When most people think of couples therapy, they instantly imagine a brawling, dissatisfied couple on the brink of divorce. It’s hard for most people to believe that couples therapy is actually something every couple can benefit from, even those who have a “normal” amount of arguments and miscommunications.
The average couple’s resistance to marital therapy was made evident by a recent survey that found that only 19 percent of currently married couples have sought therapy. Additionally, two-thirds of divorcing couples never sought therapy before calling it quits. For many couples, the thought of going to therapy is daunting, not just because they will be discussing their most private emotions and thoughts (including sexual ones), but because it feels like admitting failure.
Many people wrongly think being in love shouldn’t take work. After all, it’s supposed to be “happily ever after” not “happily ever after…with weekly therapy.” We want love to be constant, fulfilling, and meaningful, and we want sex to be spontaneous, passionate, and life-affirming, but we don’t want any of that to take any effort.
However, ask any happily married couple what the secret to their marital bliss is and they will admit it takes plenty of work and commitment. Therapy can be a very useful tool in this process, especially if you and your partner continually seem to have the same argument or experience the same issues. The key is seeking therapy before it is too late, before the only thing holding the relationship together is a shared last name and mutual belongings. The type of therapy you choose is also very important, and there are numerous types — from couples counseling to individual therapy. However, no matter what type of therapy you choose, it’s important that some sex therapy is included in the program since it is a cornerstone of every relationship.
For those who want to work on other aspects of their relationship, couples therapy can help build better communication, teach tools for resolving conflict and rebuild trust that’s been lost. Some couples seek out therapy for specific issues or conflicts they are struggling with, or because they just feel a disconnect and loss of intimacy.
Different therapists have different approaches to couples’ work, depending on their style. In general, I find that the most effective couples therapy focuses on several factors. The therapist should offer education about tools and techniques to create better communication and act as translator, helping couples gain empathy for each other and understand one another’s perspectives and triggers.
I am also a fan of the work of researchers Dr. Andrew Christensen, PhD, and Neil S. Jacobson, PhD who have coined the term of “acceptance therapy.” Unlike the more typical couples therapy, which focuses on communication techniques and problem-solving skills, acceptance therapy also encourages couples to embrace their partner’s flaws and learn to understand them (as opposed to trying to “fix” these flaws).
For example, instead of becoming enraged that your partner forgot to pick up the dry-cleaning again, you would learn how to accept and understand that he is forgetful. Perhaps making a list or calling to remind him would be one way to work around this issue before it arises again. You could even learn how to celebrate this part of his personality, such as by seeing his forgetfulness as a reflection of his spontaneity. Or, if you often bicker because your partner isn’t romantic enough, you could learn how to create romance for both of you, such as by sending him flowers randomly or cooking him a special dinner for no reason. Showing your partner the acceptance and love you desire will go a long way toward helping him to learn to return the favor.
Even if you ultimately decide that therapy isn’t quite right for you at this time, you should still make sure to “check in” with your partner every once in a while. Spend some time together without the kids and talk about what you love about your relationship and what you would like to change. Don’t accuse or admonish, but instead frame your statements as requests, such as “I would love it if we took more trips together,” instead of “You never spend any time with me!”
Remember, all great romances take work and “happily ever after” doesn’t happen overnight. Every relationship takes work. Whether it’s because you find yourself repeatedly in conflict, things have become disconnected and stale, or you just need a tune up, I believe couples therapy can play a positive role in almost any healthy relationship.