Have you grown too far apart for couples therapy?
“That’s the thing with fences – only one person has to create a divide for both to feel the separation.”
Just another manic Monday
It’s Monday evening and you’re still sitting at your computer, working from home. You notice it’s 6 pm and you really need to start cooking dinner for 7 pm. But you also really need to finish this paragraph and send one more email…suddenly, it’s 6:20 pm and you’ve not finished the paragraph, so you send a hurried email only to notice a typo once you’ve sent it. Shit.
You go into the kitchen kicking yourself and wonder if you should have ordered food. It’s too late now, so open the fridge. Shit, there’s not enough veg to make food for two. You could pop to the shops and then have less than half an hour to make dinner…
You decide to order in and then you’ll have enough time to clean the kitchen and put away the laundry before the food arrives. Great, you have a plan.
You tentatively ask your partner which menu they’d like to order from and you’re met with a pregnant pause, followed by, “just order something for me.” Deflated, you do, and then begrudgingly clean the kitchen, put away laundry, and empty the dishwasher. At 8:30 pm the food arrives and you eat together. Your partner’s disappointment at your food choice is palpable.
Plates in the dishwasher, shower, bed. No cuddles or kisses, let alone sex. (When was the last time we even had sex?)
Is the grass greener?
Friday after work, you go to a bar with friends and notice a cluster of people laughing at the end of the bar. One in particular, is so your type and has a gorgeous smile. A bit tipsy, you can’t help but imagine, what if…
For those in monogamous relationships, this twinge of “what if” can be an especially huge challenge. There’s this, usually unspoken, agreement that you’re going to get all your intimate, flirting, sexual, romantic, and sensual needs met by one other person. That’s a massive ask. We don’t expect one supermarket to sell absolutely everything we want to eat or one car to suit us our whole life. But we do expect one other human to meet those needs day in and day out. But what happens when they don’t?
Things aren't really that bad
Maybe you still enjoy cooking together or watching Bogart movies, as you did in those early days. Maybe there are still enjoyable moments and you can share a bottle of wine and relax again.
Maybe you are wonderful parents or make a great work team. But, somewhere along the line, you’ve stopped being lovers and partners. You turn away rather than towards each other. You have tried various ways to reignite the passion, such as weekends away or dance classes, but the slow, downward spiral continues.
Sadly, most couples wait until things get really, really bad before considering couples therapy. For most, that’s at least 6 years, which means thousands of hours of arguing, years of growing apart, and a metric shit ton of resentment. With UK divorce rates currently over 42%, if this is you, you’re not alone.
Some of the key issues couples bring to therapy are:
- Infidelity: from watching porn to sexting to affairs, each couple has their definition of cheating
- Abuse: this can be anything from coercion, gaslighting, and financial control to violence and physical abuse
- Having children: no matter how much you love them, this changes your body, household, sleep, and spending patterns
- Money: salaries and incomes change, financial emergencies happen, saving vs spending habits may only become clear over time
- Communication skills: few couples spend time learning how to have difficult conversations and to argue well.
Any combination of these can create a relationship void of intimacy. The good news is that all of these can be addressed in couples therapy.
How does couples therapy measure up
While the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists reports an overall success rate of 98%, evidence suggests that multiple couples therapy approaches do have at least 70% success rates. I hope this makes you feel hopeful!
In the UK, you can get a limited number of free couples counselling sessions if one or both partners have psychological disorders, but not relationship issues. So most people have to pay for third sector or private counselling. Unsurprisingly, the result is that most people accessing couples therapy are straight, white, monogamous, 25 – 54 year olds. I couldn’t find any reliable data for non-dominant populations, but that in itself speaks volumes about how inaccessible couples therapy is for many marginalised people.
It’s worth mentioning that there isn’t one single way to do couples therapy and if you’re interested in different approaches and their efficacy, try this article.
How can couples therapy help?
Assuming you both want to repair the relationship, here are 7 ways couples therapy can help:
- Identify unhealthy patterns and offer tools and processes to change them
- Recognise triggers for arguments and learn how to unpick issues together rather than escalate them in opposition
- Rebuild trust through communicating better and working on openness and kindness
- Offer an alternative perspective and help both partners see what else is true
- Provide a safe, neutral, and brave space to say things too scary or shameful to say outside of therapy
- Allow each person to understand and express their own needs and wants, as well as find ways to appropriately communicate these*
- Clarify what each person does and doesn’t want in the relationship and how that can renew the relationship or lead to mutually agreed separation.
*As a lot of my clients are neurodivergent, we tend to do a lot of scripting. This means the client works out what they want and need in specific situations and then we formulate ways for them to effectively and authentically communicate this. Then, when a challenging situation arises in their daily life, they use their pattern recognition skills to identify it and match it to the appropriate, prepared script. For example, they can use an “avoiding starting an argument” or an “I’m overwhelmed” script. This can be a highly valuable pattern interrupt that doesn’t require them to formulate a response on the spot during a difficult exchange.
What are you waiting for?
The majority of couples I work with do really love each other and have a huge willingness to repair their relationship. However, they are often desperately lacking in relationship skills. They don’t know how to have difficult conversations, how to argue well, or how to nourish a long-term relationship. It’s not because they’re stupid, lazy, broken, or incapable. It’s because these life skills aren’t taught to us, and most people don’t even know they can learn them.
Happy, healthy relationships are made, built, and require ongoing nourishment. Each person needs to grow, to challenge and be challenged, and to repeatedly put new skills into practice. You absolutely can learn key necessary skills to transform your relationship. A good couples therapist will help you naturally weave them into your relationship in loving, authentic ways.
As the great Dr John Gottman says, “couples who know each other intimately, are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams are couples who make it.”