Episode 27

Published on:

24th Jan 2023

10 Signs Couples Therapy Can Really Help Your Relationship

Couples therapy: it can be a cliche, it can feel like defeat, and it can even be a cause for conflict in and of itself. But we wanted to get real and talk about some surprising ways it can help your relationship. Have you thought about going for a while? Or does your partner think it's a good idea, but you have major doubts? Today we break down the ten most common reasons people decide to go-- and what it can do for them.

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Dr. Andrea Bonior: Whatever you may call it-- couples therapy, marriage counseling, professional help for a rough patch-- making the choice to make an appointment for relationship support is a very weighty decision. How do you know when it's time? Today, we're talking about some signs that your relationship could benefit from couples therapy. We'll talk about common issues that might be surprising in terms of how they're warning signs for a breakup, but also how much they can be helped by seeing a professional. Uh, no doubt the financial time and effort commitment are not to be taken lightly. But if you've ever wondered if the squabbles that you and your partner go through are a sign that counseling can help, you'll want to listen to today's Baggage Check.

Welcome, everyone. How are you doing today? I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this is Baggage Check, mental health talk and advice, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel. Incidentally, it's also not a show about whatever happened to the classic staple of elementary school projects: the shoebox diorama. Okay, let's get to the show. I saw a statistic recently that nearly half of all married couples received some kind of counseling at some point. That seemed high to me, and it could be that there were issues with the sampling method. It also might just include folks that went to premarital counseling as some sort of standardized program before they got married. But no matter what the exact number, lots and lots and lots of couples do seek joint help at some point, and there's absolutely no shame in it. It's not somehow a sign that you're more in love with each other than other couples if you can avoid relationship counseling. On the contrary, relationship counseling can often make a couple stronger, and it can give them communication tools that they didn't just naturally have without a little help. People often think of couples counseling as a last ditch effort to save a relationship, whereas I think it can often be thought of as a protective step to prevent the breakdown of a relationship. But I get that there's a lot of stigma about it. For some people, it might feel like admitting defeat, and people's differing perceptions of couples counseling mean that they use the idea of it for different purposes, even within the same couple. I have for sure seen situations where one person in the couple sees couples counseling as a way to save their relationship, whereas the other sees it just as checking a box to show that the relationship can't or shouldn't be saved. So honestly, reason one that couples counseling won't work is that you're both going after different goals with it. But even if you're on the same page about couples counseling's purpose, there can be lots to disagree on, and it can feel like a very stressful step to take. Making the choice to seek out couples therapy involves acknowledging that things are not working well in your relationship, which is often very tough to do and scary to admit. And if you're not particularly familiar with what therapy is all about, it can feel mysterious and confusing. Not to mention it can involve considerable effort finding an appropriate provider, figuring out insurance and other financial aspects of the commitment, coming up with a time to fit everyone's schedule. Often the idea of seeing a marriage or couple's therapist sits on the back burner with one or both parties, thinking that it may be a good idea, but also feeling unsure of how to proceed and unsure of whether their specific problems can really be helped. So to help demystify this process, I've outlined some common issues that indicate that a couple could potentially benefit from seeking help. To m start out, you must know that there are many, many different varieties of couples therapy and different theoretical orientations, as we would say, of the actual providers. There are different specialties and therapists who may have specialized experience when it comes to specific issues. And there are some therapists, I'll say it, whose training is lacking or whose own ideological agenda might get in the way of their being objective. So it's important to remember that most therapists, both for couples and for individuals, offer some version of a free consultation to let you decide whether they might be a good fit for you. Use it. Don't be afraid to ask questions. The earlier the better, so that if it's not a good match, you can move on. Okay, so let's talk about ten very, very common issues that can be helped by solid couples counseling. If you recognize yourself in this, I'd really urge for you to give it a try. Remember, seeking out therapy of any sort can feel like a scary step, but it's not nearly as stressful and painful as separation. And no, I'm not saying that all couplings are meant to last forever. For some, separation or divorce is the healthy step to take. But even in those situations, sometimes couples therapy can help clarify that and illuminate a path forward for separating that is as functional as possible. All right, let's get to it. A listener note today's episode obviously talks about relationships, so we talk about all of it, including physical intimacy between couples. Number one-- trust has been broken. One of