What You Need to Know About: Couples Counseling

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There seems to be a dismal outlook for marriages these days, with the overall declining marriage rate and the unfaltering high divorce rate. Despite these grim statistics, your marriage does not have to contribute to them. Generally speaking, some married couples may neglect to prioritize putting in the effort to continually learn and personally grow with their partner like they did before they were married. As a result, the connection between them dampens, feelings weaken, and dissatisfaction festers which can eventually lead to frequent arguments, lack of communication, or other marital issues. If such problems are not addressed, chances are they will only accumulate and worsen over time. This is why Urban Balance’s Aaron Karmin specializes in marriage counseling. As a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, he offers individuals and couples the tools necessary improve their marriage, regardless of the stage of the marriage or the severity of the marital issues. To give an overview of how therapy can assist with improving your marriage, Aaron answered several questions you may possibly have about marriage counseling.

How do you combat the stigma of couples counseling?

I always find it helpful to educate couple that pursuing counseling is not a sign of weakness or failure. The stigma of therapy has diminished across generations, but seeking counseling is still mentioned in whispers. All humans struggle with their feelings and can benefit from psychological guidance.  I think mental health should be addressed on par with physical health. We get an annual physical, but most do not see the same value in routine mental health checkups. Seeking counseling is a sign of strength, not weakness. We all need help from time to time and it’s a sign of strength an intelligence to know when to seek support. Someone who has skills and the right tools, is an asset, not a liability. If I have a leaky faucet and the only tool I have is a hammer, just banging on my pipes is only going to make the problem worse. The pipes burst, my basement floods and the foundation cracks. Or I could just call the plumber and he gives me a new tool called a wrench, so next time I have a leak I can fix it myself. Counseling offers new tools and professional instruction. If I have a bad tooth, I go to the dentist; if my car breaks down, I go to the mechanic. We get professional support for all kinds of problems and mental health is no different.

What should couples expect from their initial counseling session?

I think it is best to use the first appointment to determine what the relationship goals are. I do this by gathering information on their personal development and relationship history. There are many therapeutic approaches used when meeting with a couple.  I personally like to evaluate what approaches to use based on the needs and style of the couple.  There isn’t one “right approach” to doing therapy as there isn’t one way to live.  I provide education on what I have found that is useful in relationships. I encourage the couple  to try new ways of behaving and communicating.  I like to learn from them about what they really want in their relationship.  I am very interested in what each partner has to say about what has led to their struggle or becoming stuck.  I want to know what they have done to change their situation, what has worked and what has not worked.  I am careful not to duplicate what hasn’t worked. I always give some background on myself so they know that I have been providing couples counseling for over 10 years and have worked all along the relationship spectrum: dating, premarital, married, divorced, second marriages. I let them know that I am an active therapist in that I ask questions and offer consistent feedback to guide the session’s focus. I reassure them that I utilize an integrative style – applying a variety of approaches to best meet the needs of each couple and their concerns. It is my belief that the counseling process is one in which all parties are actively involved. I emphasize the importance of forming a connection with your partner. This means there is an implied understanding of values, a common frame of reference, a series of shared experience and a sense that you are both on the same page. These connections form the bonds that foster trust and promote intimacy.

At what point in a relationship should couples seek counseling? Is there ever a time that is too early?

In my mind it is never too early to meet with a counselor. We can all benefit from a skilled psychotherapist who can see patterns emerge from subtle signs and apply tools to help us change. Most clients seek counseling when they come to realize that their way of moving through life is not working. They have begun to see that it wasn’t bad luck or someone else’s fault. They have started to look back on a lifetime of lashing out at problems. Instead of using their adult judgment to find solutions, they have come to the realization that they cannot manage their problems by themselves anymore. They need a guide to continue their journey without scorching the earth behind them. They need a new set of choices, a new way of moving through life. I respond by giving them choices they didn’t know they had. They find these new choices empowering and encouraging.

