the best time to seek counseling. There is a range of circumstances where working with a therapist can be beneficial. For example, it can help transitions like moving, a new baby, or blending a stepfamily. Therapy also can help strengthen ties when one or both are suffering a loss, like a cancer diagnosis or death of a loved one.

If you are considering couples counseling at the critical point where the relationship is in danger of breaking apart, you and your partner may have a few questions, the most important being, “Does it work?” Though the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy says that couples counseling positively impacts seven out of 10 couples, there are reasons why couples counseling can’t work, foremost that it’s started too late. John Gottman, noted relationship researcher, says that couples wait an average of six years after problems start to seek help. If you wait until there’s a sense of hopelessness, you’re fighting an uphill battle.

What are some of the reasons we wait so long? It’s a time and financial commitment, but a common factor is when one partner refuses to come to therapy. Having two people on board for this process is the first hurdle, and there are a lot of reasons to feel resistant. The way you propose the idea of couples counseling can cause problems from the outset.

For some, just the suggestion of therapy makes them feel defensive, like the problems are all their fault. They may envision counseling as being in a room where two people, you and the therapist, will be pointing out their flaws. They may protest that you’re exaggerating, and the problems aren’t that bad. To be honest, you may believe that most of the problems actually are their fault. This is a pretty common view from partners that have been in conflict for a while. Are you willing to take responsibility for your role in the conflict? If you express that to your partner, it will go a long way toward their not feeling blamed. With the help of a skilled therapist, we can start to see and understand our role in the dysfunctional patterns that keep us stuck, then move toward change.

It helps to approach your partner at a time when you’re both calm. Express how important the relationship is to you, and how you feel like there are things that aren’t working well. Perhaps you have the same arguments over and over, or there are things that you try to communicate to them, like being hurt or lonely, and can’t seem to get through. Ask your partner for their input in selecting a therapist.

What if, despite your best efforts, you can’t convince your partner to come to therapy? Sometimes this simple idea works: when we’re stuck, change something. Maybe in this case, that something is you. If your partner sees you thinking and acting differently, they might be convinced to join you in therapy. At this point, therapists need to reassure the late comer that relationship issues take two, and we are eager to hear from them to understand the whole picture.

In our adult partner relationship, we have full choice and responsibility for our happiness. Being able to communicate with, accept, and lovingly challenge our partner can provide great personal rewards. Though counseling is not most people’s first choice, it can be some of the best time and money you’ll ever invest in yourself.

Journal of American and Family Therapy

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