When to go for couples’ counselling: The truth behind the timing
In my practice, I’ve noticed that many couples report that they’ve had issues for years, but never wanted to come to couples counselling to address them. It’s often a crisis that pushes couples to find the motivation to attend their first session. Statistically, this happens about five years too late (Gottman 2013). And as the issue has festered, resentment and hostility have grown to the point where things are far more difficult to repair.
To support the need for early attendance at couples’ counselling, we can look to research done by Hans Selye many years ago. He studied primates and found increased levels of corticosteroids in response to chronic stress. This stress may ultimately cause cells to die in the hippocampus (Barlow & Durand, 1995 p.337). Similar reactions have been evidenced in humans.
The well-known Polyvagal Theory was developed by Stephen Porges (2001) and asserts that we have three nervous systems: sympathetic, parasympathetic, and the so-called social engagement system parasympathetic. While they are all important in relation to couples getting along, the sympathetic arousal is relevant in couples’ conflicts and is, in my opinion, the most important.
The amygdala is the part of our brain that scans for threats and sends a message to the brain stem that the body is in danger. The brain stem then sends chemicals like adrenaline and cortisone to the body to help us deal with the stressful situation. We have three options: fight the threat, flee it, or freeze. The sympathetic activation fight-flight-freeze response is what John and Julie Gottman refer to as ‘flooding.’ When we are in sympathetic activation, our frontal lobes can’t properly provide judgment and reasoning. This is why couples chase each other around the dining room table and call each other names, for example; it makes us unable to logically communicate. I always say that it’s like asking your partner to eat cake while they’re vomiting – it just isn’t possible.
Here’s the thing: our inability to get along usually has much more to do with our biology than our psychology. So, learning how to calm down and take an adult time out becomes important. How to coordinate this together is just one example of the tools that couples can learn during couples’ therapy.
I encourage couples to think about counselling like a yearly checkup with your doctor. Rather than seeing it as something you do during a crisis, it’s helpful to think of it as relationship maintenance. You’ll invest time in learning conflict management skills and discussing issues before they get out of hand – and this goes a long way to creating and maintaining a happy marriage.
There are, of course, some red flags or indications that you may already be at that crisis place. Couples’ counselling may be an important next step to help preserve your relationship if:
You are fighting about dishes or housework
- You or your partner are feeling distant or feeling lonely from one another
- You’ve been overly angry or irritable
- You long to be closer to your partner and need to talk, but they don’t want to
- You or your partner find yourself noticing other people
- You have feelings of depression or anxiety
- You or your partner long to be touched or spend time with one another, but cannot
- Small issues escalate into big ones
- You have an argument and go days without speaking to each other
- You find yourself talking to others about issues that should only be addressed with your partner
- You feel that your partner is more in love with their family and friends than with you or the family you created together
- You fight about the kids
- You fight about money
- You fight about sex (or don’t have it)
- Your partner has asked you to attend counselling
I will be the first to admit that finding the right psychologist can be challenging. Most licensed therapists value having an initial conversation with you to assess whether they can help address your issues. This also lets you get a feel for their approach and see whether or not you connect with them. It’s important to understand what method of therapy the psychologist practices before deciding whether it’s right for you. Commonly practised methods include Gottman therapy, emotionally focused or imago relationship therapy, and narrative therapy. I use the Gottman method, as it is evidence-based and I’ve found it to be helpful for couples.
If you’d like to learn more about couples’ counselling or schedule an introductory call, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.