Marriage Counseling Questions:
When to Get Marriage Counseling
Do I Need Marriage Counseling?
If you’re considering marriage counseling or couples counseling, you may have had this common marriage counseling question cross your mind: “Really? Do we need marriage counseling? Or will this blow over?”
All relationships have ups and downs, and it can be unclear when marriage counseling is truly necessary.
I can assure you as a couples counselor and relationship coach that virtually every couple encounters growth opportunities they need to address sooner or later. That’s just the reality of being an evolving human in a long-term relationship. But figuring out how to work on your relationship and when to pull the trigger and make it happen can be real obstacles for many couples.
The easiest course of action is always going to be to NOT do something, especially if that something feels as different and potentially life-changing as getting involved in marriage counseling or online marriage counseling. Even if your relationship feels pretty difficult, it is very easy to talk yourself out of marriage counseling with thoughts like, “Things will get easier when [insert circumstantial change],” “We’re just under a lot of stress right now,” or “This week has been better.” Sometimes, these thoughts are true; other times, you’re just kicking the can downhill.
You may even be forgoing marriage counseling based on the cost, or because you’re unsure whether marriage counselor will be covered by insurance. But it’s important to get help for your relationship when the situation won’t improve otherwise.
Given that it’s truly difficult to tell the difference between a passing “relationship rough patch” and a more significant unresolved conflict that isn’t going to change on its own, I’d like to talk through some of the signs that help you know when to get marriage counseling.
It’s Time to Get Marriage Counseling If…
1. Get Marriage Counseling If…. There Are Negative Patterns
Have you two been having variations of the same fight for months or even years? If you’ve been trying on your own to make changes but are aware the old patterns are still there — and that nothing you are trying is leading to meaningful change — it’s time to call a professional marriage counselor.
Unresolved conflict, codependency in relationships, and negative patterns around communication tend to get worse over time. Even if it’s not a horrible blow-out fight, every time you hurt each other’s feelings, disappoint each other, or leave the other feeling invalidated, the mutual goodwill and positive regard you share are decaying.
Relationships are systems, meaning that people react to each other’s reactions. If you’re having negative reactions to your partner, then they’re going to have negative reactions to your negative reactions, which leads to more negative feelings in you, and on, and on. It is really difficult to get out of this type of negative communication cycle once it’s started.
Effective marriage counseling breaks this cycle and helps you create a positive new cycle based on understanding and effectively resolving long-standing issues for good.
2. Get Marriage Counseling If…. There Is Repeated Empathic Failure
Some of the most damaging long-term patterns in relationships include patterns of “empathic failure.” Empathic failures occur when one partner comes to the other for emotional support and safety — perhaps to share something that is important to them, for help with a problem, or an attempt to initiate a shared activity (especially sex!) — only to wind up feeling rejected, ignored, misunderstood, unimportant, or uncared for. A marriage can recover from just about anything…. except repeated empathic failures.
If this is happening in your marriage, it’s time to find a good couples counselor with an evidence-based approach. Stat.
3. Get Marriage Counseling If…. There Is A Crisis
Another situation where it’s absolutely essential for couples to get connected with a good marriage counselor is in a crisis. A “relationship crisis” is a situation that is traumatizing to one or both partners. Discovering that one partner has been participating in a sexual affair, emotional infidelity, financial infidelity, or other betrayals are crises that are very difficult for couples to work through without the support of a good marriage counselor.
In addition to these types of obvious, dramatically bad relationship crises that sound off all the “Yes, we need marriage counseling yesterday!” alarm bells, there are two more subtle, but equally serious relationship crises you should be aware of.
Get Marriage Counseling for a Toxic Marriage Crisis: In a toxic marriage crisis, feelings have been hurt (on both sides) to the point where productive communication feels impossible and you argue constantly. Partners negatively react to each other consistently and any effort to talk or interact becomes a negative experience, with one partner refusing to talk and withdrawing or becoming constantly irritable and upset.
