Most people treat couples therapy as a measure of last resort: Your relationship is completely on the rocks, one or both of you is considering calling it quits. It’s like dialing 911.
But as I’ve said before, that’s the worst time to start therapy–when you’re feeling hopeless, when one or both of you has little investment in the relationship. Seeking professional help sooner can make all the difference.
So what is the best time?
I practice emotionally-focused couples therapy, which is about trust and security being the bedrock of a relationship. The core question we’re all asking, on an emotional level, is: When I need you, will you be there for me? Can I count on you?
If we sense–again, on a subterranean emotional level, possibly beneath our conscious awareness–that our partner is unreliable, or unreachable, all sorts of issues can ensue. We might find ourselves more prone to stress, irritability, mood swings, sadness, anger, defensive detachment and emotional shut-down…If this sounds familiar, read on.
In every relationship, there are times when you’re closer and times when you’re further away. Often, the distance resolves itself. It was just a busy and/or stressful week (or month), and there’s no underlying relationship issue.
But if you’re finding that the distance has persisted longer, and/or you find you’re experiencing some of the symptoms I listed above, then it’s time to address the problem. Start by asking yourself what’s causing the distance. Is it logistical? About scheduling, or the overall architecture of your lives? Or is it that one or both of you are in avoidance mode?
Sometimes there might be unexpressed hurt, frustration or anger. Sometimes rather than speak up, people just pull away. This could be a lack of assertiveness skills, or it could be that in the past, efforts to resolve things have ended badly. Maybe one partner is feeling like there’s no point in trying.
If you’re that partner, examine this more deeply. Think about what it would mean to your relationship to never deal with what’s bothering you. How far would it go? To separate bedrooms, separate lives? If you’re assuming the feelings will just dissipate (if that’s what you’re hoping for), but it’s not happening, you might need to go to Plan B. That could be forcing yourself to have some hard conversations.
If you’re the other partner–as in, noticing the pull-away–it might be time to ask some questions. Consider how to do this in a supportive, rather than a demanding or attacking, way. Remember that what we all want, deep down, is to feel loved and …
There are a lot of reasons couples might procrastinate about entering therapy. It might feel shameful, like an admission they can’t do it on their own. They might be afraid of what will come out in the room, and more comfortable maintaining some level of denial about just how distressed their relationship is. They might feel overloaded and overwhelmed with all they have to do in their week, between jobs and kids and other commitments.
They might also hold the belief that if things get really bad, they can just do therapy then. They might as well wait, they reason. What difference could it make?
A lot. And here’s why.
Often, I work with couples who’ve begun to ask that question. “I used to love that she was so different,” he’ll say, “it was exciting. But now it feels like we have nothing in common.” Or, “I used to love that he challenged me,” she says, “and now it just all feels like work.”
What does it mean to be a match, and to stay that way, long-term? To be complementary in your differences, instead of just feeling opposite?
There’s a couple I worked with for over a year. Recently, he made the decision to end their marriage. He didn’t seem to have made this lightly; rather, it was after much soul searching and individual therapy. His wife was understandably angry. They’d been together since they were in high school, and have kids.
She pointed out that he had made a lifelong commitment, that he’s supposed to keep working at it even when it’s hard. He responded that it was too hard–everything was a struggle, he was constantly setting aside his personal happiness, and fighting irritability because of it. He felt they both deserved better than that state of affairs. Which of them is right?
Last week, I was meeting with a couple fresh off a really damaging fight. She had gotten angry and threatening; he had shut down; she had continued to escalate in the hopes of getting a response. The escalation had led to some ugly comments, from which they were still recovering.
It’s a fairly common pattern. When we want to be heard, it seems logical to speak louder, maybe even to yell. But I’ve found in my therapy practice and in my life that speaking softly, from the deepest emotion, is what works.
“I know I shouldn’t attack him,” my client–let’s call her Amanda–sobs. “Sometimes I just feel so scared that I’m going to lose him, and so alone. I try to grab onto him but it pushes him away. It’s because I love him so much.”
I nod encouragingly, trying to keep the tears from my own eyes. In the world of emotionally focused therapy (EFT), we’ve hit pay dirt. This is it, what we’ve been working toward for several months.
It’s called a bonding event. After one partner lets go of the angry defenses and expresses his or her deepest needs in a vulnerable way and the other partner is receptive and emotionally available, the relationship begins its transformation from insecure to secure.
Except this particular bonding event is not going according to plan.
I’ve got this great young couple, newly married, and they’re sweet and funny and in love. They’re not remotely on the rocks. But I could see it getting there, and so could they, and that’s why they’ve started therapy.
Here’s the dynamic: She gets critical (sometimes loudly so), he feels verbally attacked, he shuts down and is distant, she spends the night feeling lonely and scared and trying to figure out what’s gone wrong. He fears that in the long run, he’ll become more and more resentful; she fears what will happen when kids enter the equation.
On one level, it’s about communication style. We all fall somewhere along the continuum from aggressive at one end to passive on the other. The healthiest communication style is in the middle, an assertive style where we can express our feelings respectfully. In the couple I’ve described, each partner is too far to one side. So theoretically, I could teach them some skills and get them on their way.
But that’s not what creates lasting change. I’m actually interested in the feelings underneath. I want them to learn emotional awareness and trust. I want them to know what they’re feeling and trust that if they express it to the other person vulnerably, they’ll be met with understanding and concern. That’s what makes a secure bond.
“We never have sex anymore,” my new client, the mother of an 11-month-old, tells me plaintively. “Is that normal?” Her husband stares at the floor like he’s waiting for a shot: Just let it be over quickly.
“That’s definitely normal,” I reassure them.
“And our conversations have gotten so boring,” she continues. “We don’t have time to really talk. Or we’re too nervous to really talk. We’re always on alert. At any minute, we can get interrupted. Our son will need something.”
“That’s normal, too.” Is it ever. Though my little interrupter happens to be a female, nearly ten months old, I know what my client is talking about. Intimately. I debate whether to share that with her.