Is couples counseling a “quick fix” or a long-term commitment? 

Counseling doesn’t need to be a long process, especially if you feel you’re starting out with a very solid foundation and only need some clarifications and goal-setting. For some people who are a “higher conflict” couple or have deeper issues to contend with, the process could take a bit longer. I think there is still a myth that therapy takes years. I hear many people say that they are too busy and are unable to commit the time.  Yet, most clients are seeking counseling for discrete, circumstantial issues and it doesn’t take years of therapy to get to the bottom of problems.  They don’t need to talk endlessly about how they feel or about childhood memories.  I agree that problems take time to create, and take time to fix. However if therapy is taking years, either the client isn’t doing their homework or the therapist isn’t doing their job.

Should couples have a pre-determined plan for their first session, or should they attend counseling with an open mind?

I would say there is value in both. When clients come into my office and they have a pre-determined plan for their first session, I always ask some focusing questions, such as:

  • “What is the worst part about it?”
  • “How does that worst part make me feel?”
  • “When else have I felt this way?”
  • “What am I trying achieve?”
  • “What scares me about this?”
  • “How will this affect my life in the long term?”
  • “What would be an ideal outcome?”
  • “What advice would I give to someone else in this situation?”

By answering these questions, I discover that sometimes the pre-determined plan isn’t really the issue. These questions help to make internalized, unconscious, unacceptable feelings conscious and concrete. This allows the couple to find relief from their conflicting logical and emotional reactions, which helps the session and relationship to move forward.

Should couples, young and old, only seek counseling if there is a severe problem in their relationship?

My belief is that if you think you might need counseling, you probably do! Relationship counseling is under-utilized. Counselors should be consulted sooner, rather than later! Studies show that the average couple doesn’t seek professional help until six to seven years have passed since the relationship started to go downhill. Sometimes a couple is on the verge of divorce before they begin working with me, and they always wish that they had started counseling sooner. Going to see a mental health professional even when you experience occasional signs has value because if left unaddressed, they grow in frequency and intensity over time.

Are there any common warning signs that indicate a couple should seek counseling?

Below are 5 warning signs that indicate a couples is in need of counseling.

  • Control: Control can start out small and build over time so that you hardly notice it. Control can mean determining who you can see, where you can go, what you can wear and even how you think. Control isn’t just about permission. It can also be about fear. If you find yourself doing things to avoid fights or hiding parts of your life that might set off your partner, you’re in a controlling relationship. Control is dangerous and effects you mentally and emotionally.
  • Jealousy: Jealousy is one of the most confusing unhealthy relationship warning signs to interpret. Because you’re human, seeing your partner get jealous can be flattering and make you feel wanted. The occasional twinge of jealousy even happens in healthy relationships. When your partner gets jealous on a regular basis or his/her jealousy leads to anger or controlling behaviors, it’s a warning sign that you may be headed for problems. No matter how it might make you feel, jealousy does not equal love. It stems from insecurity and a desire to control you.
  • Isolation: Your partner wants to control you, and she/he might do that by trying to keep you to her/himself. Often this process happens slowly so that you don’t realize you’ve lost contact with most of your friends and family members. If your partner has rules about who you are allowed to see or asks you to stop hanging out with your friends and family, it’s likely an isolation technique.
  • Anger: Anger is one of the most dangerous unhealthy relationship warning signs. There’s a fine line between losing her/his temper and punching the wall and losing her/his temper and punching you. Anger often accompanies violence, but it can also serve as a springboard for name calling, jealously, control, intimidation and other abusive behaviors.
  • Unhappiness: If you’re not sure if your partner manipulates you, tries to control you or has inappropriate anger, you can gauge the health of your relationship by determining if you’re happy. Are you free to lead you own life, independent of the relationship? Do you have your own identity, friends, hobbies and interests? Do you feel loved and supported more often that mistreated or belittled.

