By Tal Schlosser, Clinical Psychologist & Couples Therapist
Many of us believe that when we meet ‘the one’ we’ll fall in love and live happily ever after. Hollywood rom coms have a lot to answer for because the reality is far messier! The research tells us that happy couples work at their relationship on an ongoing basis. This won’t feel so much like ‘work’ during the good times when there is a lot of good will between partners, however when the ‘honeymoon period’ of new relationships inevitably passes or life throws some challenges at you, it will understandably feel more effortful to maintain a loving bond and healthy communication with your partner.
It’s a common misconception that you only go to couples therapy when your relationship is in serious trouble, and unfortunately this kind of belief can result in couples waiting too long to get effective support with their relationships issues. Regrettably couples often come to us after years of conflict, when they have lost a lot of the goodwill and kindness they previously had for each other because of repeated hurts and negative experiences when they have tried to resolve conflict or reconnect with each other.
Many of our individual clients describe problems in their relationships, and this isn’t very surprising, as it is now well understood that the quality of our relationships is linked to physical and mental health issues. Loneliness and relationship distress are risk factors for mental health problems like depression, anxiety and substance misuse, whereas healthy relationship bonds are associated with resilience to stress and better overall wellbeing. As humans we’re hard wired to seek out close bonds, and loving relationships are essential to our health and wellbeing.
Making the choice to go to couples therapy can feel like a very big step. It means admitting that your partnership isn’t perfect, which can be confronting. If you’re not familiar with what couples therapy involves it can also feel scary and mysterious. For these reasons it can take couples a long time to take action and make therapy a priority, and in the mean time they continue to suffer.
To demystify the process here are some common indicators that couples therapy may be of benefit to you and your partner:
You’re stuck in negative communication patterns
You’ve become aware that whenever you and your partner try to talk about something sensitive (e.g. finances, sex or parenting) you end up in the same old cycle, which is distressing and frustrating for you both. Maybe you end up escalating into distressing arguments where important issues never get resolved, or perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern where the more one of you pursues to talk about a problem the more the other withdraws or shuts down. Or maybe you often feel misunderstood and ignored by your partner. It can feel very distressing and demoralising to be stuck in these negative well-worn cycles. Couples therapy helps you to recognise and replace old patterns such as pursuing-withdrawing or criticising-defending, and to develop new cycles of bonding interactions so that you have a safe and connected way to address important or sensitive issues.
Your interactions are mostly transactional with little emotional connection
This is common in couples that have experienced significant external stressors or major life transitions like having children. You might have noticed that over time your conversations feel superficial and involve negotiation of domestic chores and logistics rather than real closeness. You may feel like more like co-parents or flatmates than a lovingly bonded couple. Couples therapy can help you to understand how this disconnection has developed and to find your way back to each other.
You’re afraid to bring things up with your partner
If difficult conversations haven’t gone well in the past, it’s understandable that you may be at the point where you’re wary of bringing up your concerns in case it ends up in another argument. Couples therapy will you to de-escalate conflict, and to find safety and security with each other.
Trust has been broken in your relationship
A common reason for seeking couples therapy is the need to help overcome a breach of trust. This can involve an physical infidelity, an emotional affair, or perhaps the discovery of a series of lies or deceptions about finances. Breaches of trust are typically painful for both partners, and for many couples that have experienced such hurts the path to repairing can feel overwhelming. It can be important to have support with this process given that such breaches often trigger crisis points in a relationship with high levels of emotional distress. If you’ve built a life with each other with children and/or shared assets like a home, then there is likely to be a lot at stake in being able to navigate through such a relationship crisis.
You’re so disconnected it starts to feel like you’re living separate lives
When couples don’t have the tools to manage their relationship difficulties or they’ve coped by avoiding their issues, they can become more and more disconnected over time. Perhaps you’ve noticed that when you’re together you both bury your head in your phone, caught up in social media or Netflix, rather than really spending quality time talking and being with each other? Maybe you no longer know much about your partner’s inner life and they feel more like a stranger? While it’s important to have your own friends and interests, most couples want to feel that they are truly sharing their lives with their partner and not just co-habiting. As humans we have an innate need to feel emotionally connected to our partner, and to be able to feel attached and comforted by those that are most important to us. Couples therapy is about much more than simply improving communication, and at it’s essence it is about creating and strengthening a couples’ emotional bond.
You’re experiencing ongoing sexual problems in your relationship
Sexual satisfaction in couples typically fluctuates over time in a long-term relationship, and it’s commonly affected by factors like external stressors, having children, or experiencing hormonal and/or health changes. The kinds of sexual issues our clients describe are varied, and can include changes in desire for each other, differences in libido and feeling stuck in a pursue-withdraw cycle with regards to sex, performance anxiety, and the experience of pain during intercourse. Couples therapy can support a couple to have a safe way to talk and address these often sensitive and emotional issues.
Your arguments are frequently very distressing for either or both of you
You may have experienced your partner as angry, blaming or critical, or perhaps they have been verbally or physically aggressive. Others might respond to relationship problems by shutting down and withdrawing for extended periods, which can feel very isolating and punishing. If you have children that are witnessing your escalating arguments then this is likely to have a negative on their sense of safety and security in the family. Couples therapy is likely to be important in assisting you to recognise the patterns of escalation that you’re stuck in so that you can exit these interactions, and then learn how to be available and responsive to each other so that you can communicate in a safe and loving way.
You’ve gone through something significant or devastating
When we experience a traumatic or a major setback in life it is likely to have a ripple effect, and of course it’s going to impact our relationship. This could be the heartbreaking loss of a child, a health crisis, family turmoil, or the challenges of long-term unemployment. Such experiences are likely to be extremely stressful for you both, and many relationships can struggle under the strain. It might not feel obvious to seek couples therapy at such a significant time and in the wake of such experiences, however the support of a therapist can be invaluable in helping you to unite and stay bonded in the face of the major challenges you’re facing.
If you can recognise or relate to any of these signs it’s not an indicator to panic or call it quits on your relationship, but it might help see a trained couples therapist so that you can develop a happier and more fulfilling relationship. Just as you might use a business coach to help you build a thriving company, or a personal trainer to show you how to develop strength and fitness, a good Couples Therapist will help you to foster a close and loving relationship with your partner. From this place of safety and connection you will develop the tools to communicate about difficult issues and navigate life’s challenges as a team.
If you feel you need support with your relationship difficulties it can help to work with a trained professional. To find out more or to make an appointment contact myLife Psychologists.