“You’re an odd couple,” our therapist said to my boyfriend and me, “most people only come when their relationship is failing miserably. The fact you’re here to improve your relationship before it’s broken is an anomaly.”
While that comment boosted my ego a bit, my therapist’s observation from decades of couples counseling made me sad. The fact is, couples therapy has a stigma that it’s only for couples on the brink of divorce.
Society has, at the very least, gotten past the idea that therapy, in general, is only for mentally unstable people and, instead, is a form of wellness not much like going to the gym. Hell, just the other day, I spotted someone wearing a “Therapy is cool” sweater.
What a time to be alive.
But why doesn’t that same thinking apply to couples therapy? Why do we only associate it with couples on the verge of ripping each other’s throats out? Why would couples rather watch things shrivel up and die than get a little outside help?
Well, for the most part, people are scared.
Hear me out: I’m not saying that fears aren’t valid. Someone can have a perfectly acceptable back story for their fear of intimacy AND still work on not letting those fears destroy something as precious as their relationship.
With that said, fear is paralyzing. It can leave the son who grew up listening to his dad yell, “men don’t cry!” unable to talk about his feelings with his wife. It’s why the thought of admitting there’s an issue in their relationship would leave a perfectionist in tiny incoherent pieces on the ground.
And therein lies the issue. What holds people back from couples therapy is the reason they need to go the most.
The alternative is that people stay in their comfort zone. They get into relationships and often times marry without ever dredging up the not-so-pretty bits until it becomes what suffocates them.
But can we blame them when we live in a world that promotes ideas like “soulmates” and never teaches us that relationships take effort? That doesn’t explain how a bit of relationship maintenance in the beginning will benefit a couples for years (perhaps even decades) to come?
But enough about how society suffers from keeping this stigma around couples therapy in place. Let’s talk about why it’s so beneficial to couples, even ones that are newly forming.
Two weeks ago, a friend of mine told me about one her friend’s sister’s divorce. It turned out that said woman and her husband didn’t want the same things out of life; starting with kids and ending with common decency for each other.
Last night, my boyfriend and I watched a show about a newly married couple who accidentally got pregnant but miscarried. The experience made the husband realize how badly he wanted kids yet, for the wife, she could no longer hide how much she didn’t want them.
“Really?” I said to my boyfriend, “Couples actually marry each other without talking about this stuff? I know this is a TV show, but this just happened to a friend of a friend’s sister, too.”
“Yea seems weird they wouldn’t talk about kids before getting married,” my boyfriend replied, “too bad they didn’t do the expectation exercise our therapist had us do.”
And the benefits of couples therapy isn’t exclusively seeing if a couple agrees about wanting kids. Therapists are trained on tools and decades of research to help couples communicate efficiently, feel understood, and support each other during hard times.
Honestly, when I first brought up the idea of couples therapy to my boyfriend, he was indifferent. He didn’t really see the point of it all, but he was willing t give it a try if I thought it would make things even better.
After our fifth session with our therapist, I asked my boyfriend if he still wanted to continue. Afterall, therapy is money. And I didn’t want to keep doing it if he felt like I was pulling out his teeth every week.
“Of course I want to keep doing it; it’s helped us so much,” he explained, “And, at the very least, we’re ablew to talk about our arguments with someone who can help us.”
We’ve seen that, even a relatively healthy relationship can benefit from a professional. We no longer have pointless arguments that go nowhere. We’ve pinpointed our blind spots and, as a result, have been able to work on them.
I know more today about the inner workings of my boyfriend’s mind than I think I ever would without having gone to therapy. Same goes for how our upbrinings affect how we show up for our relationship.
I won’t sit here and say that couple’s therapy doesn’t involve a lot of uncomfortable feelings and practice to get it right. Dr. Vanessa Katz explained to the New York Times that, “The same way that you would go to the gym and exercise your muscles, continuously, the emotional muscles are the same. Couples need to exercise that part of them as well, and to get help and support.”
As much as I wish it were true, healthy relationships don’t come naturally. They come with growth, understanding and work. We all acquire unhealthy communication tactics and emotional barriers that keep us safe from the world while growing up. But as adults, those are what keep us from thriving relationships.
Can a couple survive without therapy? Of course. I’m sure at least one person will comment with an anecdote of their parents who’ve been together for decades, sans therapy.
But that’s not the point. If you could choose to have a car that’s new when you buy it and regularly maintenance throughout its lifespan versus a used car that never sees an oil change, which would you choose?
Couples therapy works just like that. It equips you with everything you need to form not just a relationship — since we’ve established that just about anyone can do that — but a thriving one.
Circling back to why our therapist called my boyfriend and me “weird” during our first session, it was because of my boyfriend’s reply to his question, “what brings you here today?”
“We want to take our relationship from 90% to as close to 100% as we can get,” replied my boyfriend. And thanks to everything we’ve learned in therapy, we’re much closer to that 100% than I ever thought we could be.