If a couple believes they have open communication and solid trust, but they are not connecting sexually, should they seek help from a couples counselor?

It can be very beneficial to meet with a counselor to discuss how a sexual disconnection impacts a relationship. Even if people are not sexual, they still need affection. We are touch-oriented creatures. If we are not touched, we become irritable, anxious, and depressed. Some people may not be as sexual as they once were, but they can remain intensely physical. There is a complex relationship between love and desire—between a couple’s emotional life together and their sexual life together, and these don’t always correspond. What is emotionally satisfying isn’t necessarily sexually exciting. The worry and responsibility couples’ feel for their partner can negate the spontaneity and selfishness required for sex. That’s one reason why a relationship can have open communication and trust, but still endure concerns with sex. A therapist can engage the partners to uncover and free themselves from their erotic blocks.

Do you have any advice for couples looking to ensure they grow together, rather than apart?

Connecting with your partner has one variable that is not found in any other relationship, romance. Romance involves the expression of sincere loving feelings and is the fuel that feeds the connection in our love life. Loving romantic gestures can be very dramatic or very small. However,  if you constantly hold back what you really feel, then you may convince yourself that you don’t have a romantic side. But anyone who is capable of falling in love, and who wants to enter a relationship, has the ability to be romantic.  There are an endless variety of little things partners can do to connect with each other on a daily basis. Performing small, simple acts regularly can have a dramatic impact upon being connected with your partner.

Many psychological professionals advocate marriage counseling. Should unmarried couples seek counseling as well? If so, why?

Here are five reasons to why unmarried couples should seek counseling:

1) Strengthen Communication Skills: Being able to effectively listen, truly hear and validate the other’s position is a skill that isn’t necessarily a “given” for many people. Couples that really communicate effectively can discuss and resolve issues when they arise more effectively. You can tune up your talking and listening skills. This is one of the most important aspects of emotional connection between couples.

2) Discuss Role Expectations: It’s incredibly common for couples to never really have discussed who will be doing what in the relationship. This can apply to time, finances, chores, sexual intimacy, career and more. Having an open and honest discussion about what each of you expect from the other in a variety of areas leads to fewer surprises and upsets down the line.

3) Learn Conflict Resolution Skills: Nobody wants to think that they’ll have conflict in their relationship. The reality is that “conflict” can range from disagreements about who will take out the trash to emotionally charged arguments about serious issues – and this will probably be part of a couple’s story at one time or another. There are ways to effectively de-escalate conflict that are highly effective and can decrease the time spent engaged in the argument.

4) Explore Spiritual Beliefs: For some this is not a big issue – but for others a serious one. Differing spiritual beliefs are not a problem as long as it’s been discussed and there is an understanding of how they will function in the with regards to practice, beliefs, family, holiday celebrations etc.

5) Identify any Problematic Family of Origin Issues: We learn so much of how to “be” from our parents, siblings and other early influences. If one of the partners experienced a high conflict or unloving household, it can be helpful to explore that in regards to how it might play out in the relationship. Couples who have an understanding of the existence of any problematic conditioning around how relationships work, are usually better at disrupting repetition of these learned behaviors.

Is a long distance relationship sustainable, particularly in regards to a major life change (i.e. choosing to continue education or accept employment at a great distance from one’s partner)?

Long-distance relationships can work depending on the couple. If the long-distance is for a “doable” amount of time (which will be different for everyone), couples will desire each another more. However, if the long-distance is for too long, you aren’t able to see each other and feel deprived, then desire dies. In order for any relationship to succeed, one must allow their partner to have the time and space to pursue his/her interests. Through this space or absence, we use our imagination and begin to long for our partner- two huge components of desire. One way that seems guaranteed to create absence and build desire, is distance. When we see our partner as independent, confident and self-sustaining, we become aroused and filled with desire for our partner. There’s nothing quite like wanting something and not being able to have it to stimulate the libido. However, it all depends on your circumstance. It all depends on your relationship. For some people, distance is less trial, more tyranny. Separation leads to insurmountable complication. Absence makes the heart weaker, not stronger.

