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How Do You Know When It Is Time To Go To Couples Counseling?

Updated: Mar 25

Written by Ashley Gray, LCSW, MFTC

Things have been off for awhile now. You've been fighting more and when you're not fighting you're either resenting your partner or trying to figure things out between you, but the answers aren't coming. The thought of couples therapy has been bouncing around in your mind for some time now, but you're not sure if it is necessary yet. Everybody has tough seasons, right!?

It is completely normal to go through seasons of connection and disconnection, to have doubts and concerns, to fight more than usual, feel annoyed, to love your partner, but have trouble liking them in a particular moment. This list could go on and on. My point is that difficult seasons and extra effort are a natural part of relationships at times. But how do you know when it is time to enlist the help of a professional? Here are a few areas to consider.

1.Excessive Fighting or Fights Without Resolution Every couple fights sometimes and this can be a healthy part of your interactions as it gives you an opportunity to understand, yourself, one another and your relationship better. Most of the time, how often you fight isn't a big issue. However, if you two are fighting far more than usual, perhaps finding it difficult to get through the day or the week without big fights, then it might be time for therapy.

How you fight matters as well. Are you yelling a lot? Do your fights consist of a lot of criticism, defensiveness, refusals to communicate and seeing yourself as better than your partner? These issues are known as the Four Horsemen in Gottman Method Therapy. You can read more about them in my first blog post. These are important patterns to pay attention to because if they go unchecked, they can lead to the end of your relationship. A Gottman trained therapist can help you get these Horsemen under control and help you learn more effective communications techniques.

Is there a resolution to your fights? Meaning, do you both feel heard at the end of your discussions, do you know how you're moving to prevent issues in the future or to manage them better? Did each person take responsibility? If not, then you may benefit from working with a therapist to learn how to manage conflict effectively.

2. Struggles with Communication

Some common struggles that couples experience in communication is, not feeling heard or validated and trouble understanding. When you don't feel heard or validated in communication, you and your partner are more likely to continue to have the same fight over and over in hopes of being heard. It makes sense that you might think that revisiting the conversation could help, however, if you're not adjusting how you communicate, you're less likely to make progress with the conversation. You may benefit from having a therapist help you identify your needs, support you in communicating them gently and directly and helping you listen and respond with empathy.

3. Resentments

Resentments fester as anger and frustration about unmet needs. What is helpful when facing resentment, is to gently and directly advocate for your needs. But, sometimes these resentments get pushed down over time due to other events going on in life, fears around discussing hard topics or due to your partner's resistance in hearing you out. When things get pushed down in this way, it can be beneficial to explore and reprocess past hurts, so each partner feels heard and understood. There can be a lot of history to untangle and process. Having a therapist for this process can be really helpful. A therapist can help you approach your past with gentleness and organization, as well as make sure that each person is heard. As a result, you and your partner can move forward with a shared understanding of your past, resolution and clear direction for your future. Engaging in this process without a therapist can sometimes feel chaotic and directionless.

4. Traumatic Events, Including Betrayal

Trauma can include things that are happening in the world (pandemic, economy, etc), things that happen to one of you individually (car accident, difficult medical diagnosis, etc) and events that occurred between you (not showing up for one another's needs, betrayal, etc). When people think of betrayal in a relationship, they often think about an affair. However, there are financial betrayals, emotional betrayals, betrayal of particular value agreements within the relationship and so forth. When a traumatic event occurs in your relationship, one or both partners' sense of security has been disrupted. These types of security can include financial security, emotional security, physical safety, an existential view of one's life, consistency, purpose and many more.

The foundation of your relationship may have been built on some of these forms of security or at least impact your relationship greatly. It takes delicate and intentional work to wade through what led to the traumatic event and to co-create the next chapter of your relationship. There can be a lot of automatic thoughts, behaviors, triggers and protective patterns that can arise after such events that can make it difficult to move forward. There may be some Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) responses that need to be addressed professionally. Working with a therapist can, again, help organize this process and give it direction, while also showing up with needed empathy and compassion.

5. Unnamed Obstacle

I understand that this one sounds strange. I only mean to acknowledge that sometimes you don't know what the issue is. Sometimes you just know that something is off, it has been off and it could be helpful to get some support from a professional. Therapists are familiar with this type of predicament and often can help you identify what is getting in the way of the relationship that you want.

Next Steps

If reading these points is causing you to realize that you and your partner could benefit from therapy, you may also be experiencing some dread. That makes sense, therapy is a considerable investment of time, money and energy. To top it off, sometimes it is really, really hard and uncomfortable. Considering these realities may make you want to put off therapy, which is understandable.

If you're going to go, it is better to go sooner rather than later before too much resentment and distance sets in. The more resentment and distance that sets in, the harder it is to feel motivated to do the work. And therapy is work. Relationships take work. That work is so much easier when you can still feel like your partner is your friend or that you at least share values and try to show up for each other. When you don't feel those warm feelings toward your partner, you can look at the work of therapy and wonder what the point is. Then, you can lose steam, spend longer in therapy trying to find motivation to do the work and THEN begin to dig into the work with some motivation. If you can, go sooner vs later to give you two the chance that you deserve.

If this post left you feeling like maybe you don't need to go to therapy just yet, my encouragement is to have a plan. First, understand what the issue is, what the need is beneath that issue, collaboratively bring this to your partner and get their input on what they see as the issue and the need beneath. Then, search for resources together that will address the need. These resources could be books, communication courses, podcasts, therapist's tips on social media, "I feel" statements, Gottman Institute's "Marriage Minute", mental health freebies on therapists websites, mental health related courses, blog posts, TED Talks, support groups, a new hobby, etc. Be clear about when and how you will check in on progress, what you will consider progress and how you will determine if you need a different intervention, which could include a therapist.

If you're ready for a therapist, here is how to start your search. If you're hoping to use your insurance you can reach out to your insurance first to see who is in network. Also, most therapist directories give you the option to search by insurance provider if you wish. Some popular therapy directories are Psychology Today, Therapy Den and Inclusive Therapists. You can also search for "therapists near me" via your search engine. If the therapist you like doesn't accept your insurance, you can see if they would accept your HSA or FSA funds (if you have them). Ask if they provide super bills, so you can utilize your out-of-network mental health benefits. Check in with your insurance ahead of time regarding your in-network and out-of-network mental health benefits. If none of those options work for you, you can ask about reduced session fee rates or sliding scale rates.

If you would like me to be your couples therapist, reach out for a free 15 minute consult by clicking the contact buttons at the top of the page. I look forward to hearing from you!

I'm wishing you the best on your healing journey! :)

P.S. If you want to sign up for my newsletter, so that you don't miss a blog post and you get the latest information about free resources, services and news follow this link. There will be a pop-up on the page that will prompt you to sign up. If you get the pop-up after you sign up, you can use the yellow "x" in the corner of the page on your desktop or bottom of the page (you may have to scroll) on your phone to exit.

This post is written by individual and couples therapist, Ashley Gray of Arvada, Colorado. Ashley works with her clients using Gottman Method Couples Therapy, EMDR Trauma Therapy, Prepare and Enrich, attachment focused therapy and techniques from Emotionally Focused Therapy. As a therapist, she is passionate about helping people build healthy relationships and supporting people with the resources they need. In her free time, Ashley hikes, paddle boards, reads, spends time with her husband and her cuddly dog. For more information about Ashley and her practice, click here.


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