• Kate Engler

Toss What You (Think) You Know About Couples Therapy

Good relationships literally make us healthy. So why, as a culture that celebrates being the best at everything, do we turn our noses up at getting help to make them better?

Several years ago, before I became a therapist, I was back in my hometown having beers with friends at the local watering hole. As usual, our small-town catch-up session started with getting the lowdown on people’s personal lives. (Things I really had no business knowing). My friend reported that a high school buddy and his girlfriend had just begun couples therapy. He quickly followed up with, “Can you believe that? If you need counseling that’s a clear sign you shouldn’t be together!” I choked down my sip of beer and let out a too-loud chortle to cover my embarrassment. My husband and I has just entered round two of couples therapy. We’d been together about seven years at that point and had struggled with the transition from carefree college sweethearts to married, working adults.

I don’t know why, but his comment stayed with me for a long time. We had gotten helpful information in both of our forays into counseling, but there was still a part of me that wondered if my friend was right.

Here’s what I know now…my friend’s comment was total bullshit.

The cultural narrative about couples therapy—I call these bad stories—is so pervasive and yet so contradictory to much of our very American way. We are a culture that seeks out expertise when we don’t know how to do something. We like answers. We like to be the best. We hire personal trainers, life coaches, nutritionists, sleep training consultants, college application gurus, and even Fortnite video game tutors (It’s a thing. I swear.) Yet, not only are we reticent to seek out expert support in one of the most important areas of our lives, we perceive it as a negative sign for those who do. The research shows that most couples wait an average of six years before they seek out help. This is over half a decade of happiness before getting help. HALF A DECADE!! In what other realm of our lives would we endure suffering for that long?

Relationships are no joke. They are not just fluffy fodder for rom-coms. They are vital to our health, well-being, and quite frankly, our survival. People in happy relationships live longer, have less stress, are less likely to be depressed, and are healthier overall—they even tend to heal faster from surgery and illness. Conversely, anyone who has been in a relationship that is floundering knows how brutally lonely it can feel. What we know about loneliness is that those who experience it are more likely to struggle with depression and suicidality, abuse alcohol and other substances, and have higher rates of heart disease and cognitive decline.

Clearly, relationships matter a whole hell of a lot, but few of us really know how to do them well. Why would we? I know I certainly didn’t when I got married! We don’t offer classes in schools to learn how to be good at relationships. We also live in a culture that glorifies behaviors that run absolutely counter to building high-quality relationships, such as working ridiculously long hours, skipping vacations, and insisting on overly-intensive parenting.

Maybe you get the whole “relationships are important” thing, but you’ve seen couples therapy on TV and in the movies and it’s just really not for you. I get it. Cheesey role-playing and “I” statements don’t sound appealing, but I have great news! That’s not at all what real couples therapy is! (Not if it’s going to be helpful anyway.) One of the most common statements I get from couples at the end of the first session is, “Wow. This isn’t at all how I imagined.” A good couples therapist will help you sort through the muck that has built up in your relationship and start dealing with issues in a more productive and sustainable way. They will not judge you when you tell them that you seem to function like a reasonable human in 99% percent of your life, but with your partner you regularly lose your shit. They understand that intimate relationships are hard and that they stir up ALL of our “stuff” in a way unique (and sometimes intense) way.

So, what if we were to try a little experiment? What if we agreed to ignore the bad stories and do something that might make us feel happier, healthier and live longer? What if we invest in our relationships to the same degree we invest in our triathlon skills, professional growth, babies’ sleep, children’s college education, and, yes, even their video game talents.

Are you in?! (Resounding YES from the crowd!)

Great! Now what?

Start with a simple Google search of couples therapists in your area or check your insurance provider’s website for listings.

Choose some names and visit their websites or contact them and start a conversation. Make sure that they have experience working specifically with couples. A lot of people say they do couples work, but don’t have real training or experience and that makes a difference.

Ask your friends. You will probably be surprised about a) the people who have already done it and b) those that are desperate to do it and have been afraid to take the first step. If “b,” now you have a partner to help with your search.

Ask your doctor or individual therapist. Most have several names they keep on file for referrals.

Post an inquiry on a Facebook group or listserv to which you belong. I have found that women’s and moms’ groups (no offense guys) often share this type of information very openly.

Contact ME! We can decide if we’re a good fit to work together and if for any reason we aren’t, I would be so happy to provide you with referrals for quality couples therapists who are.

You deserve to feel good in your life and that means feeling good in your relationships. Throw away all your notions of couples therapy and get the support you need.

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© 2019 by Kate Engler