Ask any couples counselor two questions: 1) when should relationships come in for counseling? and 2) when do relationships come in for counseling?
You'll hear an overwhelming amount of: "They come in when it's already too late."
A pair of images immediately occurs to me: patting out a little grass fire with your foot around a fire pit, versus a team of professional firefighters attacking a massive, out-of-control blaze.
It becomes evident pretty quickly when a couple has actually hired you to help them breakup.
While I definitely believe a great many love relationships can be brought 'back from the brink' with the right motivation, effort, and experienced helping professionals, there is a "too late" in some cases.
Too many wounding things get said. Too many hurts go without repair. The message "I'm not here for you when you need me" has gotten too deeply scarred in for at least one partner to feel incapable of trusting again.
Moral of the story? Get help when the fire is still small enough to pat out.
Signs it's Time for Couples Counseling:
- "It's so great; we never fight!" A lot of times this just means people don't see each other very frequently, stay really surface with conversation and avoid potentially upsetting topics, and kind of travel on parallel tracks and then diverge around conflict. Another common behavior among partners who say this is stuffing things under the rug. What's interesting from an EFT perspective is that I always see a conflict cycle, even when a couple is claiming they "don't fight." You'll see uncomfortable little power struggles crop up at Ikea or planning the family trip, or as Alain de Botton quips in On Love: "romantic terrorism." Conflict is natural and even health-promoting if we're mindful and compassionate about it. If there's a stark absence of passions getting stirred in your relationship in "negative" ways, it's not surprising when we see passions feeling limited or restricted in say, intimacy. We can't selectively numb or avoid pain without impacting pleasure.
- Anger has started to warp into resentment. This looks like "aw man, this not-great thing happened and I'm mad!" twisting into "my partner did this shit thing because they're a real piece of work and I don't deserve this bullshit." It's sort of like the difference between guilt and shame. With resentment, there's something of a rub-your-face-in-it component; it's more like "you did this shit thing because *you* are a real piece of shit." Gottman Institute research backs up that resentment can spell the beginning of the end for relationships if it doesn't get addressed. Clinically it gets complicated too, because to move from 'Negative Sentiment Override' to feeling good about the relationship, we have to move from (-) to neutral to (+); it doesn't just turn around to sunshine and bubbles overnight.
- Someone or everyone is becoming violent when upset or frustrated. Violence with/toward objects that aren't you (e.g., punching holes in the wall, throwing furniture around, being scary driving the car) counts. Aggression with language and shaming partners also counts. If you find a helping professional trained in Gottman Method, they will definitely screen for safety and violence and be able to discreetly feel out if one of more partners feels like speaking up in therapy would put them at risk. Also, know that there are safe, helpful community resources here for you if you're in a relationship that sounds like this:
Safe Place: (512) 267-7233 + En Español + Live Chat for deaf people of all identities
Indocumentado/undocumented? Casa Marianella: (512) 385-5571
Statewide Legal Assistance: WomensLaw.org
- We keep repeating the SAME pattern when we're in conflict. Maybe you love each other to pieces regardless, but the same cycle keeps you in a dreadful loop sometimes. If this sounds like you, someone trained in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy could be especially helpful! In EFT, we train to frame problems in relational terms so that you can gain some mastery over out of control patterns, and find ways to soothe and nurture each other through inevitable, health-promoting relational conflict. An EFT therapist can help your relationship 1) notice and understand the cycles and patterns that get you derailed and/or stuck as well as the connecting ones which make you bond, 2) support you to disrupt these uncomfortable patterns and reinforce/increase bonding "dances," and 3) experience your relationship as a "secure bond" that you can trust in, where intimacy grows wild. Even healthy relationships benefit and feel more deeply connected from engaging in this kind of counseling.
- The phrase "we're just friends!" has been uttered. Shirley Glass and Caryl Rusbult are your researchers/authors if you don't believe me. If your partner has said something along these lines, particularly about someone at work with whom they have an emotional connection and friendship, maybe bop in to counseling for a check-in! If you have told partner/s "we're JUST friends!" about someone in your life, I want to challenge you to tenderly ask yourself, "Why did I put the word 'just' in there?" Unless it's a literal life-or-death scenario, when we see anger, we can assume pretty safely that there's something 'primary' or more vulnerable beneath it at the root, e.g., sadness, fear, shame, loneliness. If you notice that you get defensive and upset when a partner expresses jealousy about this "just-a-friend," do you know why? The best way to work toward preventing relational norm violations like 'affairs' is to be real with yourself and not pretend like you're immune from temptation, which can involve needing to name uncomfortable things. It might sound counterintuitive, but if you're partner is securely attached (and has worked through past issues) and you can just say when you feel a tiny crush on someone, it sort of takes the air and excitement out of something that could build up into a tantalizing secret. A therapist can help facilitate conversations like this!
