As the famous 1960’s tune goes, “Breaking up is hard to do.” But staying together can be just as challenging.
The number of couples seeking counseling has increased in recent years as the stigma surrounding the practice has faded, according to psychologist and University of Minnesota professor William Doherty. And it’s not only women who are picking up the phone and dialing a therapist these days. Men, too, are increasingly seeking outside help to alleviate their romantic woes.
Couples counseling can be an effective way to mend a broken relationship, experts say, but only if people start the process before the damage is too extensive to repair.
“Many people wait until it’s too late,” says Doherty, a couples counselor. “Go to marriage counseling when you still don’t want the divorce. Go while there’s still glue there.”
Is it time for you to hire a relationship referee? These signs can lead the way.
Your fights are getting out of control. Aaron Cooper, a psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, has a litmus test for determining whether it’s time for a couple to seek outside help.
“If you’re not willing to invite your children to pull up a chair and watch you fight,” says Cooper, “that’s a good sign you can use some help and counsel.”
Fighting is healthy, Cooper says, but only when it is done in a constructive manner. Couples counseling can help people change their arguing style so they can resolve their problems in a less hurtful way, setting a more positive example for their children. And it can help couples without children improve their behavior around family and friends.
You encounter the same stumbling blocks day after day. When couples find themselves rehashing the same issue over and over again—bickering over the division of chores, say, or fighting over spending habits—it may be time to consider outside intervention, according to psychologist Peter Pearson, cofounder of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, Calif.
Repeated fights can corrode trust and a couple’s connection, says Pearson. While counseling may not eliminate the problem, he says it can minimize the problem’s effect on the relationship.
“If the problems keep festering, think about getting a consultation,” he says.
You feel you are slowly drifting away from your partner. While constant fighting often signals that it’s time to get help, a notable lack of confrontation can also be cause for concern, according to Doherty, who runs a program for distressed partners called “Couples on the Brink: Stopping the Marriage-Go-Round.”
Some people actually fear conflict or feel uncomfortable sharing their concerns about their relationships. In those cases, Doherty says, people can find themselves slowly growing apart from their partner. Some even begin to entertain the idea of pursuing other sexual relationships.
“The low-conflict, drifting-apart marriage is in great danger of divorce,” Doherty says. “When there’s that emptiness, people are prone to two kinds of crisis—one is the affair, and one is somebody’s midlife crisis.”
In these cases, it’s the counselor’s job to draw relationship concerns out of the partners, eventually closing the emotional gap between them.
“The truth is, in marriage, the things that frighten us the most are usually the most important things to say to strengthen the relationship,” says Cooper. “Often, we just don’t know how to say it in a gentle and constructive way.”
Finding the right counselor for you. If you’ve decided couples counseling is the best move for you, the next step is to find the right therapist, which can prove difficult.
Although 80 percent of therapists in private practice offer couples therapy, few have taken a single class in couples therapy or have completed an internship with someone who has mastered the art, according to a national survey by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Couples shouldn’t feel shy about calling a few counselors and evaluating them on the phone, experts say. And once couples find someone, they should be willing to try another therapist if progress isn’t being made.
If a therapist seems to lack structure, favors one person more than the other, or allows fights to get out of hand, consider looking elsewhere, experts say. However, couples should have patience with their counselor and not expect a miracle overnight.
“Within three sessions, a couple should have a new perspective on something helpful or a way to handle something that’s helpful,” Cooper says. “If in three sessions the couple isn’t getting value, change therapists.