How Do We Know When It's Time to Go to Couples Therapy?


One of the most common questions people ask marriage therapists is, “How do we know when we really need to go to couples therapy?”

Great question! The answer is usually as soon as possible, meaning as soon as a problem recurs without resolution. People operate in patterns of thoughts and behaviors, and it can be easy to miss these when they are in the middle of the situation. Therapists are great resources because they see conflict from objective perspectives.

Sometimes people tell me they know a couple who went to couples counseling and just wound up getting divorced, so they ask, “What is the point of couples therapy?”

First of all, one of the biggest mistakes couples make is that they often wait until it’s too late to go to couples therapy. The relationship has been ruptured for years, then the couple goes to a few sessions of counseling only to wind up claiming that therapy did not work. Let’s be honest, it may very well not have been therapy that did not work. Problems brewing for years cannot be expected to be fixed in a few sessions. Couples need to keep in mind that they are the only ones who can perform work on their relationship. Therapists simply catch dysfunction and empower partners to repair these patterns.

Some people bring their partners to therapy to rid themselves of guilt of an impending break-up that they have already decided on. They don’t want to feel responsible for leaving their partner in pain after the break-up, so they attend therapy thinking, “Well, at least I left her in good hands.” Others bring their partners to therapy looking for permission from therapists to end relationships. Therapists are not marriage or relationship referees or judges. They are clinicians who help couples come to their own conclusions about whether they should continue the relationship.

Do you only go to see your medical doctor when you’re on your deathbed? Or, do you go in for annual checkups, exams, and blood work to see how you need to adjust your nutrition, medications, and medical care? Why would you only consider seeing a therapist when the relationship is basically already over? People’s attitudes about the role of couples (and individual) therapy needs to improve. Just like doctors who can catch cancer early enough to save your life, therapists can help you discover thoughts and behaviors that are detrimental to your relational health. The earlier you catch it, the better your chances of survival.

It is very helpful for partners to look for repeating patterns of conflict that result in the further dividing of the relationship. According to Dr. John Gottman, 69% of all couples conflict is not resolvable, even in happy couples. So, disagreeing with your partner is not a problem. Losing connection and intimacy over conflict is a problem.

If you notice you and your partner keep having the same types of conflict where one or both of you end up not talking to one another for any length of time, one or both of you makes fun of the other in a sarcastic or mean way, one or both of you criticizes the other, one or both of you threaten to leave the relationship, one or both of you leave the relationship, it’s time to enlist the expertise of a couples or marriage therapist. When differences in opinion or perspectives leads to additional strain on the relationship, you are heading for break-up, divorce, affairs, or worse.

What at first might appear to be the wrong relationship for you may be simply be a situation where both of you just need to learn to get to know one another’s internal worlds better, communicate your needs better instead of assuming or expecting that you can read one another’s minds, and focus on helping one another meet their needs during conflict. These core relationship skills are hallmarks of successful, happy couples.

If you identified yourself, your partner, or your relationship in any of the ideas I presented above, chances are you would benefit from marriage or couples therapy.