By: Rebecca Hirsch, AMFT
A question I will often get is, “When should a couple begin couples therapy?” or, “How do you know when it’s time to get outside help?” While every couple and every relationship is different, getting an expert’s point of view and feedback is always valuable for a relationship. My honest answer is that it is never too soon to begin couples therapy because you can use it as an opportunity to learn more about yourself, your partner, your relationship, and how to prevent issues from getting out of hand in the future. I often see couples that are not married, engaged, or even living together because they want to sort out issues before making a commitment. While many people may think this may be premature to begin therapy, I see it as preventative and a smart way to build a healthy relationship from the beginning. Even if the couple does not decide to stay together, they may have learned more about what they are looking for in their next relationship or be more aware of unhealthy patterns that they brought into the relationship.
One of the hardest aspects about being a couples therapist is when I see a couple who is starting therapy too late. Often times, years too late. It is common for a very distressed couple to seek couples counseling as a last resort before ending the relationship, or if one has expressed to the other that they want to leave. In a last-ditch effort to save their relationship, they will enter therapy. What makes this extra difficult is that there are years of anger, resentment, internalization, and other layers that have been built up and have been unaddressed and unresolved. In situations like these, it is common for one partner to be completely uninterested in therapy or bettering the relationship. Couples therapy is most successful when both individuals are willing to put in the work and have some motivation to change and improve the relationship. Therefore, couples that are not as motivated to improve the relationship will find it more much more challenging to have successful therapy outcomes.
How will you know when it’s time to seek outside help? When you feel that you are not communicating effectively, arguments are getting out of control or are not productive, when you feel dissatisfied in the relationship, when needs are not being met or addressed, and so forth. Couples attend therapy for a number of reasons, including improving communication, increasing their emotional and physical connection, recovering from trust issues, sexual concerns, parenting help, financial issues, major life transitions, premarital counseling, and many more. A good place to start is to ask yourself why you aren’t satisfied in your relationship and what would make you feel more satisfied. I would then ask what you have done to improve it on your own. What has been successful about that or what has been challenging? Do you feel that you are going in circles and that you aren’t being heard? This is often what will happen when couples try to sort out difficult issues on their own who have opposite communication patterns or different values. When you feel as if you are in limbo and helpless as to how to improve the relationship, then it is time to seek outside help. Just as you would seek out any other health professional when something comes up, seek out a therapist when you are aware of issues continuously being brought up with no resolution.
Starting couples therapy for the first time can be daunting and stressful. It is important for people to know that there is nothing to be embarrassed about, and it is very common for couples to attend counseling, even if they aren’t married. If you are looking for a couples therapist to guide you through the process of beginning couples therapy, reach out to Symmetry Counseling Chicago to set up your first appointment.