By Avi Klein
In my psychotherapy practice and many others, it’s become commonplace to receive calls from couples who want to work out the issues in their relationship before they get married. They want to better understand themselves and their partners before they hit the kinds of big road blocks that are inevitable in any long term relationship. I always applaud and encourage those couples because I think they have insight into something that is at the heart of relationships: the true measure of a good relationship isn’t about how good it is at any moment, it’s about how flexible it is. Couples counseling cultivates that flexibility by creating more intimacy and knowledge about yourself and your partner. But, if I had to suggest one time when preventive couples counseling could really be needed, it's when you're about to grow from a couple into a family. It’s no coincidence that studies show that many couples become dissatisfied with their relationships when they become parents. Not much really changes when you get married, but for many couples, everything changes when you have kids. Every parent wants to give their child everything in the world. I would encourage every expectant parent to consider the advice of renowned couples expert John Gottman: "The greatest gift you can give your baby is a happy and strong relationship between the two of you."
A few common questions people ask about couples counseling:
1. How can I tell if it’s a good time to go?
There is no bad time to go, but don't make the mistake of waiting until it's unbearable. It's much easier to work on your problems when you can still appreciate and enjoy your partner. Some couples seek therapy as a last ditch effort before divorce, which is obviously much harder to fix since months or years of hostility and hurt feelings need to be dealt with first. For soon-to-be parents, it's also worthwhile to ask when you'll have time and energy after your baby arrives.
2. Does couples counseling mean we have a bad relationship?
Not at all! Going to couple counseling means you love your partner and value your relationship. You're spending time and money to make it better for you and your kids. That's something to be proud of. The truth is, everyone knows that relationships take work and effort. It's more efficient to do that work with an expert. Is your relationship something you really want to improve through trial and error?
3. What if my partner doesn’t want to go?
In about 75% of the couples I see, couples therapy is initiated by one partner not mutually agreed on. It’s normal for someone not to want to go to couples therapy. They might think that it means their relationship is worse than they thought or that their partner is saving couples therapy to surprise them with a list of complaints. Two helpful things to try when your partner is on the fence: 1. Reassure them that this is to make things even better, not that things are in a bad way. 2. Suggest that you go once or just speak to the therapist on the phone together for a brief consultation - giving it a test drive is a good way to get over any apprehension. 3. If your partner is on the fence, it’s worthwhile to find a therapist that you think they’ll get along with.
4. How do I find the right therapist?
There are a lot of therapists out there, so it can help to add a personal connection to find the right fit. If you know someone that had a positive experience in couples therapy or you’ve seen a therapist individually, that’s a great place to start. Consider asking on a community message board. Your MD or midwife may also know some good therapists as well. Consider speaking with more than one therapist to make sure you’ve found a good fit for both you and your partner. When you speak with them, what kind of information is important? While qualifications or geographical convenience matter, the most important thing is to trust your gut: you’ll be able to tell immediately if you feel comfortable with them, if you’re open to trusting them, etc. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask them directly how they think they can help you. Therapy shouldn’t be an endless process - they should be able to explain the steps that you will take in your work to make a meaningful difference in your relationship.
5. How long will it take?
Every couple is different, so it’s impossible to say. It’s better to measure it week by week and to check-in with yourself and your partner: is this making a difference? Can you feel the difference and point to incremental changes that are happening? Couples therapy is different than individual therapy - it has always been intended to be short-term and to have the couple take what their learning from therapy out into the rest of their lives. When I speak with a couple that is on the fence about committing to therapy, I usually ask for a commitment of several weeks to give a good faith effort to see if it’s helpful. Four weeks should be enough time to notice a shift and twelve weeks should feel like you’ve done a good amount of work. Everyone has their own timeline, so this isn’t intended to apply to all cases but just to serve as a general benchmark. And remember: it’s always okay to check-in with your therapist and partner about your progress. Discussing why things aren’t changing is often a very productive conversation.
6. How can we get the most out of going?
A few suggestions: 1. Take care of yourself and your issues: Work to better understand yourself, your reactions to things and how your partner experiences them. Much of couples therapy is about helping each partner understand things from the other’s experience. Learn to walk in their shoes. 2. Make it something enjoyable both during and after: make every effort to be open and kind and honest in your therapy sessions and then do something nice together afterwards. Many couples that I see often go on a date after their session with me. It’s a nice ritual and will leave you feeling closer after working hard together in therapy. 3. Try and make a conscious effort to take something from each session and bring it into the rest of the week. If your partner feels ignored or under-appreciated, make an effort to give them that attention their craving. If you’ve learned that your feelings are hurt when your partner makes plans without you, take a risk and share that experience with them the next time it happens.
The best part of a relationship is the feeling of being connected with someone - of sharing important moments, having new perspectives and being exposed to new things with someone you deeply care about. But the worst part? It's when those different perspectives don't easily align with yours, when new interests or attitudes not only don't feel supportive, they feel invalidating or leave you feeling neglected. One of the times of greatest strain on a couple is that transition into parenthood and it’s easy for many new experiences to pull you apart. If you’re worried that this could happen to you, talk to your partner about discussing these worries together with a therapist. Those conversations will bring you closer and more connected at exactly the time when you and your new family need it most.
Avi Klein is a psychotherapist, father of two and native New Yorker practicing in Union Square. Avi has been working with individuals and couples since 2009. He is trained in AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy) and EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), two forms of therapy that emphasize the power of emotion, healing & transformation in relationships. He has a special interest in supporting new families and is currently working on a workshop to support new and expectant parents. If you are interested in upcoming workshops focused on preparing your relationship for postpartum, sign up here.Inquiries can be directed at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his website https://www.aviklein.com If you are interested in upcoming workshops focused on preparing your relationship for postpartum, sign up for updates here: http://eepurl.com/cK0UI5