In marital counseling the focus of therapy isn’t just one person, but a partnership between the spouses. It may include elements of individual counseling, but the growth needs to happen in each spouse and in the relationship system itself.
When deciding to get married, we hope it will be like climbing together into a canoe to float downstream of a blissful life. Soon we discover that many stressors such as financial problems, work related stress, parenthood, illness, trust issues, and the inability to communicate compromise our partnership. Marriage begins resembling canoes paddling alongside one another, trying to keep close enough to touch, while traveling upstream.
Sometimes we face turbulent rapids. But even swimming in placid waters, the natural velocity of the water underneath pushes us side to side and often apart. Life goes on and marriage evolves. It is only realistic to expect that time comes for most couples when their relationship requires a tune up. It is important to notice the beginning of “breaking points”. They show as increased, enduring sense of stress and continuous, unresolved fighting which last for several months with no resolve, while interpersonal bitterness and relational distance increase.
Often spouses ignore the signs that signal the erosion of intimacy and trust. They seek counseling only when their relationship is severely contaminated by resentment, overtaken by bitter fighting and mistrust, or when they face an impeding divorce. Relating this marital situation to a health crisis, it compares to a final stage of cancer: disease has metastasized, having fatally compromised the integrity of the system. Ironically, spouses coming to counseling in such a grave state of marital discord are commonly the most impatient, demanding, and “in a hurry” to recover clients, failing to be patient with themselves, each other, and the counseling process. Here are a few recommendations for when it may be time to see a counselor:
1. The relational drift becomes ingrained and habitual. You cannot figure out how to get along. Even minor things lead to distance or intense disagreements.
2. The marriage has become a standoff. Spouses can not cooperate and work together. One or both partners act rigid and defensive, clinging on to some habitual unhealthy attitudes and behaviors, refusing to attend to any feedback or try some changes.
3. Past hurts and resentments choke your relationship. One or both spouses are unwilling or feeling unable to recover from past hurts and resentments and brings them over and over. Lack of forgiveness shows in thoughts and statements such as: “I can not forgive you for what you have done!”, “I will never let myself be hurt or rejected again”, or “I will never let you close enough to betray me again.”
4. Things have stagnated. Your own attempts to create change and growth have failed. You feel unhappy and disconnected, but don’t know how to attempt the change and conversations that matter. Your spouse feels more like a roommate and you suffer from a lack of emotional and physical intimacy.
5. Facing a severe stress, crisis, or loss. Spouses are devastated and their ability to cope is diminished. They need additional advice and support to problem solve and work as a team.
Ideally, seeking marital counseling is not about avoiding the death of a marriage. It is about making life better for both people, making them happier and more loving. Try to seek help soon, not waiting for further deterioration. Not all marriages can be saved, but many can improve dramatically, if partners are willing to put time and effort into counseling and seek help before the sense of enduring and pervasive bitterness and hopelessness settle in.