In the first session of couples therapy, I ask the couple what has brought them into my office. I often get a response similar to, “I want a divorce. I have begged my spouse to come to counseling for years, and now that I have stated I no longer want to be in the marriage, here we are.” As a therapist, this statement does not carry much hope for mending the marriage and making it whole again.Often couples come to therapy when one spouse has threatened divorce, and quite frankly, that partner has already made up their mind regarding what they want to do — and sadly, that is often not to save the marriage.
As a therapist I cannot tell that spouse who wants to leave to stay. It is the client’s decision; I can only ask the spouse if he or she is willing to put some time into couples sessions. If the answer is no, it leaves me in an uncomfortable position to sort what direction they want therapy to go if not to mend the relationship.
At that point there are normally different answers from each partner — one saying they need to figure out how they are going to handle the divorce, and the other not accepting that the marriage is coming to an end. I see this similar situation over and over. The details are different in each case, but the big pieces are all the same.
As a therapist, this is disheartening. I hurt for the couple and I so wish they would have come years ago. I think to myself, “If only they would have come sooner, maybe this could be easier for them.” Therefore, I urge you to come to counseling sooner. Not when the pieces are so broken that they cannot be mended, but instead when you feel the smallest inclination that your marriage needs to grow positively and more effectively. (Which, if we are being honest, is every single marriage at every stage.)
There are so many reasons that get in the way and hold couples back from taking initiative to make an appointment with a therapist. It may be shame, pride, a spouse who is unwilling, or the idea that therapists are only for people who are mentally ill. But think about this: When your marriage is over, was your reason worth holding onto to lose your marriage?
I encourage you to think about therapy in these terms: everyone is broken at some point in his or her life. We all experience the same emotions, we just have different experiences that allow us to feel those feelings.
A therapist is an unbiased party who can help you see the picture clearer, add hope, provide positive coping skills, and encourage you to keep going. Do not let the fear of others’ opinions get in the way of saving your marriage.
So many individuals wait until they’re at their breaking point before making an appointment. At that point, there is so much work to process through in session. So much hurt, resentment, and misunderstanding. Why wait till you are going to throw in the towel?
Maybe this is just a marriage therapist’s unrealistic dream, but how many marriages would be saved and healthy today if therapy was approached proactively? What if couples had a mental health check-up just like a physical health check-up? What is the difference? We place our physical health at a higher standard than our mental.
Could you imagine a patient seeing a doctor when their arm is barely hanging on, and the doctor asks, “When did this happen?” and the patient responds, “Oh a few years ago.” The doctor asks, “Why did you wait so long to come in?” The patient responds, “I didn’t know it would get this bad.”
This is the same concept; we hope that our negative experiences will not affect us mentally and we keep moving forward with avoidant behavior, expecting a different outcome than the negative consequences that follow.
So whether it’s the issue of communication, parental differences in discipline, connecting emotionally or physically, helping a spouse through a loss, a move from one city to another, or simply the adjustments of every day life, I urge you to set up an appointment.
There is a huge difference in the process and outcome of therapy when clients come at the beginning of their struggles as opposed to years after the hurt has occurred. When you let years pass, the effects have already taken a toil on the marriage, respect is lost, bitterness has grown, and conversation and intimacy have diminished.
Just ponder the difference between the following two scenarios, both of which are the same couple. In the first example, the couple has been proactive in pursuing therapy. In the second example, the couple has waited many years to make an appointment.
A young couple comes in for an initial session. Their presenting issue is that they have moved to a different state due to the husband taking a new work position. They are struggling to adjust to the new state and have been fighting more often than normal.
In session, we discuss the issues at hand and the obstacles that have interfered with adjusting in their new location. We discuss communication styles and find solutions to decreasing communication barriers and discuss coping with their new change.
A middle-aged couple comes into counseling for an initial session. Their presenting issue is that the wife has become resentful, explaining she does not feel loved or appreciated. The husband explains he does not feel respected by his wife, and they have not been intimate with one another for over six months.
After discussing their story and identifying when things began, the realization was made that the wife started to become resentful 12 years ago when her husband’s job took her away from her entire family and she had to start over in her friendships.The husband became so wrapped up into his new role and career that he began to slip away from his marriage, making work a priority. The wife became needy, pushing her husband more into his work, which in turn made the wife pull away from her husband.
The wife did not feel loved or appreciated and therefore did not show respect to her husband. They avoided their issues and became more like roommates than lovers. After 12 years of hurt, negative patterns, and repeated cycles, and with a marriage that is broken and close to ending, they decide it is time for therapy.
There is a world of difference in these two scenarios. In the second example, there are unnecessary hurts, grudges, and bitterness that stretched out for 12 long years. Do you see the initial issue grow exponentially from the first to the second scenario? I give this example to show you the benefits of investing in yourself and in your marriage.
Make your marriage a priority. Never think that there is no longer work to do in your marriage. Continually grow and challenge one another to be your best self. It is when you feel you no longer have to work or grow maritally that your marriage becomes a threat.
Strive to shed your pride and acknowledge the importance of growing together as opposed to apart. Please, I urge you, if you or your spouse is going through something challenging, do not hesitate to set up an appointment with a mental health professional. Bypass the pain and damage that can arise from waiting or thinking the issues will not grow into something bigger. Invest in your future and in your happiness. It’s worth it.
Photo credits: Michelle Taulbee and Leah Elliott, copyright 2020, all rights reserved.