- Our kiddos are acting out and we're not sure why. In love relationships, if one person is having feelings but not sharing them out loud, sometimes they'll manifest in the other partner who is empathic and/or doesn't have the same level of shame and stigma around feeling feelings. This happens with kids too! When clients report that kiddos are seeming extra angry and frustrated lately and there's no overt, obvious cause or change, I like to ask if the clients have themselves been feeling any anger. It's not a straight line from parents stuffing feelings to kids acting out, but we definitely see kids' behavior shift in ways parents like once the whole family system is verbally naming what's going on instead of stuffing it or pretending it's not happening. I also frequently hear from clients who have gotten intimacy back on track that they they become baby magnets and kids start becoming snufflier, emotionally warmer, and more relaxed energetically.
- Something painful from the past gets brought up whenever we fight. Clients often report that there was an affair/s years ago and "we think we resolved it" but it keeps getting brought up every time there's a big blowup. I see a number of clients who maybe even went to a handful of counseling/premarital sessions or consultations with a religious or spiritual advisor in the wake of a relational norm violation like 'infidelity' who keep feeling stuck with some unresolved stuff that only seems to crop up when they're already heated. With EFT and other solid models for work with relationships, we can sort of time travel back into the past and revisit old wounds and "attachment injuries," like affairs, so that we undo the alone-ness that happened in those painful memories. Injuries stick in particular when we get the message that our partner is not accessible, will not respond to us, and can't/won't emotionally engage with us; when we feel overwhelmed and alone. If you're asking Sue Johnson's "A.R.E. you there for me?" question, it's maybe time for counseling.
- We have a hard time recovering after conflict. Maybe it takes many hours, sometimes days or even weeks to make up and reconnect after a big fight. Do you say "sorry," but the feelings don't actually really change for the better? Our culture does a pretty terrible job teaching u social skills around atonement and apology and dances of reconnection. Even helping professionals are mostly taught what it looks like when partners are disconnected or connected; not what healthy reconnection looks like. The longer hurts go unseen and partners are left feeling unnoticed and not cared for, the longer they can take to heal. Sometimes relationships see enormous benefits just from practicing together how to make up when there's been an injury, and learning how to perform apologies with words and actions. This cycle of connection, disconnection, reconnection, described by Dr. Jean Baker Miller, is very natural and health-promoting, but our sociocultural upbringings can get in the way and encourage us to avoid conflict/apology and actually make things worse.
- Intimacy isn't mutually satisfying and/or we are thinking of 'opening up.' Clients often come in because sex has started feeling mechanical and/or one or more people avoid initiating sex because they don't want to rock the boat or face rejection. Here, again, is another shining beacon of "sooner than later." I've worked with partners who haven't had sex in weeks, months, years, and even decades. *As soon* as it occurs that things aren't feeling mutually groovy in bed and you're not talking about it, either start talking or find a therapist. The idea that a conversation is "awkward" or "embarrassing" is way better than say, a decade-long dry spell, trust me. Oh, while we're here, if intimacy doesn't feel awesome and you're thinking about 'opening up' your relationship as a possible solution, GO TO COUPLES COUNSELING. Seriously can't say enough: open your relationship together when love is overflowing and you have so much good feels and sex that you need some extra bodies to catch it all, NOT when there's a lack of intimacy and sex is trying to pull blood from stone and you imagine that you might be able to magically transfer energy from one experience back into your primary relationship. Regardless of your motivations, if you're thinking of changing dynamics in a relationship, check in with a couples counselor who is affirming and pleasure positive! AASECT has some solid resources.
- "I'm not sure they're the one." When you think about walking down the aisle and getting married, are you so happy *and* there's this deep, unavoidable dread pit that vaguely stirs in your guts? If you really can't make heads or tails of whether or not you should be in a relationship, there's a particular type of counseling called Discernment Counseling that can help! While I see a lot of clients trying to use Gottman Assessment + Relationship Checkup as a means of discernment, it's better for getting a snapshot of a relationship to help see if there are any major shifts that would need to occur to reduce the likelihood that the relationship won't flourish. This is also a place where it can be helpful to get a referral for a solid individual therapist to do some prep work to begin to navigate this issue. Saying "I'm not sure about us," can cause attachment injuries and send the message that the bond isn't secure, so it's helpful to have a helping professional to keep an eye for relational safety during the process. If you do want to see an individual counselor, I like to recommend finding someone who works on a team with a couples counselor so that you can easily begin to collaborate when the time calls!
If nothing else, try counseling together as an experiment! What have you got to lose?
If your relationship is really steady and solid, counseling will just deepen your bond and probably bring some spice back into things. If you're already struggling, why not see if counseling can change things up for you? Especially if you've never tried it before.
Looking for a trusty helping professional? I recommend searching for the following key words: Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, Gottman Method Couples Therapy, and Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT). If finances are a consideration, Capital Area Counseling and Therapy Austin both offer sliding scale services for relationships and families.
I also invite you to feel encouraged to ask questions and interview a few potential therapists until you find someone who feels right for your relationship! Lots of folks in town offer free consultations; take us up on it! "How long have you been working with couples?" "What evidence-based practices do you use?" "How do you stage out treatment planning?" "Does it feel like we'd be a good fit to do counseling work together?"
We'll see success rates in couples counseling climb when people apply the same logic that they do to "hard science" and medical fields: an ounce of prevention...