How do young couples (referring to both age and length of commitment) maintain a healthy relationship after the initial spark of attraction has faded?

I believe that a healthy relationship is based on maintaining connections. When you form a connection with your partner, it means there is an implied understanding of values, a common frame of reference, a series of shared experience and a sense that you are both on the same page. These connections form the bonds that foster trust and promote intimacy. Having a connection is like cooking a meal. All the parts combine to create something new and distinct. No different than all the flavors that make meal, all the traits two people share combine to build a connection. We long to connect with and to be recognized by another person; to feel that we are seen and heard. But too often we look for this need to be satisfied by only one person. Caretaking is powerful in a loving relationship, but it can be an anti-aphrodisiac. There is a big difference between neediness and desire. Being desired is great, but being needed shuts down romance. Love seeks closeness, but desire needs space to thrive.

Is the idea that young people should “play the field” before settling down detrimental to collegiate/post-collegiate relationships?

If we want to get better at something, whether it is a relationship, a sport, a hobby, whatever – we need to invest more time, energy, attention and practice in the thing we want to improve. If you want to improve your culinary skills, you can’t do that by playing tennis. With something like a relationship, why do people think you make it better by doing the exact opposite? Staying faithful and committed require self-control, discipline and the ability to delay gratification. Maybe instant gratification satisfies people momentarily, but that’s what causes this ongoing unhappiness and lack of fulfillment. Marriage isn’t this test of the waters with someone. That’s what dating before marriage is for.

If you could give one piece of advice to a couple that has never attended a counseling session before, what would it be?

Throughout our lives, we improve our skills by taking “courses” and practicing what we learn. If you played sports, you were coached in the basics and practiced them until they became rote. At work, you were shown how to perform tasks, then got better and better as you repeated the process. To learn cooking or outdoor grilling, you followed recipes or observed someone with known abilities, then added your personal touches. Having a healthy relationship is another skill, one that gets little or no attention until failure to do so results in trouble. However, if you are considering entering counseling, you need to first think about the long term commitment required. If you are not committed to being open, honest, and willing to try new things…therapy may be unsuccessful. The goal is to help people make thoughtful decisions. It is most helpful to have a person who can listen to the problems that face you, and then provide unbiased feedback. Your therapist will be like a moderator, not a critic. This is  someone who is not biased and is hoping to help you resolve the matters at hand. The sessions may be intense, difficult, and emotional. The work accompanying therapy will require effort and it isn’t easy. I can promise you that if you find a competent therapist you put forth the time, effort, and commitment to the work, you will find yourself where you need to be. Arguments, differences of opinion, and sometimes extra-relationship affairs, don’t necessarily lead to splitting up. How you as a couple deal with these issues is most important.  Being kind, emotionally giving, and caring towards your partner will definitely improve your relationship.

If a person thinks that couples counseling would be beneficial to their relationship, but their partner disagrees, how should that couple proceed?

I would encourage the motivated partner to begin counseling on his/her own. Working together is a plus, but one partner can begin and the other can benefit even if they are not in therapy. You can practice new ideas and behaviors outside of the therapy hour and return to discuss what has been valuable and what has not. I have found that if one partner makes some positive changes and shares what has been learned, the other partner frequently becomes motivated to make his/her own positive changes. Hopefully the reluctant partner then becomes willing to attend counseling.

It is important to keep in mind that counseling does not indicate failure or weakness. All couples have room for improvement in their own unique areas, but most tend to seek help once the problems have worsened. This is why it is never too early to go to therapy. You don’t have to have a predetermined plan beforehand and counseling does not have to be a long process. With the right attitude and willingness to learn, you will be able to establish a deeper sense of trust and intimacy with your spouse that will rekindle the spark in your marriage.