When is it time to come to marriage counseling?
When I’m working with marriage and couples counseling clients, couples almost always tell me they wish they'd come to couples therapy sooner - usually years sooner. Sadly, by the time they're sitting on my couch, things have often gotten very bad, and they may be on the brink of divorce. Sometimes, one or both have crossed the point of no return, from which there is no salvaging the relationship. Unfortunately, couples sometimes don’t come to marriage counseling until it’s too late.
In a perfect world, I believe most couples would get outside help in the form of marriage counseling many times throughout their relationship, even if they have a great relationship. We all can benefit from consulting with an objective third party about our relationship problems. But couples therapy involves time and money and likely some emotional discomfort, so people don't come in unless things are starting to go bad or something very unpleasant has occurred in the relationship - like infidelity or frequent, intense conflict.
So when should couples come to therapy?
Signs it's time to get help
My opinion is that as soon as one of both people feel less connected with each other, or feel anger or resentment, or one or both are not happy with the level of intimacy - sexual or otherwise, or one or both is questioning whether they want to be in the relationship, it is time to come to couples. When one or both of you feel that you’re just going through the motions or that you’re more like roommates than a couple, it’s time to come to couples counseling. When one or both of you is feeling unheard or misunderstood or when it’s difficult to talk without conflict, it’s time to come to counseling.
A good way to think about this is to ask yourself the following: If things in our marriage stayed just the way they are right now and never improved, would I want to stay in this relationship? If the answer is no, then it really makes sense to proactively sit down with an experienced couples counselor. If you ask yourself the same question but the answer is something like “I don’t like how things are right now, but I think I could tolerate it for the rest of my life,” it would still make sense to do some couples therapy. Usually, dysfunctional dynamics among couples get worse over time unless people put some time and energy into improving them.
Most couples need "tune ups" along the way
Sometimes couples are reluctant to reach out to a marriage counselor because they’ve done marriage and couples counseling in the past and, even if it was helpful, they don’t feel they should have to do it again. Or they just don’t want to do it again. But it’s normal for the relationship problems couples struggle with to resurface over time, especially if they haven’t been doing the maintenance necessary to continue whatever benefits they received or tools they learned the last time they went to marriage counseling. Throughout the life of a marriage, most couples could use help more than once, even if it’s just a “tune up”.
The key is not waiting until it’s too late. The misconception that marriage counseling is only for couples in the worst of circumstances (infidelity, violence, etc.) gets in the way of many couples getting the help they need at the time that would be most helpful. Some people are ashamed or embarrassed to seek help for their relationships, feeling this means they have failed in their marriages. I think realizing you need help in your marriage is a sign of strength, an acknowledgement of something profoundly true: that none of us really know how to be in relationships and that we all could benefit from outside expert help.
For more information, visit my Marriage and Couples Counseling page.