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Couples Counseling: The One Thing Your Relationship Might Be Missing

Photo by Prince Akachi on Unsplash

Photo by Prince Akachi on Unsplash

The first time I went to therapy I was 16 and very angry. I was silent for about three sessions, sitting in a chair with my knees hiked up to my chest refusing to speak. This was a familiar look for me growing up, my pout was on par with post-filler Kylie Jenner.

Needless to say, it’s taken a lot of time (and humility) to learn how to express what I’m feeling to the people I care about, and remains something I’ll continue to work on potentially ‘til the day I die. To me, this kind of self-work has always been an individual affair. The process can be messy, and ugly, and frankly, unattractive. Basically, it wasn’t something I preferred to share with the love of my life. So, when I heard about couples going to counseling together, some of whom weren’t even married yet, I used to think, “what’s the point if you already have this many problems?!”

Looking back, this mentality was clearly a reflection of how I viewed my own shortcomings, things I didn’t want to admit to anyone else, barely even myself! But if there’s anything I’ve learned from counseling, or any kind of self-care for that matter, it’s that we are all imperfect and our growth only ceases when we quit doing the work.

It’s actually kind of crazy to me that couples counseling isn’t suggested more often. Intertwining our lives with another individual takes a lot more than just love. Long-term partnerships take work and the road to finding that person can be a rocky one.

A survey that polled 2,000 Brits, who had already met their long-term partners, revealed that on average, women will kiss 15 men, experience seven relationships (two of which will be long-term), have seven sexual partners, survive four disastrous dates, and have their heart broken twice before they meet “The One.” This means, that by the end of this brutal battle, more likely than not, we each will endure some seriously scarring experiences and be carrying around some potentially heavy baggage. Why the hell wouldn’t we all want a little guidance in addressing this madness?

According to the American Psychological Association and its 25 plus years of research, couples counseling, as it is currently practiced using Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT), is roughly 75 percent effective. Effectiveness being measured by a self-report questionnaire called the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS), which compares pre and post-treatment scores for the same couple. Positive results consistently continued for at least two years after treatment. However, this kind of treatment is not a one and done deal.

Stephanie Macadaan, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with couples says, “I compare therapy to going to the gym, but for your relationship.” She says that our past relationships and experiences significantly impact our current relationship. Macadaan suggests that counseling allows you to “take the time to see these connections which helps to ensure you aren’t playing out old wounds with your partner. Counseling is also a time to be clear about your wants, needs, and expectations. Too many couples assume and don't actually do the deeper work of clearly communicating their goals, and making sure that their individual goals match the couple goals.”

What most people don’t understand about couples counseling is that it’s most successful when used as a proactive tool rather than a last resort, which is possibly why it has such a stigma.

I reached out to my friend Audria in Austin, Texas (29 years old) who described her experience with a relationship coach as transformative. I asked her a few questions to shed some light on what this type of work can do for a relationship.

How long have you and your boyfriend been in couples counseling?

My boyfriend and I see a relationship coach, so not technically a counselor or therapist, but she's incredibly helpful. In my experience, more helpful than seeing a couples therapist (but that was in a previous relationship). We have been seeing our coach for eight months.

What was the approach to raising the question of counseling?

We identified "cycles" and behavioral patterns that we both seemed to have over and over, about different things. We both decided that talking to a third party was worth trying at least once and agreed that if it was even slightly helpful, we would continue until it wasn't.

What resources did you use to find this type of coach?

I used recommendations from trusted friends. I think this is the best way to find any therapist, counselor, coach, etc. Ask around! Even if they don't have a recommendation, they usually can think of someone else to ask, and you'll likely still end up having a really helpful, connecting conversation with that person and deepening your friendship in the end.

What are the benefits you’ve seen in your relationship?

We're able to identify problem patterns almost immediately now and break them. Resolve fights more quickly, show up for each other the way the other person needs more often. Work together to problem solve, understand where the other person is coming from, communicate better—the benefits are honestly endless.

What advice would you give someone who wants to seek counseling with their partner but might be nervous about suggesting to their partner?

Be honest and approach the conversation as their partner, treating them like they are your teammate, not your opponent. You are on the same side and you want to beat this problem together. If you haven’t identified the problem but think you would benefit from counseling or coaching, you could also approach it as an opportunity to upgrade your relationship, not necessarily as a need to fix something that is wrong.

Counseling for individual or couples therapy can be intimidating. I asked some friends, who have yet to do couples counseling, why they would be apprehensive about trying it and many said they were afraid of their partner’s response or that they didn’t feel they were dealing with anything they couldn’t handle themselves.

I asked Philadelphia-based aspiring sexologist, Emily Depasse, to weigh in: “It is my firm belief that every couple, no matter how "perfect" the relationship, should seek counseling. The most common mistake is that couples seek therapy when it's too late and the problem is deeply ingrained in daily functioning. By seeking therapy when things are going well, a couple can develop a better understanding of their relationship and communication patterns.

Additionally, couples therapy can provide both parties with an objective view of their relationship and offer a safe space to share what they may be afraid to share with their partner. I tend to veer away from the term "premarital" because it excludes folks who do not necessarily plan to move forward into marriage, or who legally cannot get married and perpetuates the stereotype that every couple seeks marriage.

If couples are seeking resolve for sexuality-related issues, I recommend seeking a sex therapist who is comfortable and knowledgeable about these sensitive, and often shameful, topics. The American Association of Sexuality Counselors, Educators, and Therapists (AASECT) is a great resource for finding accredited professionals near you.”

I think advice from personal experience can be infinitely more helpful and Depasse was kind enough to discuss how counseling has helped her own relationship:

“My partner and I sought therapy late last year because our sex life dwindled shortly after he moved in. I am in graduate school working full-time and know that my availability (or lack thereof) contributes to the time available for sex. I prefaced the conversation from that place of vulnerability, and his response dictated that we needed to move forward. Our relationship is not perfect or "healed," but having a safe space to share my thoughts, feelings, and concerns during the session has provided an invaluable relief for my mental health.

As an aspiring sex therapist, one question that our therapist asked was how I felt in therapy. Honestly, it felt like a relief. I can provide all of the research and resources to my partner, but sometimes you need someone outside of the relationship to really drive those facts home.”

I have to admit, that intentionally seeking this kind of help for a relationship sounded a little drastic at first. However, I think asking for help in any capacity can feel intimidating, and if I’m honest about how I deal with my issues, it’s usually putting it off until it gets to a breaking point and I have certainly suffered from this approach. When I look at couples counseling from Stephanie Macadaan’s perspective and see it as “going to the gym, but for your relationship,” it sounds a little more like a tune-up than a complete overhaul, but I guess that depends on your attitude toward the gym.

Nevertheless, it seems as though our attitudes about couples counseling have some catching up to do, as it was not long ago that individual therapy had a similar stigma and look at the positive progress of where we are today with the self-care industry. If that’s any indication, then it won’t be long before couples counseling will have its moment.