Is there a “right” time to begin couples counseling? Is there a window of opportunity in which a perfect intervention will easily fix rifts in your relationship? If you miss this window is everything hopeless? Is it better to see a counselor at the first sign of an impasse or should you wait unit a divorce feels imminent? I hear many of these questions when couples reach out to me to investigate if counseling is the answer to the distance, anger or sadness that they feel in their marriage.
My universal answer to people is that there is no “wrong” time to get support or education around communication, marital skills or sex. I feel strongly that any intervention (either with the individual or with the couple as a whole) will result in movement and change. And it is this movement that most couples crave in order to escape the feeling of helpless stagnation that many describe experiencing.
That said, I have seen that there are times in a marriage where counseling can have a greater impact. These are times when a small amount of effort really can create a larger payoff in your partnership. These are all times when your relationship is in flux and the connection between you is fluid – or mutable. While change is hard is also offers an opportunity for reconnection and recommitment.
Premarital education is a fantastic idea for every couple – especially if this is your second marriage. This is a perfect time to get some education and support as you and your partner transition into the deeper commitment that is marriage. This educational counseling does not need to happen before your wedding ceremony. I find that the skills and tools learned are helpful anytime early in your relationship or marriage.
One focus of premarital counseling is learning strong communication skills. These include specific arguing and reconciliation tools but also understanding how to be curious and generous with each other when the skills fail. The second is trickier to learn but with practice this new perspective on your union will help you tremendously.
After an Affair – Emotional, Online, or Sexual
Counseling after an affair is essential. It provides you both with a holding space for all of the emotions that you will experience after there has been a breach of trust: anger, shame, disappointment, rage, sadness and usually more anger. Decisions need to be made about the future of your marriage and having a place to ponder the potential outcomes is important. While there are specific tools that can speed you through this process of rebuilding trust (including empathic or active listening), nothing can make this trauma disappear. You can’t just forget it happened and move forward – as much as everyone wishes this was possible. What therapy can give you is a realistic timeline for healing. It is helpful to have a map when you are wandering through this emotional storm. I also recommend individual therapy after there has been an affair – each of you needs a place to explore, understand and process all of the feelings that arise.
When One Partner Declares That They Have Fallen “Out of Love”
I get many calls from clients who ask if it is possible to “fall back in love” with their spouse. And I get just as many from people who want to know how to get their partner to fall back in love with them. My first recommendation is always for couples counseling. An experienced therapist can help you uncover what is happening and find a path toward reconnection. For many couples there are long standing conflicts that have grown so thorny that they transform into apathy. Counseling helps open up the conversation to include the disappointments, anger and shame that lie at the core of many of our marriages.
If your partner won’t come with you, then individual counseling is a great option. A marriage is a system or a machine and if you make a change anywhere then the whole system has to change. If you shift your perspective, your expectations or your communication style – your marriage will change. As you work on yourself, all of your relationships and friendships will shift.
Major Life Changes: Having a Baby, Renovating a House, Retirement, Moving or a Major Loss
When you are going through a big transition in your life (or your spouse is going through one) your marriage will be impacted. This is a good time to get some support and to learn new communication skills – like how to argue effectively. I find that couples argue more during times of change. Change brings up feelings of being out-of-control and each of us has developed (or learned from our families) a way to cope with these feelings. One way that many of us cope with feeling out-of-control is to get angry – and we tend to focus that anger at our spouse.
Major life changes such as a relocation, retirement or having a child forces us into transitioning into new life-stages. We define ourselves differently when we become mothers or we retire. We then have to reorient ourselves to all the people in our lives and especially to our spouse. This reorientation can cause a great deal of confusion and conflict.
I want to highlight the effect that renovating your house can have on your marriage. There are many couples who identify a home renovation as the catalyst for their divorce. If you are contemplating any level of construction around your house (whether or not you are doing the work yourself) please know that the stress as well as the many decisions and disruptions can bring up and even magnify any conflict that is between you. Before you begin a major renovation is a great time to check in with a counselor.
Changes in Your Sex Life
If there is a sudden change in your sensual life together, or a slow drop off of the intimacy in your relationship, this is a sign that something has changed. You need to find a way to talk about your needs and what this shift might herald. There are plenty of individuals who find that their sexual appetite changes or diminishes over time – this is totally normal. However, it is worth checking in with each other, perhaps with a counselor, to confirm that there is nothing else going on. A change in your sex life might mean that unspoken resentments have built up and are being enacted. There are times when our anger gets diverted to apathy – and then apathy plays out as a lack of desire for the other person.
Whenever someone is diagnosed with a medical or mental illness, their relationship is impacted. Many of my clients struggling with an illness describes their relationship as moving from being a equal partnership to suddenly one where there is a “patient” and a “caretaker.” While these roles are necessary and inevitable, they can also lead to feelings of resentment, anger, frustration and a lessening of intimacy (even after a recovery). It is extremely difficult to feel sexual with someone if you are in a caretaker role. If there has been an illness in your relationship, this is a good time to check in with a therapist to talk through all of the feelings that have come up.
In my years working with couples, I have never found there to be a time when counseling is harmful. I have never seen counseling cause a divorce. But I have seen marriages that were splintering apart knit back together as the couple learned to talk about their needs, disappointments and expectation. While I feel strongly that there is no perfect time to begin strengthening or healing your relationship, the scenarios I listed above are times when a small amount of work will have larger payoffs in your intimacy, feelings of generosity and ability to partner with your spouse. Please reach out to me if you have any questions about finding the “right time” for counseling for your marriage.
Ashley Seeger, LCSW is an experienced couples counselor located in sunny Boulder, CO. She specializes in working with couples as they move through life-transitions. You can find out more about couples counseling here.