Get Marriage Counseling for a Frozen Marriage Crisis: When people stop talking altogether, it is a quiet, but extremely real relationship crisis that needs immediate attention. When marriages have been in a toxic crisis for a while (with arguments, empathic failures, or betrayals of trust) and couples don’t get real help for their relationship, eventually one or both people will just shut down and emotionally withdraw from the relationship. They simply don’t believe that it will accomplish anything positive or they don’t trust their partner enough to be open with them, assumptions that destroy a good relationship. (Please refer to “12 Effective Ways to Destroy a Good Relationship” for more specifics on what has likely been happening for years previously).
“Frozen” relationships are bad news. Couples who have stopped talking are actually at a much higher risk of divorce than couples who are still fighting with each other, trying to get their needs met, or fighting to be romanced and feel loved (or even heard). When people stop talking, they’ve essentially given up. Emotional withdrawal has begun and that is often the beginning of the end. This is the emotional climate that usually precedes a separation or signifies the quiet lull before divorce papers are served. There are ways to stop a divorce and save your marriage before that point.
Worried you might be in a “Toxic” or “Frozen” relationship crisis? Take our “How Healthy is Your Relationship Quiz” and find out.
Don’t Get Marriage Counseling for a “Divorce” Crisis
Sometimes, unfortunately, couples finally reach out for help only after one of them has initiated a divorce or separation. At that point, it is too late for traditional marriage counseling for the purpose of improving the relationship. By the time someone has decided divorce is a good idea, they have already decided that marriage is a lost cause. They’ve emotionally withdrawn from the relationship. Generally, they’re no longer willing to put in the energy and effort to fix it.
In this situation, attempting “Hail Mary” marriage counseling will often backfire. However, discernment counseling can still help.
Discernment counseling is for the purpose of gaining clarity and consensus around the willingness to try again. Sometimes, in the environment of emotional safety that good discernment counseling provides, partners can feel safe enough to start opening up again and talking about old, unfinished business that never got effectively addressed in the past.
Sometimes, when people are genuinely afraid of losing their marriage, they can be willing to make changes they were not motivated to make before. Sad but true. If both partners still have the willingness to improve the relationship (and put the hard work into growing together and creating positive changes together), then they can transition into marriage counseling, couples therapy, or relationship coaching in order to facilitate that. (For more on this subject see “How to Stop a Divorce.”)
Even though going through a relationship crisis is harrowing, heartbreaking, and difficult, it can often help both people become motivated to reconnect and make real changes. These crises can be catalysts for major “growth moments” for each partner and can start a brand new chapter in a marriage. It is crucial to understand, however, that couples really need support to do this kind of hard, deep growth work together.
A good marriage counselor’s office is the perfect place to find that support; that’s how marriage counseling works.
How to Know When to Get Marriage Counseling
The strongest, most successful couples never let things deteriorate to the point that they experience a relationship crisis. The happiest couples are, paradoxically, the ones most likely to go to marriage counseling or couples therapy the soonest.
So, back to the main topic:
Q: “How do you know if you need marriage counseling?”
A: My honest advice is to not overthink this.
If your relationship feels hard, just go get marriage counseling. Yes, there is the chance that you could find out in marriage counseling that you have a fantastic relationship and just need a little tune up. Wouldn’t that be nice, anyway?
Worst case scenario: You meet for a free consultation, go for three sessions, learn a few new things, then skip happily out the door into the sunset. That is the biggest “risk” of getting marriage counseling “too soon.” (Learn more about how long marriage counseling takes.)
That is vastly preferable to the alternative.
According to research, the most distressed couples take an average of six years to decide to come to counseling. (The most healthy, happy, and committed couples are much quicker to get professional support.) This is unfortunate, because distressed couples are the ones who need the most support.
Waiting too long can allow negativity to become totally entrenched. Years of negative interactions damage a relationship terribly by creating toxic hostility, mistrust, resentment, and avoidance that affects everyone in the family and can be more difficult to heal – even with therapy.
The sooner you can stop this pattern, the better. While even very distressed couples can have positive outcomes, the process is much easier and more effective between people who still love and respect each other and share hope for their relationship.
Getting professional help for your relationship sooner rather than later is an investment in the future of your family. If you are in a crisis run, do not walk, to your nearest professional marriage counselor.
I hope this information and perspective helps you make an informed decision about when to get marriage counseling. If you’d like to work on your relationship with us at Growing Self, I invite you to get started by scheduling a free consultation.
Wishing you all the best,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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