Conflict is inevitable in relationships, because two people have different needs, opinions, and wants. However, healthy couples have goodwill, talk things over, and return to feeling loving and close. On the other hand, there are relationships where conflict is more often the case or where one or both individuals bury their differences to accommodate the other. In the long run, this compromises closeness and leads to resentment. If you’re wondering whether to seek couples counseling, here are a few signs that indicate it would be helpful:
- Having the same argument that never gets resolved
- Lack of communication or affection
- Sustained resentment by either partner
- One partner is trying to change or control the other
- Verbal or emotional abuse (ordering, blaming, undermining, putdowns, withholding)
- Deference to friends or family over the needs of one partner
- Breakdown of trust
- Constant need for reassurance
- Substance abuse, workaholism, or other addiction that interferes with the relationship
- It’s not safe to be open and honest
If you want couples counseling, but can’t convince your partner to attend, that shouldn’t be a reason not to go to therapy. When one person changes his or her behavior, it affects their partner, because a relationship is a dynamic system. This is why each person plays a role in the problem. It’s said that in relationships, “There are neither villains nor victims, only colluders and collaborators.” This doesn’t mean one spouse may not be a victim of abuse, but on a psychological, often unconscious level, victims’ low self-esteem or past may cause them to ignore their needs or not set limits.
If there’s addiction or physical or emotional abuse, this must be addressed first. Addicts and their partners are usually in denial, and often people being criticized or abused minimize the problem or don’t even recognize it as such. Instead, they withdraw from their partner sexually or emotionally, which doesn’t stop the abuse or help the relationship. Even in individual therapy, a victim can learn to value him or herself and set appropriate boundaries. In many cases, this stops the abuse, results in greater mutual respect, and power in the relationship begins to be shared.
The goal of couples therapy is to create bridges of mutual understanding and empathy. Relationship counseling can provide a safe environment where couples can learn to listen and communicate more effectively. This allows them to be more vulnerable. Therapists teach assertive communication, how to identify and express needs and feelings appropriately, and how to set boundaries. Couples can also learn to control their anger and gain skills to resolve problems and conflicts before they escalate into a fight. These skills may never have been learned growing up. Once couples start to open up and talk about their troubles, problematic behavior tends to lessen.
The past is usually at play when couples are very reactive to one another, and have trouble learning to improve their communication. They may be “enmeshed” emotionally and need individual support or therapy to separate their thoughts and feelings from one another.
Frequently, the symptom is not the problem. Issues that clients aren’t aware of may eventually surface and need to be addressed. In any intimate relationship, there are always at least six people involved: The couple and two sets of parents. Sometimes a sibling or grandparent plays an important emotional role, and in today’s family structure, there are often step-parents, too. Our early childhood is when we learn lessons about intimate relationships. Deeper work in counseling may be needed around issues of autonomy, intimacy, trust, and fears of being smothered, controlled, or abandoned.
All people project past experiences onto present situations when they are emotionally triggered. Whether from childhood or past adult trauma, talking about these experiences in a safe counseling environment together with your partner engenders vulnerability and trust between the two of you. When you realize that your partner’s motivations aren’t personal to you, you can drop your defenses and begin to empathize. You come to see your partner as vulnerable, rather than as an adversary, and love and intimacy return.
It’s important to seek couples counseling early, while there is still goodwill between them. Like with any wound, the longer it festers, the more difficult is the healing process. When couples enter therapy to save their marriage from divorce, often one spouse has already left emotionally, and there’s a lot of resentment and ‘water under the bridge.”
Because assertiveness and good self-esteem are so important to both happiness and relationships, I wrote ebooks, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits and webinars. Many of my blogs are helpful to deal with these problems, including, “Rebuilding Trust,” “Your Intimacy Index,” “The Power of Personal Boundaries,” “Emotional Abuse – Beneath Your Radar?” and “24 Tips to Positive Conflict.”
Copyright Darlene Lancer 2014