There are many good reasons to seek help for a relationship, and no bad ones. If the ways you are with your partner are beginning to feel too much like Mom and Dad... If your arguments go around and around and around, and never seem to get anywhere ... If you're thinking about getting married, and want to know what you're getting into...
The important thing to remember is that going to counseling highlights the importance of your partnership. If your relationship didn't matter a great deal to both of you, you wouldn't be doing this.
So, here are some common questions and thoughts about relationship therapy:
Is it important to seek premarital counseling?
People tend to think of counseling as something to do when something’s “wrong.” In the excitement and euphoria of talking about getting married, no one wants to think there’s anything wrong!
But let’s look at it from a different angle: When you get married, you make some pretty heavy commitments. Wouldn’t it make sense at least to look at what you might be signing up for? People who form business partnerships usually engage counsel before signing agreements. In fact, marriage used to be much more a business arrangement than a love match. Think of Golde and Tevye’s song in Fiddler on the Roof: “Do you love me?” After 25 years.
Surely marriage is as important as any business.
I hope you understand that I like the freedom we have, nowadays, and there is nothing like that first glow of love. The trick is not to be blinded by it. The kind of love that makes a good, lasting marriage is much deeper, and certainly able to withstand “problems.”
What are other essential steps that should be taken during an engagement period?
With or without a counselor, it’s important to know as much as possible about the person you’re marrying. I know it’s tempting to pretend that neither of you has ever had a relationship before, but unless you’re very, very young (10, perhaps?) or grew up in an unusually religious community, this is pretty unlikely.
So what does this mean? It means talking about the difficult things: What have your other relationships been like? How did they end? What kind of family do each of you come from? (Sorry, folks, but it is true that people whose parents stayed married are more likely to stay married, themselves. It’s in the unconscious programming.) It also means: how do you each handle finances? Is it important to have a pre-nup? And what about children? Do you both want them? If not, why not? If so, why? How do envision bringing them up?
Remember, you’re talking about a lifetime commitment. I know it may not be fun, but no real relationship is all fun. Your relationship will grow and become more satisfying, more rewarding, more beautiful, depending on how the two of you address the difficult issues together.
What is the number one issue that brings a wedge into healthy relationships?
Well, there are two big ones. Sex and money. The only way neither of them becomes truly divisive is to accept that they’re going to be sources of conflict. You are two separate people, with necessarily different attitudes toward these vital subjects. Each of you must find a way to survive, whole.
Here, the important thing is to reframe what you’re looking at. Learn to approach your differences as opportunities to learn more about one another, maybe even opportunities to rethink old ideas. Two heads really are better than one, so long as you can make room for them.
Are there any problems that you feel are absolutely irreconcilable?
You’re asking again about “problems” rather than looking at the dynamics of relationship. It’s amazing what “problems” people can actually navigate, when they’re both willing to address them.
A relationship between two committed adults is a very resilient thing. A problem only becomes irreconcilable when one of them decides to withdraw that commitment. I’ve seen people stay together through abuse, addiction, physical disability, psychosis, dementia… At the same time, I respect those people who say, “This is just too hard for me. I can’t live with this and be myself.”
I do believe that each of us is responsible for only one life: our own. I strongly recommend that a person pay careful attention to what is happening to his or her own experience of life, in order to decide if a relationship is truly worth fighting for.
Are there any warning signs that a couple should watch out for, that shows they may need a neutral third party to assist?
I’d like to call them “indicators,” rather than “warning signs” – just because the latter sounds so scary. I think there’s one phrase, above all the others, that’s an indicator that a couple could use outside help: “Here we go again!” As soon as a person can recognize, “I’ve been here before,” there’s an opportunity to find a more functional resolution.
Throughout our lives, we naturally repeat the parts of our lives that feel unfinished or unsatisfied. One of the beauties of long-term relationship is that within such a pairing, each has the opportunity to play out those repetitions, and hopefully work them through. But couples do get stuck repeating the same interaction, over and over and over… And that’s when they need someone else to look at what they’re doing, from a new perspective.
What does it take to make counseling effective?
A real answer to this question would be a little like the physicist’s TOE – theory of everything. Basically, though, what you need is the combination of a client or clients who are curious about what’s going on in their lives, willing and able to tolerate a certain amount of discomfort, and a counselor who is empathic and practiced. We’ve all experienced therapeutic results from talking with a good friend. Add on a counselor who is well-trained and experienced.
One reason a well-trained professional is important is that in our practice we can learn how to relate with different kinds of people – you wouldn’t want someone who, say, can really identify with one person in a relationship, but not the other! To be of use to you, I need to understand both sides of your issue – as well as have some theoretical ideas about what might be going on behind the scene.
Do you feel that even after divorce counseling can be effective?
Counseling can be effective at any time. The problem with post-divorce counseling is that you usually don’t have that necessary element: two people who are curious about one another, and willing to tolerate some discomfort. Usually the discomfort of being in the same room with each other makes it impossible to look at things dispassionately.
That being said, when children are involved, I really do recommend having a referee to help with any heated discussion. This is the sort of thing that should never go on in front of the kids, and is definitely better handled in a neutral, safe space with a calm, reasonable, neutral third party.