the most common reasons for seeking couples therapy is the need for help in overcoming a major breach of trust. Perhaps it was infidelity in the form of sex. Perhaps it was an emotional affair where someone really got so connected to a coworker, for instance, that their partner feels like a third wheel. Perhaps it was a series of lies or deception about retirement accounts or online gambling, or the fact that he put all his savings into a cryptocurrency based on the coin flips before NFL games. And now you feel like you can't ever trust your partner again. Or you have to be a watchdog about everything. In any case, the rebuilding of the foundation of trust can often be helped by couples therapy because it helps establish a forum where both people can be vulnerable with each other, where honesty is encouraged because it's a safe setting where things won't escalate like they would normally at home and where some exercises for learning to trust each other again can be put into place and there can be accountability for working on it. Number two, arguments are getting more frequent if you're noticing that the rhythm of your day to day life with each other has started to have more friction, more tension. That's often one of the things that couples therapy can help with most effectively. Sometimes people say, oh, it's just small conflicts, just little things. They don't really matter. But honestly, small conflicts, in my experience when they start to increase, can really corrode a relationship just as much as big conflicts because the small conflicts don't get addressed, which means they don't get resolved, which means they just build on each other over time. It's like how, uh, if you cut yourself really, really bad, you'll take care of the wound, make sure it doesn't get infected, protect it. But if you just constantly have a series of small cuts, maybe you don't bother to treat them. And then in not doing so, an infection seeps in. Or maybe there are big blowouts or there's a combo of small and big or there's somewhere in between. Either way, it's the pattern of the increase that's important. Perhaps it's a blip on the screen with one of you going through something tough personally or the fact that you just got a new dishwasher and it's going to take some time for the three of you to learn how to coexist together. But increasing conflicts can be a risky sign that you're entering the territory eventually of developing habits of communication that aren't healthy and that are going to be a problem when they become ingrained. More important, these patterns could indicate significant problems under the surface that just aren't being dealt with. Number three, communication is poor. So communication problems underlie so many other problems, so they overlap with everything we're talking about today. But I have this one as its own number because a lot of times it's more silent and people don't give it as much notice when there's not overt conflict. What I'm talking about in this case is feeling frequently misunderstood or ignored. Or maybe you feel like you don't even have a good idea of what's happening with your partner emotionally as of late. They might as well feel like a stranger or one of those coworkers that you awkwardly talk to for the past nine years but really don't know anything about. The good news is improving communication skills and learning techniques to help in this arena. That's the bread and butter of couples therapy. It's a tangible goal that is there in every session. In almost all cases, the quality of your communication can improve in leaps and bounds. If you are willing, a skilled counselor can equip you with tools that will help you connect and listen and understand each other much better on a daily basis. And the ripple effects of that are huge. And they can help with all kinds of additional issues that you might be having as well, because you can sort out those issues in a much healthier way when you have built the foundation of strong and functional communication. Number four-- something definitely feels wrong, but you're not sure what or why. Just as with individual therapy, sometimes couples therapy is useful not only for solving problems, but also for identifying them in the first place. Let's say something in the dynamic of your marriage has changed, for instance, but you can't really describe it. Or you don't feel as comfortable with your partner as you used to, or you find yourself chronically resentful of them, but you're not sure why, and maybe you're starting to get frustrated with yourself because of it. These are often early signs that the dynamic between you or your interactions are turning unhealthy. It doesn't mean that one person is to blame or that anything is doomed, but rather that the relationship itself could use a tune up and ask for a tune up. A therapist’s office is often a very beneficial place to start that process. It's not like a car tune up where suddenly they're going to tell you that the flagellate motorhosen is wearing down and you can either pay them four grand or risk a catastrophic breakdown the next time you go over 35, and you say, man, I wish I hadn't heard that information. And in fact, you're probably trying to scare me and scam me. Yes, I know there are honest car mechanics and auto shops out there. Kudos to you all. A, uh, pox on the rest. But no. Couples therapy is about reporting what's bothering you, identifying the goals yourself, talking about how things are at home. It's about you got in the way of what needs to be worked on. Speaking of that, number five is that there's something that you want your partner to know, but you've been unable to tell them. Sometimes the beauty of therapy starts with the room itself. It can become a safe and supportive place for you to bring up things that are difficult to talk about in other