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9 Reasons You Might Need Marriage Counseling

Couples therapists can help with relationship tune-ups and serious repairs​

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All couples experience conflict. For some it’s battles about money; for others it’s a sex life that’s lacking or a pattern of constant arguing. And the coronavirus pandemic has added yet another potential stressor: more time at home together, which can exacerbate tensions or expose hidden cracks in a relationship.

Therapy can help. Contrary to what some may believe, it’s not about finger-pointing — who did what or who is to blame. Rather, “couples therapy provides tools for communicating and asking for what you need,” says Tracy Ross, a relationship and family therapist in New York City.

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Eye rollers, take note: According to the American Psychological Association, about 75 percent of couples who opt for therapy say it improves their relationship. “A lot of couples tell me that it is the only hour they have during the week where they’re focused on each other, with no distractions,” Ross says.

Many partners struggle together for years before trying therapy, says Gail Saltz, M.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical College, but “it’s always better to go earlier in the process.” Unhealthy behavior and resentful feelings can become more difficult to change the longer they continue.

A major roadblock to getting help? When only one person in a relationship is eager for change. “Sometimes someone will come in who is very willing to do the work and the other person is not,” Saltz says. “Ultimately, both people have to participate.”

Here are nine common reasons why you might seek relationship help.

1. You’ve grown apart

After years of marriage, some couples no longer engage with each other and merely coexist as roommates. Divorce incidence peaks at different times, says David Woodsfellow, a clinical psychologist, couples therapist and founder and director of the Woodsfellow Institute for Couples, in Atlanta. “The very top of the first wave is at about seven years,” he notes. “The very top of the second wave is 21 years. That second divorce is usually a growing-apart divorce. It’s about avoidance, not fighting.”

“I’ve heard couples say, ‘We run a household together, but there’s no connection or intimacy. But we’re both so busy it doesn’t matter,’ ” says Ross. “Distance like that can go on for a long time as people fill their lives with other things and push down whatever loneliness or needs they have. Then something happens — they retire or become empty nesters — and they look at each other and think, Who are we as a couple now?

Couples often forget what brought them together in the first place, why they fell in love, Saltz observes. “If you’ve been with somebody for a long time, you’ve built a life narrative, memories and a history that you can’t recoup with someone else. Couples therapy can help reignite that.”​

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2. You clash about money

Money has always been a contentious issue for couples, but throw in additional late-in-life concerns that baby boomers confront — potential health problems, plus fewer (and fewer) years of earning power, not to mention lousy interest rates — and you’ve got an atmosphere ripe for financial friction. In a Harris Interactive poll, 36 percent of married 55- to 64-year-olds said money matters cause arguments with spouses.

Clashes may stem from differing spending styles or disagreements on how to save for, and spend, retirement. There may be stress about not having enough money, or inequalities in the way your nest egg is being managed. “Money can evoke strong feelings of anger, anxiety and envy,” says Ed Coambs, who specializes in couples counseling and financial therapy in Matthews, North Carolina. “It has such high associational value with power that unless the partner who is earning less has another place of psychological influence, it can create an imbalance in the relationship.”

Therapy helps people understand their relationship with money and the way that it shapes their thoughts about themselves and about other people, Coambs explains. Often, the way we view and handle finances is linked to past experiences. He has clients draw a family tree and talk about how financial matters were treated in each partner’s family — how their parents saved, spent and discussed money. This exercise helps them become more aware of their spending behaviors and “develop more financial empathy for one another,” Coambs says.​

3. Someone has been unfaithful

One of the most common reasons for going to couples therapy: attempting to repair a breach of trust — in less delicate terms, cheating. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy has found that 15 percent of married women and 25 percent of married men report having had an extramarital affair.

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But, to be sure, cheating doesn’t only mean physical infidelity. “Hiding something and being secretive is an emotional betrayal,” Ross points out. “You might reconnect with an old flame through Facebook and think, We’re just catching up; it’s harmless. Then, all of a sudden, it’s more than that.”

How to tell when you’ve crossed the line? That’s tricky. “Infidelity means a lot of things to a lot of different people,” says Amy McManus, a Los Angeles–based marriage and family therapist. “What’s important is that partners build a shared, agreed-upon definition of fidelity within their own relationship.”

If you’re tempted to stray, it’s better to try counseling now rather than face the fallout later. And if one partner has already had an affair, there’s definitely a way back. About a third of married couples survive an affair, Saltz says, but generally, they’re the ones who go for treatment and make every effort to save the union. In fact, “an affair is often the impetus for dealing with things that have been avoided for years,” Ross notes.

4. You fight (a lot) about politics

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Politics may make strange bedfellows, but it can also lead to some pretty contentious battles when you and your partner are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Indeed, in these divisive times, that whole “agree to disagree” thing is easier said than done. A well-publicized 2016 survey from Wakefield Research, an Arlington, Virginia–based polling firm, found that one in 10 couples (married or unmarried) had ended their relationships due to disagreements over politics.

Couples therapy can teach you to talk about the issues — without it turning toxic — by having “a different conversation from the one that you and your partner are having at home,” says Tracy Ross, a New York City–based couples and family therapist. “It helps you hear each other, so hopefully, you don’t just follow that same stale script.”

One of the techniques Ross uses is active listening. How it works: There is a speaker and a listener. A timer is set — say, for about two minutes — and the speaker talks about their beliefs and feelings. Their partner has to listen, offering undivided attention, repeating what they hear without judgment. Then the two change roles. “There’s something powerful about being heard,” says Ross. “You’re listening differently and your partner can feel that openness.”

