Checking In: When a couple comes in for counseling, they are motivated by a personal crisis, either within The Coupledom or one pressing on the Coupledom. Typical triggers are a particularly volatile fight, an encounter with relatives/in-laws that leads to a clash of attitudes, a financial crisis, a child’s acting-out, loss, an affair, a suspected affair, addiction or illness, sexual discontent, an impending retirement, or other significant life changes. I have worked with couples on the eve of their wedding where one questions the decision to marry. Couples, only a few months post-wedding, where one member of The Coupledom is behaving in a most “unmarried” fashion. And the therapy can last for several months or several years. But what really makes for the greatest certainty of sustained improvement is when couples use therapy whenever one or both see themselves stuck at an important crossroad or drifting apart with ever-widening chasms between them. The “return” to a trusted couples psychotherapist who is familiar with the individuals and their history can be an enormous asset to any marriage.
Undermining Attitudes: I am often puzzled by the association many in our society continue to make when considering professional help with marital issues (or any relational or psychological challenge). Despite the fact that psychotherapy and counseling are everyday terms in today’s culture, with television and radio shows providing therapeutic interventions to openly distressed individuals within view of wide audiences, in the private sector there remains a belief that asking for help signals crisis, catastrophe, humiliating weakness, or a first step to divorce. Frequently a spouse will call to inquire about counseling with the caveat “my husband/wife doesn’t know I am making this call” because they anticipate that the spouse will be alarmed and resistant. Often the first appointment or first few appointments are focused on helping the spouse find the courage and the skills to have the conversation that will lead their partner to the needed couples therapy.
Improvement as Incentive: All psychotherapy, to be useful, requires a gradual lowering of one’s guard, defenses or whatever armor we all use to appear invulnerable to others or to reassure ourselves that we are in control. Couples therapy provides witnesses to this shedding of layers of protective covering, not just in the presence of a stranger, the therapist, but also someone very familiar, with whom one lives: the spouse. These are powerful dynamics and can lead to powerful and positive changes for the relationship. When a couple emerges from their first round of therapy, feeling a sense of relief and renewed intimacy, what prevents them from returning when old habits sneak back in? Or new stresses arouse old issues?
Regression: Regression is a normal part of life when challenges arise and couples often regress back to former destructive or alienating behaviors when one or both of the members of The Coupledom are having a rough time. Job loss, illness, retirement, adding another child to the family, or children leaving home, hormonal changes, a death, mid-life transitions and moves are just a few of life’s passages that introduce elements of concern and readjustment. Sliding back to habits that become distancing is typical as well. The energy that it takes to stay involved and interested in even someone we love can be trumped by work ambition, child rearing demands and personality traits characterized by self-absorption and avoidance. Yet a return to couples therapy is often last on the list of options and sometimes even too late. Why? Because therapy makes us look at our pain and that is hard to do. It is that simple. Pain, as in fear of failure, of loss, of imperfection, of powerlessness or anger, of insecurity and suspicion, of hurt and helplessness. Painful feelings that we don’t like to address unless we are bleeding. And sometimes that is too late for The Coupledom.
A Tool For Life: I work with couples that return to therapy when they hit a bump in life’s road. They don’t see couples therapy as a one shot only, make it or break it deal. They view therapy as a resource to turn to whenever they need it. If one of The Coupledom says, “Let’s go,” the other says, “Fine.” It is an acceptable option for both partners. I see this as evidence that a good relationship never stops growing or improving, especially when both partners are able to say, “Hey, let’s look at this and see what we can do to make it better. Why don’t you call and make an appointment?” “Will do.”
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012