settings. A trained professional with a warm presence can often help you overcome your fears of sharing something with your partner. If there's something that you need to get off your chest but you're frightened about how they'll react, whether it's something that happened in the past or something you've been thinking about for the future, this can really be the place to do it. I work with so many people in individual therapy who sit with something for years, wondering how to tell their spouse, whether it's something that they've already done, like a transgression or something in the present that's going on, like the real amount of a debt or student loans or something about the future. Like they want to have their aging parent move in or they don't want to have another child, but their partner doesn't know yet. In general, sitting with these things starts to put so much stress on the individual and the couple because intimacy starts to diminish when one person is holding something so big inside. So professional help can go a long way in creating a supportive forum, um, where these difficult discussions can happen. That's also where the nonjudgmental part of the therapist can be really helpful, too. Number six-- one or both of you becomes dysfunctional during a conflict. We know from John Gottman's research that how a couple handles conflict is one of the biggest predictors of whether their relationship can go the distance. Honestly, I think the biggest predictor is whether or not you both have the same sociocultural interpretation of the white lotus. But that's why I don't see couples in therapy. Maybe you or your partner shuts down, they lash out, they get vengeful, or you get passive aggressive. There is no shortage of dysfunctional ways to handle conflict, which serves to make the original problem that much worse. Maybe neither of you do anything particularly egregious, but you both have such different styles. One of you needs time to cool off. The other must hash things out now or else they're prone to shutting down later. It could be any kind of mismatch, and it's all very common. But this goes back to building a strong foundation of communication that's arguably more important in conflict resolution than in any other context of your relationship. Getting help for your mismatch styles of how you deal with conflict as just building the skills that will help you spend more time enjoying each other or at least scrolling your phones together in companionable silence and less time fighting with each other or growing resentful. Number seven-- you have gone through something devastating that is changing the way you connect with each other. Sometimes the cruel double whammy of a setback in life is that it's not just the setback itself that hurts, but also the effect it has on a partnership or relationship or marriage. Many couples go their separate ways after the heartbreaking loss of a child, for instance. Other times, it's long term unemployment, a, uh, health crisis infertility or turmoil within one partner's family of origin, or turmoil about your children, whether babies are grown adults themselves. Often it's that stuff that can really bust up a relationship. You might not think about going to couples counseling in the wake of something so big happening. After all, you may have enough to worry about as it is. But keeping your bond strong in your relationship can only serve to unite you and give you additional strength to weather the storm that has come. It's very natural that two individuals, even two individuals who deeply love each other and are committed to each other, may respond to difficulty in ways that don't always mesh well with each other. One person approaches for more intimacy, for instance. The other person retreats to manage stress or to grieve alone. Or one person can't help but blame the other, despite not wanting to, for whatever thing that's happened. Opening up about this in couples therapy to help understand each other better and to set up some parameters where you both can get what you need, that can be life changing, and it can obviously help with learning about yourself and your needs and your individual coping skills as well. Number eight-- you feel stuck in bad patterns. There's no limit to the number of patterns that partners develop in day to day life, from how and when they eat and sleep. By the way, poor sleep is associated with marital problems, to how much time they spend apart or with others, to who handles various household chores, to how they use screens, to how they interact with each other's families. Maybe a dysfunctional and unsatisfying pattern is as simple as one spouse always using the other as a sounding board about work complaints, but never bothering to reciprocate for the other without losing interest. Or maybe it's more deep seated, like a long standing division of household chores that feels unfair or infuriating. There was a piece that went viral a few years back about a regretful ex husband who wished he would have just put the friggin dish in the dishwasher like his wife had always asked him to. And he realized too late the deep and irreversible damage that something seemingly so small could do. Of course, it wasn't really small at all. It was actually a huge symbol for how much effort he was willing to put in to meet his wife's needs. No doubt, after he saw the light and wrote about it, he was inundated with women. But there are all kinds of patterns that set in that can make or break a partnership. Do people really get divorced over laundry, for instance? Depending on how you look at it, the answer can be a resounding yes. It's about what those seemingly small things symbolize and represent and how they can grow into patterns. Maybe you have the same seemingly small argument over and over again. Well, guess what? It's not small. And the