Also important: trying to find common ground. While you and your partner may have differing political views, there are probably goals and values that you do share. “Sometimes, when couples come in for therapy, they’ll insist, ‘We don’t have any shared values,’ ” says Katherine Hertlein, a professor in the Couple and Family Therapy Program in the School of Medicine at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “I tell them, ‘That’s baloney. You would not have gotten together if you didn’t have shared values.’ ”

Therapy, she says, helps peel back the layers until you both find that commonality.

5. You have lots of unproductive, hurtful arguments

We all have different ways of handling conflict. Some of us thrive on confrontation; others turn heel when things get heated. And then there are the passive-aggressive types. Big blowouts can leave behind tears and hurt feelings, but frequent bickering can be just as destructive. “Couples get into a repetitive loop,” says Ross. “It’s the same argument over and over.”

An argument is not in and of itself a bad thing; rather, it’s the way people handle the conflict that can make it unhealthy, Woodsfellow explains. Put another way: It’s not necessarily what you say but how you say it. “It could be criticism or complaints, jabs or unkind words, or verbal abuse, like name-calling or yelling,” he says.

Couples therapy teaches you how to diffuse disagreements in a healthy way — reasonably and respectfully. Woodsfellow says that how the conversation begins is crucial. So instead of throwing out something inflammatory like, “Why did you do this?” try a more encouraging tone, such as, “Help me to understand why you feel this way.” Swap pronouns, trading “you” (as in, You always do this), which puts the other person on the defensive, for the first person (I feel like you’re not hearing what I’m saying).

Stay away from “always” and “never.” And don’t pull out the past, Saltz advises. “Recent events are what you want to talk about.”

6. You have different parenting styles.

Just because you and your partner are united in your love for your children doesn’t necessarily mean you’re both on the same page when it comes to parenting. Your partner, for example, may be permissive when it comes to a 20-something son or daughter living at home or asking for financial assistance, while you may be more the “put your foot down” type. “Both of you, hopefully, have the best intentions for your child,” says Ross, “though what those intensions are may be different for each of you.” You may never be in agreement with what ultimately happens, but you do need to find a way to come to terms with a decision that’s workable for both partners.

“Couples therapy is about helping each partner gain insight into their personal contribution to the problem,” says Hertlein. “In the case of parenting, a lot of times there’s a family-of-origin trend that is influencing people’s decision-making. For example, one partner might say, ‘This is the way we used to handle it in my house when I was growing up.’ ” Talking about how matters were treated in your partner’s family and in yours will help offer insight into your values and behaviors, says Hertlein, “so the two of you can work constructively to develop a new pattern.”

It’s also important to take a close look at your emotions. Parenting decisions may stem from a deep-seated feeling of guilt, particularly for parents who are reluctant to lay down the law. Perhaps you feel like you didn’t spend enough time with your child when they were growing up, or you’re overcompensating for what you feel your partner hasn’t been doing. “Therapy allows us to expand the lens and look at the greater context,” Ross says.

7. You’re going through a big transition

“Even if you and your partner are getting along fine, a big change can shake up the dynamic of your relationship,” McManus says. “And different coping styles are going to create friction.”

It could be an illness, retirement or having the last of your children move out. “In the past, your children may have occupied a tremendous amount of time and energy,” Saltz says. “Then they leave, and if you haven’t been nurturing your marriage at the same level, you may look at your partner and think, I don’t know who you are. I’m not even sure I like who you are.

Suddenly finding yourself caring for an ill parent, which can consume a big portion of your time and attention, presents a different set of challenges. If your spouse doesn’t understand the stress or isn’t supportive, it can stir up feelings of frustration and resentment. Couples therapy can help you deal with the new normal by restoring the connection you and your partner once shared.​

8. Your love life’s lacking

In a study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 2,371 recently divorced people were asked to choose reasons for their split. The number 1 response (from 47 percent of the participants): a lack of love or intimacy.

For some, it’s a lackluster sex life. Years of doing the same thing in the sack can make sex less enjoyable, says McManus. “Sometimes one partner is simply too tired, and having sex feels like just one more thing to check off the to-do list.” Medical issues, medication side effects and changes in your body, such as menopause, can also make sex difficult for some couples.

But little intimacies — like the occasional peck on the cheek, listening to your partner’s stories and small gestures of kindness — can be just as important for helping you and your partner feel connected. There are plenty of couples who are affectionate and emotionally intimate but not sexually intimate, McManus notes. “As long as you are both satisfied with whatever your situation is, there isn’t really a problem. Couples counseling is useful when one or both of you is not satisfied with your level of intimacy.”

It can be difficult for people to talk about something this personal, but a good therapist can help guide the conversation and should know how to make you both feel more comfortable discussing intimate subjects.​

9. You want to avoid divorce or have an amicable one

“Usually, if [a married couple are] coming in for therapy, they’ve thought about divorce but want to see if the marriage is salvageable,” Saltz says.

Sometimes couples have mixed agendas. One person wants to split up or get divorced, and the other one wants to save the relationship. In cases like these, McManus says, “discernment counseling” can help spouses decide whether they want to pursue a divorce or what needs to change if they want to remain together.

If it’s become apparent that this isn’t a marriage that can work, therapy can be a way of providing for a less toxic split. “Protracted, messy divorces have a lot to do with not being able to let go,” Ross observes. “If a couple can process ‘How did we get here?’ and get past blaming each other, they can move on in a more adult way that does less damage to everyone involved.”

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