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Taking the first step to start couples therapy is often the hardest, causing many couples to put off seeking support until they are in crisis and desperate for help. Then, they come to my online office in a panic, angry, hopeless and on the verge of ending their relationship. This delay and built up distress makes the work much harder compared to getting help when problems first surface.

Suffering, sometimes for years, with stressful relationship struggles is unnecessary. If I could tell couples one thing it would be to start couples therapy sooner rather than later. Just like you take care of yourself by going to the doctor or the dentist or the gym, keeping your relationship in good health is key to a happy life.

Almost all couples tell me they feel relieved after our first session and that it is not as scary or uncomfortable as they imagined. Seeking out marriage counseling also doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you or your relationship. It simply means that it would be helpful for you, like most couples, to learn new ways to communicate and deepen your connection with each other. Just like you would need help with nutrition and workout guidance if you wanted to get 6-pack abs, building healthy relationship “muscles” require specialized guidance.

So, how do you know if you need marriage counseling? Here are a few things to consider:

80/20 Rule – Overall, your relationship should feel pretty smooth and happy 80% of the time. No relationship will be easy 100% of the time, and we all need a little leeway for things like being tired, having a stressful day, etc.  The other 20% of the time may be experienced as small bumps in the road or minor conflicts, not highly escalated arguments.

Consistency and Predictability – Healthy relationships feel consistent and predictable, which equates to security with each other. While, all relationships have a natural ebb and flow, moments that feel good and moments that are more challenging, the ups and downs should not be extreme. If your relationship includes moments of yelling, swearing, name calling, threats, physical abuse, withdrawing, refusal to talk or shutting out your partner then you need help to prevent these dynamics from slowly destroying your relationship.

Comfort Around Intimacy and Sex – While there is no “normal” amount of time you should be having sex, affection and sexual contact should feel pretty consistent and comfortable to you both. When there is underlying relationship distress or stuck communication, it tends to show up in reduced intimacy and sex first. If you notice a shift in your intimacy or find it hard to talk about, it may be time to get support.

Off Limit Topics – Do you feel comfortable talking to your partner about anything, or are there topics that you both avoid, either consciously or unconsciously? A key element of a healthy relationship is feeling safe enough to talk to your partner about anything, without fear of it leading to conflict or feeling dismissed, unheard or misunderstood.

Your next question might be, does marriage counseling really work? And my answer is a resounding yes(!), with a few caveats. Couples counseling can drastically improve your relationship as long as you are willing to do the work. To get the most out of couples therapy, you need to show up consistently for sessions, be willing to talk about things that can feel hard and be patient with the process. Just as if you were trying to get 6-pack abs, marriage counseling can feel like hard work and many of the changes happen behind the scenes first and take time a little time to start showing on the surface.

Finding the right couples therapist is also key to success in the process. I recommend therapists that use Emotionally Focused Therapy and suggest doing a phone consultation with a few different therapists to see how you feel with them. You will be trusting your couples therapist with one of the most important parts of your life so make sure you have a rapport that feels safe and comfortable.

Author: Stephanie Macadaan

I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. I love working with couples and individuals to find strength, growth and empowerment through their struggles and challenges.