By Lawrence Kaufman, Florida Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) 561-302-0568
Martha and Joe have been living together for three years. When they were “courting,” their relationship seemed to be what they were both looking and hoping for. They both felt wonderfully alive, happy, and valued by the other. Their romantic feelings were strong and their sex life was exciting. And they never felt so deeply understood and loved by a partner before. Then, as so often happens with many other couples, their feelings towards one another slowly began to change.
Disillusionments with Your Relationship
As is usually the case with romantic couples, reality began to set in, and their positive fantasies and illusions about one another diminished. They started seeing more and more flaws and imperfections in their partner, and they had difficulty understanding and tolerating this. They were experiencing a growing gap between their view of an “ideal” partner, and the one they were actually with.
They tried and tried to talk things out with one another, but were unable to resolve their problems together. As time went on, they stopped trying so hard to improve their relationship. They became more and more disillusioned, discouraged, and frustrated with what was evolving in their relationship. Bit by bit – slowly and steadily – they drifted apart — emotionally and physically. They found that avoiding one another, and not openly discussing their deteriorating feelings and connections with one another kept their unhappiness and dissatisfactions out of their awareness. They avoided overt (direct) conflict as much as they could. They put a priority on “peace at any price.” They developed a strategy (which ultimately caught up with them) of “letting things slide” in order to keep a surface impression of an OK or normal relationship.
Both of them felt so disappointed in one another and began to feel despairing about ever being happy with one another again. Their hopes and dreams of continuing romantic bliss were eroding, disintegrating, and shattering. They started to wonder if they would be better off ending their relationship. They started thinking of having an affair in order to get some spark, life, and hope back into their lives.
What went wrong with such a seemingly promising relationship? And what could be done now to try to improve or “save” this relationship? They also asked themselves if it was too late to “save” their marriage? Was there “too much water under the bridge”?
Considering Couple Therapy
Martha and Joe — as most partners in a seemingly committed relationship — never gave serious thought to getting professional help for their crumbling and deteriorating relationship. Martha – a very private person — made some efforts to discuss her relational problems with a few of her friends and relatives, but felt embarrassed to reveal much about what was going on in her marriage, or in her mind. Joe was the kind of guy who pretty much needed to handle personal issues on his own. (To do otherwise would have caused him to feel weak, inadequate, and unmanly.) This is what he had done his entire life — from childhood on. Neither one of them knew of another couple who had seen a couple counselor (or a couple who admitted to this). When they were young, their own parents had had constant arguments and fights with one another. They seemed constantly miserable. So, Martha and Joe didn’t have a role model of a couple who could teach them how to succeed in a marriage.
The Natural and Healthy Need for Couple Therapy
My view is that partners in strained and stressed relationships owe it to themselves (and to their children, if they have any) to get professional help for their ongoing struggles and frustrations. I believe that peoples’ mental health needs (including their needs in relationships) are just as important as their physical health needs. Besides, the mind and body work together as a whole. What affects the body affects the mind, and what affects the mind affects the body. In this sense, it is so important to take care of all of your important needs. Just as it is wise and responsible to regularly see physicians and dentists, and to exercise regularly, in order to care for your body, it is a necessary part of responsible self-care to see mental health professionals. Just as you would see a gastroenterologist, for example, if you had a problem with your stomach or intestines, you would see a couple therapist as a resource to help you with your primary (most important) relationship in your life.
Nowadays, many people openly see counselors and therapists. I consider this to be a necessary form of psychological and emotional “education for living”. People who work with, or have worked with, mental health professionals, tend, on average, to be psychologically healthier than people who haven’t had this experience. No longer do people need to be or feel stigmatized as disturbed, crazy, or weak if they see a therapist. But, old attitudes and beliefs, in part, still persist in some people, and in society at large. This old “programming,” or “tapes” in one’s mind (often passed down through the generations), can still be an active force or barrier in preventing some people from reaching out for the help that they so much need and could benefit from.
I believe that you can’t effectively fix your relationship problems on your own, any more than you could reset a broken bone in your body, or treat a toothache, without professional help. You need an experienced, empathic, and skilled professional to help you get back on your pathways towards your goals. Reading self-help books and talking to friends and family members are fine — and sometimes invaluable — but they are no substitute for expert, in-person assistance.
Counselors/ therapists specializing in work with couples can present you with many options, alternatives, and approaches to consider that you could never think of on your own. Knowing how to work out problems, difficulties, and challenges in intimate relationships just doesn’t come naturally. We are not born with this knowledge, and few of us have been so fortunate as to have learned these vital skills in the families and environments in which we grew up. By analogy, knowledge in our society has grown so complex that there is a limit to how well we can fix our own computers when something goes wrong. We need the help of a well-trained, competent, and trustworthy computer technician to set things right. Likewise, one needs the assistance of a couple therapist to help make things better. (And if this doesn’t work out well enough, the therapist can help both of you to more constructively “break up” or get divorced.)
When Couple Therapy Doesn’t Succeed
Beyond couples like Martha and Joe mentioned above, there are couples who have tried couple therapy but this “hasn’t worked out” for them. (They have not felt sufficiently helped.) At times, this may be a result of unrealistic expectations – whether of the therapist, or of your partner. For example, not infrequently, people “locate” their problems in their partner – seeing their spouse or partner as being the source of almost all the problems they have in their relationship. They sometimes say: “If only he/ she would change in these ways then the problems in our relationship would be resolved.” Many people have difficulty owning their share of responsibility for the ongoing problems in their relationship.
Seeing a counselor/ therapist only once or twice, for example, usually is not a long enough time in which to make a good judgment call on the professional, and doesn’t give the therapist enough time to gather the information necessary in order to be able to be of significant help to you. It is not realistic to expect immediate, quick, and painless “solutions” to your problems together.
Assuming you view the therapist as basically competent, it usually takes a couple of months before you can properly assess how much the sessions are helping to meet your needs. You are then in a better position to do an informed cost/ benefit analysis with regard to the therapy. You can weigh the pros, benefits, and advantages, versus the cons, downsides, and disadvantages. You can also consider the possibility of having individual sessions to talk through issues, conflicts, and needs that are not being sufficiently or adequately addressed in the couple sessions. Each partner’s needs as an individual, and as part of a “we,” need to be kept in a healthy balance.
At times, a couple has a bad or unsatisfactory experience (for one reason or another) with a counselor/ therapist, and then just gives up on the possibility of trying again to get the help they need (and deserve). As in dating, where you infrequently meet the love of your life on the first try, it may take meeting with more than one counselor/ therapist before you find the fit, match, or help you are looking for. It is so important not to give up when you at first (or repeatedly) don’t succeed. I suggest you hang in there, and try to make better choices, until you find a professional with whom you can feel comfortable, safe, trusting, and confident. The investment (financially, emotionally, time-wise) you make can pay great dividends (whether or not in the end you successfully work out your issues with your current partner)