longer a pattern sets in, the more energy and time it will take to change it and the more damage it can do. So better to be on the early side of things when recognizing bad patterns and do something about it. And both recognizing those patterns and doing something about it can be immensely helped by couples therapy. Number nine-- emotional intimacy is gone or deeply diminished. It's almost a cliche for two partners to feel like the spark is gone after spending a decade or more together and feeling like they're more roommates than soulmates. Sometimes this is just because the grind of daily life has begun to eclipse a bit of romantic attraction. I mean, it's never going to be sexy to figure out who needs to go pick up toilet paper because you're out of it. At least I don't think that's ever going to be sexy. Maybe there's some very interesting things going on in other people's relationship, but that's natural. And sometimes it's simply a matter of prioritizing that the emotional intimacy that comes from years of commitment and trust and humor and shared experiences is far more meaningful than the initial romantic. Infatuation other times, though, the emotional intimacy disappears along with the physical spark. So it's crucial to be able to build some of it back. Getting to that point of diminished emotional intimacy, it can creep up on you. It can be pretty insidious to people growing apart quietly for years without really acknowledging it, whether to themselves or to each other. Or people might have been quietly changing and growing more incompatible, or maybe even having learned to get their needs met elsewhere. Either way, emotional intimacy is crucial to maintaining a long term partnership. So when it's deeply diminished, it's something that needs attention and it's something that couples therapy can most definitely help with. And speaking of intimacy, finally number ten physical intimacy is a problem. Sexual issues can be both a symptom and a cause of relationship problems, which means they're often at the forefront of a couple's day to day complaints. Sometimes the change is obvious and frustrating. A couple goes from frequent physical intimacy to almost none, and it's jarring. Other times, it's a gradual freeze that takes you farther and farther apart from being fulfilled by each other sexually to, uh, barely being satisfied at all. Sometimes there's more overt conflict, with one partner expressing frustration, one partner constantly feeling rejected, or sex being used as a bargaining tool. Whatever the issue, a skilled counselor can help you start working on it. And no, it doesn't have to be a specific sex therapist like our dear icon, Dr. Ruth. But getting someone experienced in those issues enough that they can help destigmatize talking about it in the room and help make it feel comfortable is really important. So did you recognize yourself for your relationship in any of these ten scenarios? Did you feel like maybe you recognized yourself in a lot of them? There m are all kinds of online directories for searching out a therapist, and I don't get kickbacks from any one of them. But some of the ones I've known and trusted with my own practice in the past are Psychology Today's Therapist Finder, and Good Therapy. You can also check your insurance listings if you have coverage for some couples therapy and cross reference from there if you need something lower cost. You might also call your local university psychology department to inquire if there are any training programs where you might be able to get low cost help. Sometimes general practitioners have good therapist recommendations, whether couples or individual. And finally, certain community mental health clinics offer low cost family and couples therapy or are connected with organizations who do. There is help out there. I hope these ten things have given you something to think about. As always, don't hesitate to write to me if you have specific questions. Thanks for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this has been Baggage Check, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on Instagram at @baggagecheckpodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests. And you know you've got that friend who listens to, like, 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told him where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, covered by Daniel Merity and my studio security, it's Buster the Dog. Until next time, take good care.

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About the Podcast

Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice
with Dr. Andrea Bonior
We've all got baggage. But what do we choose to do with it?
Every other Friday, licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling author and popular psychology professor Dr. Andrea Bonior takes your mental health questions, and makes you part of the conversation. Join her and other voices as they translate research into real life, and talk about relationships, emotions, health, psychological disorders, stress, finding meaning, work, and occasionally-- just occasionally-- the most obscure dance crazes of 1997.
All are welcome, and nothing is off limits. With science, compassion, and humor, she's here to help.

About your host

Profile picture for Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and the best-selling author of “Detox Your Thoughts." She was the longtime mental health advice columnist for The Washington Post, and appears regularly in national media, including CNN and NPR, with several popular courses on the LinkedIn Learning platform. Dr. Bonior’s blog for Psychology Today has been read more than 25 million times. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University, where she recently won the national Excellence in Teaching award, given by the American Psychological Association.