You’re dating someone, partnered up, or married and everything seems to be going well … except you keep having some recurring arguments. Maybe they’re no big deal, you think, but they’re frequent enough to make you question the relationship. This also raises another question: When is it time to do couples therapy? Is it the answer to the problem?
“Couples seek therapy for a range of reasons,” Robert Casares, PhD, an assistant professor in the Master’s in Counseling online program at Wake Forest University, tells TZR in an email. “Some report feeling stuck and are tired of arguing about the same unresolved issues. Or a couple with young children may want to set aside time to discuss the importance of regular date nights or to talk about more than day-to-day logistics. Many couples want to broach topics that have been avoided or ignored for far too long.” He says that with each of these issues, it may feel too challenging or scary for a couple to discuss them on their own, so they commonly go to therapy with the hope of addressing these topics in an honest and constructive manner.
But every couple has disagreements now and then, so is going to couples therapy really necessary? Casares says you can first try to communicate candidly about a perceived problem by acknowledging relational concerns or expressing unmet needs. “Sometimes in the business of life, crucial things are overlooked or go unsaid,” he says. “Talking about emotions, areas for growth, and current struggles invites openness and may allow a couple to work through challenges before they get out of hand. However, if this process feels overwhelming or a couple is uncertain about how to initiate these conversations, a therapist can offer support and expertise.” Following, Casares and other therapists weigh in on when it’s time to try couples therapy, from signs to look for to what you can get out of it — and more.
Signs To Seek Couples Therapy
Jason Polk, couples therapist and founder of Colorado Relationship Recovery, says that a good time to consider couples therapy is when there’s a consistent negative pattern of interaction between the two partners that leaves one or both feeling disconnected, confused, angry, and/or feeling that they can’t live up to their partner’s expectations no matter what they do. “It would be a very good time to go to couples therapy if such patterns of interaction are starting to create feelings of hopelessness,” he tells TZR in an email. “When one or both partners feel hopeless, it leads to withdrawal — and that’s the worst place to be for the relationship.”
Adrienne Alden, licensed marriage and family therapist at Relationship Restoration, agrees. “Therapy is helpful for couples when they are stuck in the pattern of listening to defend instead of listening to understand,” she tells TZR in an email. “If one or more members of a relationship feel unheard or too upset to hear, then it's time to seek therapy to help regulate and mediate.” Furthermore, she says psychologists and researchers (with huge empirical data about relationships) John and Julie Gottman state that the following four things lead to relationship problems: Defensiveness, Criticism, Contempt, and Stonewalling.
Keischa Pruden, therapist and founder of Pruden Counseling Concepts, tells TZR in an email that there are additional signs, too, that a couple may need to seek couples counseling, such as decreased intimacy (both physical and emotional); if there are incidents of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual, social, financial, spiritual, etc.); an increase in arguments/misunderstandings or sudden difficulty communicating feelings to each other; or if there is an undercurrent of negative energy following an event in the relationship.
And there are also significant life-altering moments wherein couples therapy can be helpful to navigate the relationship, says Kresence Campbell, LPC, psychotherapist and founder of Holly Street Counseling. “Signs a couple should attend therapy include: preparing for marriage; when one partner (or both) are preparing for a major life change or have experienced one; a partner has cheated; talks of divorce or marriage; when boundaries are continually violated; and feeling hopeless,” she tells TZR in an email.
Casares adds that a common misconception about therapy is that a couple must have a major issue to resolve before attending. But that is not necessarily the case. “Whether dating or married, couples can take a proactive approach to therapy to emphasize their strengths, reinforce, and sustain the positive aspects of their relationship, or work toward identifying and reaching their future goals,” he says.
Andrea Wachter, psychotherapist, author, and Insight Timer teacher, agrees, saying that couples also don’t have to wait till things get really bad to get help. “Just like we (hopefully) don’t wait till our cars are broken down to take them into the mechanic, regular tune-ups can help people, too,” she tells TZR in an email.
What Happens In Couples Therapy?
