We believe we’re getting the fairytale when we get married. You know — meet “the one,” have a whirlwind courtship, get married and live happily ever after. What the fairytales don’t tell you is that relationships take work.
Often times, we don’t go into a relationship with the tools to manage the challenges, which is where the pros come in. And by pros, I mean a counselor or therapist who can help you learn new ways of relating to your partner.
The question is: when do you know it’s time to consider marriage counseling? Here are some trigger points and behaviors that are signs you may need help.
1. When you aren’t talking. In all honesty, many relationship challenges are simply challenges in communication. A therapist can help facilitate new ways to communicate with each other. Once communication has deteriorated, often it is hard to get it going back in the right direction.
2. When you’re talking, but it’s always negative. Negative communication can include anything that leaves one partner feeling judged, shamed, disregarded, insecure or wanting to withdraw from the conversation. Negative communication also includes the tone of conversation because it’s not always what you say, but how you say it. Negative communication can escalate into emotional abuse as well as non-verbal communication.
3. When you’re afraid to talk. When it’s just too frightening to even bring issues up. This can be anything from sex to money, or even annoying little habits that are being blown out of proportion. A therapist’s job is to help a couple become clear about their issues and to help them understand what they are truly talking about.
4. When affection is withheld as punishment. My client Ann’s ex-husband would get angry over small things and then withhold affection (including giving her the silent treatment). If one partner starts to act as a “parent” or “punisher,” there is a lack of balance in the relationship.
5. When you see your partner as an antagonist. You and your partner are not adversaries; you are on the same team. If it begins to feel as if you are on different sides, then it’s time to seek help.
6. When you keep secrets. Each person in a relationship has a right to privacy, but when you keep secrets from each other, something isn’t right
7. When you contemplate (or are having) an affair. Fantasizing about an affair is a signal that you desire something different from what you currently have. While it is possible for a relationship to survive after one partner has had an affair, it’s prudent to get some help before that happens. If both of you are committed to the therapy process and are being honest, the marriage may be salvaged. At the very least, you may both come to realize that it is healthier for both of you to move on.
8. When you are financially unfaithful. Financial infidelity can be just as -– if not more -– damaging to a relationship than a sexual affair. If one partner keeps his or her spouse in the dark about spending or needs to control everything related to money, then the other should bring up the topic of family finances. It’s not unreasonable to say, “I want to better understand our monthly bills and budget, our debt, how many savings/checking/retirement accounts we have, etc.” If your spouse objects, consult a professional to help work out the conflict.
9. When you feel everything would be OK if he would just change. The only person you can change is yourself, so if you’re waiting for him to change, you’re going to be waiting a long time. This is often when I recommend hiring a coach or therapist to better understand who you are and what you want. Then, if challenges continue to persist, reach out to a couple’s therapist to learn better tools for relating to each other.
10. When you’re living separate lives. When couples become more like roommates than a married couple, this may indicate a need for counseling. This does not mean a couple is in trouble just because they don’t do everything together. Rather, if there is a lack of communication, conversation, intimacy or if they feel they just “co-exist,” this may indicate that it’s time to bring in a skilled clinician who can help sort out what is missing and how to get it back.
11. When your sex life has shifted significantly. It’s not unusual for sex to taper off a little after you’ve been together for a while. However, significant changes in the bedroom signal something is not right. An increase in sex, by the way, is also a sign of challenges, as it can signal one partner trying to make up for something they’re doing that they feel is wrong.
12. When you argue over the same little things over and over again. Every individual has trigger behaviors — specific things that drive them crazy that wouldn’t bother the majority of other people. This can include issues like laundry, how the dishwasher is loaded and having the same thing for dinner too often. The other partner often doesn’t understand why these fights keep happening and what he or she can do about it. A therapist can help a couple discuss these issues and figure out what the real root of the issue is.
13. When there are ongoing relationship issues. Every relationship has sticking points or those big-ticket arguments that carry over for months without any kind of resolution in sight. This includes differing views on family finances, incompatible sex drives and child rearing philosophies. These challenges feel impossible, but they can be worked out and both partners can reach a reasonable resolution. Therapists help if both parties are committed to understanding the other’s point of view and are willing to find common ground.
Most couples wait too long before seeking help. In truth, you are best served if you seek help sooner rather than later.