Q: After dating my boyfriend for a year, we got engaged. Six months later we married and moved in together. This is our first time living with a partner. We’ve now been married for almost a year and have been arguing more frequently. I’ve thought about couple’s therapy but wonder if it’s a little early in our marriage to take that step. I’m embarrassed that we would even need to ask someone else to be involved. I’ve never been to counseling before so I’m wondering if it will just make things worse or be a waste of time?
You are in the infant stages of your marriage and still learning about each other, so it’s natural to have some hiccups. Attending therapy does not mean the relationship is doomed. It means you are human beings having a human experience. And part of the human condition is to have ups and downs. We are not islands, we are social creatures who are meant to turn to others in times of need. While there are some things in life you must tackle on your own, there are many things that require support.
Going to therapy is nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s a sign of wisdom to know when to seek outside assistance. If problems are ignored for too long they can become irrevocably worse. In fact the sooner you go to therapy the better, to get ahead of things. If you fear confrontation and avoid being direct, issues can fester and come out in misdirected ways. The counseling process works by helping you confront things before it’s too late with a facilitator who can provide containment. It has been said, “The only way out is through.”
Ideally your therapist is a neutral, nonjudgmental professional who creates an emotionally safe, confidential space for you both. They can help you establish ground rules at the beginning of your marriage. Many of us didn’t have role models for how to be in a healthy, long-term relationship, so this is your chance to learn some tips and tools.
You don’t mention specific reasons for the arguing. I can tell you that the most common issues bringing couples to therapy include sex, money, in-laws, domestic disputes, communication problems and different emotional styles. Communication skills are essential in all relationships. Therapy can give you the language to name how you feel and find better ways to express it to your partner. You need to “name it to tame it.” Naming the issue or feeling in a non-accusatory manner is important to being heard and reduces defensiveness in your partner. For example, therapy can help prevent and reduce what relationship therapist John Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen of
the Apocalypse.” These are four troublesome communication patterns you want to minimize: defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling (refusing to talk to your partner) and contempt.
Therapy is an opportunity to be present and focused on one another in a busy world. In addition to working on difficulties, you can also use the time to remember all the positive aspects of your relationship, which can help you express acknowledgment, empathy and gratitude for one another. On the flip side, therapy can help some “consciously uncouple” if they’ve been hanging on by a thread for too long.
Don’t expect a quick fix. Therapy is an investment of time and energy. But, heck, so is the alternative. Depending on your issues, you’ll need to commit to a minimum of five sessions to benefit from the process. This gives your therapist time to gather and assess your history and relationship patterns and implement treatment goals. If you don’t have the money for ongoing therapy, I suggest you agree to meet for at least 3 sessions to receive some preliminary insights. Then ask for book or podcast recommendations and hold yourselves accountable to actually utilizing them.
Marriage is a contract, yes. But it’s an ever-evolving negotiation of that original contract. Time and circumstances will require you both to adapt and compromise. Ask yourself, “In this relationship, do I want to be right or be happy?” You can play the blame game or you can let go of your ego, come into your heart and allow yourself to be vulnerable with your partner and the help of a trained professional. No matter how you slice it, the marriage is an opportunity to learn about yourself. If you choose to see the relationship as a mirror reflecting back to you your wounds that need attention, the partnership can be a springboard for your own healing and growth as well.