So you and your partner decide to go to couples therapy. Then what? “The main benefit of couples therapy is having a neutral party to help a couple work through their issues,” says Pruden. “A therapist is not personally attached to the couple — their outlook/perspective is purely clinical and neutral.” Plus, the therapist can provide the couple with another perspective regarding their issues that they may not have considered before. “When you’re in an emotional situation, it can be difficult to have a different perspective other than your own,” she notes. “A therapist offers different ways of looking at conflict and conflict resolution.”
Polk echoes Pruden’s sentiment, adding that a skilled couple’s therapist has a framework for a healthy relationship and believes in that framework. “They will first identify the negative patterns a couple engages in and will provide a roadmap on how to get out of the patterns,” he explains. “Ultimately, it’s up to each partner to do the work and to take care of their part in the relationship.” But what if you’re into the idea but you literally had to drag your significant other to the session? “A skilled couple’s therapist will help the partner who doesn’t ‘believe’ in therapy identify their motivation, whether to avoid pain (divorce, if that’s on the table) or gain pleasure (happier partner, and able to provide an example of a healthy relationship for the kids), and they will position themselves as the bridge to get to where they would like to go.”
Benefits Of Couples Therapy
Sure, you go to couples therapy to address the problems you and your partner are having. But are there other benefits, as well? “A therapist can serve as a translator — couples therapists study relationships for a living,” says Alden. “They can put complex concepts into words that a partner might not be able to and can help interrupt patterns in the moment.” Casares adds that couples therapy offers a range of benefits that commonly go beyond the initial issue that brought a couple to therapy. “The opportunity to share deep emotions, broach painful subjects, or work through disagreements in a supportive environment can generate cathartic experiences that hold the potential to strengthen emotional bonds, heal past hurts, or reignite romance,” he says. “The skills that are gained from therapy are practiced between sessions and eventually become positive habits that extend beyond the duration of therapy.”
Polk agrees, saying that at the very least, you can learn new relationship skills and tools. “We are not taught these growing up — especially if your parents didn’t model a healthy relationship — so any chance to learn and apply them is great, even if the couple doesn’t end up staying together in the long run.” Campbell says it can also provide the couple with a safe space to be heard and the therapist can assist with making points clear. “It can help bring to light and make clear the emotions and feelings that are hidden behind actions, as well as help couples make hard choices regarding their future and ways to move forward,” she adds. “Just starting it is the first step.”
Does Couples Therapy Always Work?
Although couples therapy can strengthen — and even save — your relationship, that’s not always the case. “Couples therapy is effective when the relationship has a degree of safety where couples are able to be vulnerable — or are at least open to being taught how to be vulnerable,” explains Polk. “But couples therapy doesn’t work out if one or both partners are already checked out and not open to letting their partner back in. Often, a partner may go to therapy because they said they would when their heart is not in it. If that is the case, the therapy may facilitate the breakup.”
Campbell, seconds this, noting, “These couples have realized that their relationship was simply trauma bonding and/or they were going in different paths that no longer aligned,” she says. “They may both agree amicably to split or realize that they must do their own work before coming back to the relationship.” She adds that when seeking couples therapy, the couple must have a clear understanding of what they would like the resolution to be after therapy. “Understand why and what motivates you to go to therapy for the relationship.”
Alden adds that even though couples therapy might not always lead to a better relationship with the people that initially attended, sometimes it helps an individual get in touch with themselves and their goals and needs. “That might not always mean keeping the relationship,” she says. “Big-picture, if couples therapy leads to insight, a breakup and a person living more in line with their authentic selves, I would still consider that a success.” She says the main thing she sees that keeps couples stuck or unable to grow is refusal to accept responsibility. “Relationship trouble is cocreated,” she says. “If one or both members of a relationship are unwilling to ask themselves, ‘What is my part in this?’ and apologize non-defensively, it's going to be hard to heal.”
Finally, most couples will likely prefer the structure and task-oriented nature of most couples therapy, Frank Thewes, LCSW, a private practice therapist based in Princeton, NJ and founder of Path Forward Therapy, tells TZR in an email. “Yet it is important for anyone to remember that couples therapy, like all therapy, takes real work to see progress,” he says. “You can’t just rely on what happens for the hour with the therapist. You have to take away action items and concepts and turn them into behavior changes to make couples therapy work.”