Relationship Tips

When To Seek Marriage Counseling: 6 Signs From a Therapist and Mediator

Photo: Stocksy / Rob and Julia Campbell
Whether you’re engaged, recently married, or have been married for what feels like ages, any therapist will tell you that it helps to talk to someone before an issue with a partner arises. By seeking marriage counseling proactively, you’ll be better prepared to handle common, albeit stressful situations as a couple. That said, if you don’t already have a therapist, or if you can’t quite get behind the idea of seeking help before an issue comes to fruition, there are a number of signs that indicate when to seek marriage counseling. Keep reading to learn more.

When to seek marriage counseling

Curious when to seek marriage counseling? We chatted with a few relationship experts for their top tips on the subject.

1. When an issue arises but you don’t know how to talk about it

Even the most loving marriages will experience stressful situations. “Issues will always arise in your relationship however, there are times when there is an issue that has been lurking in the background and neither of you has been able to figure out the best way to discuss it with each other or see a possible solution,” says attorney, mediator, and author Leslie Montanile (aka The Marriage Lawyer). “Seeking the advice of a neutral third party can have a tremendously positive effect that offers solutions not thought of, as well as introducing new tools to work with within your relationship.”

2. When you or your partner have trouble hearing each other out

Communicating how you feel can be difficult, but actively listening to, and being receptive to, how someone else feels, can be just as challenging.

“Because we don’t get taught much of anything about communication, relationships, mental health, or sex, marriage counseling, or couples therapy, may be one of the only places to learn skills that can help not only your relationship with your partner, or partners, but every relationship in you life,” Montanile says.

The reason? Marriage counseling places heavy emphasis on the importance of not only sharing your own concerns but learning how to listen and be fully receptive, too. “When we learn how to listen, we can listen to everyone we care about more effectively,” Montanile says.

3. When you’re not entirely sure what’s wrong — but something clearly is

One of the most powerful things that marriage counseling (and therapy in general) can teach is the ability to identify emotions.

“When we learn how to identify, manage, and communicate our emotions, we can share about ourselves with everyone we want to in a healthy way,” says relationship, sex, and mental health therapist Rachel Wright, LMFT. With this in mind, Wright reiterates that marriage counseling is beneficial anytime, not just when something big comes up.

“As a therapist who specializes in relationships—I think coming in before there’s an ‘issue’ is the best,” she says. “This way, you have a baseline relationship with a therapist so that when an issue (inevitably) arises, you don’t have to start from scratch. When a therapist understands you as an individual and your relationship, they’re in a much better position to support you when a crisis or other problem arises.”

4. If you feel stuck on an issue but don’t want to call it quits

Are you and your partner butting heads on a specific issue, to the point where it’s affecting your relationship but not so much that you want to call off the wedding or file for divorce? That’s good news but the great news is that marriage counseling can help.

“When you find you are at an impasse and have tried talking about it or have attempted approaching the issue in a different way but are still getting the same negative or non-productive result; counseling could open the pathways of communication between you and your partner and help guide you to a mutually beneficial solution,” Montanile says.

“Couples need to recognize that growth in a relationship is essential to long lasting bonds and that some growth comes with uncomfortable moments. Counseling enables a couple to deal with those moments and changes in a positive way.”

5. When a recurring issue has been resolved

Now, say you seek marriage counseling and find that your collective concerns have finally been addressed, managed, and resolved. Great! But, whatever you do, don’t take that as a sign to ditch your therapist.

“I highly recommend continuing with the therapist you find, if you like them, after the issue you go in for is resolved,” Wright says. “For example, if there is infidelity in your relationship and you seek therapy to heal and grow—once you feel healed, don’t stop going in. Try to continue on a regular basis, even if that is bi-weekly or once a month.”

Doing so will help you manage any worries as they arise while also teaching healthy strategies to overcome an anxious mind surrounding the chance of recurrence.

6. Your new relationship has hit some snags

Okay, so say you’re not married or engaged, but you’re in a relationship or hoping to enter one. Or maybe you are married or engaged, but it all happened so fast. Whatever the case may be, Wright says that relationship therapy can be hugely beneficial.

“If you’re looking for indicators [to seek counseling], assess how happy you are in your relationship and look at areas you’re thriving and areas you’re feeling frustrated,” she says. “For example, perhaps your sex life is thriving but your communication around household duties is causing a lot of strain, or perhaps your day-to-day life is okay but you feel disconnected from your partner — anything you want to shift or improve or adjust is a good reason to go to marriage counseling/couples therapy.”

How To Approach Your Partner About Marriage Counseling

Think you might need marriage counseling? Great! The first step is acknowledging it, the second is learning how to approach your partner about it. As with any serious couples’ conversation, Montanile says it’s important to pick an opportune time for the discussion.

“If something is on your mind about your relationship, pick the right time for a quiet, calm conversation — don’t pounce on your partner when they are walking in the door after a long day of work,” she says. “They won’t be receptive and will become defensive and angry with you.” Instead, she recommends finding a mutually quiet time where you can both focus on each other without distractions.

When approaching the subject of marriage counseling, it’s important to be honest about how you’re feeling and to take responsibility for your emotions.

“Be honest, not hurtful; do not cast blame on your partner when expressing how you feel,” Montanile says. “It’s important to take ownership of what you are feeling and how you may have also contributed to the behaviors that led to the hurt feelings. Blaming will get you nowhere.” But you know what will? Marriage counseling.

A Step-by-Step Conversation About Marriage Counseling

Still not sure how to broach the subject? Wright has a four-step approach.

Start by asking for a container to talk. “For example, ‘Hey, I wanna chat with you about our relationship and some of the communication issues we’ve been having. When is a good time?’” Wright says.

Once you’ve created the container and are within it, it’s time to acknowledge your concerns. “[Start with] ‘I know that __________’—this is to let your partner know that you understand the landscape of what’s going on; it names the elephant in the room. For example, you might say, ‘I know we haven’t had sex in three months’ or ‘I know we’ve tossed around the idea of going to couples therapy, but we haven’t really pulled the trigger.’”

After acknowledging, explain how it makes you feel. “Use this format: ‘I feel __________ [emotion] when/that __________ [action/context for emotion],’” Wright instructs. “For example, ‘I feel scared when we don’t communicate effectively or hear each other well.’ or ‘I feel worried that if we don’t go to therapy together that we’ll wind up building resentment.’”

Lastly, offer up a solution. “You could say, ‘What I’d love to do is...’ or ‘What I see as a potential step forward is…’ followed by ‘What do you think?’ or ‘how does that sound?’” Wright says. “For example, ‘I’d love to call a few therapists and set up consultations for us, how does that sound?’ or ‘What I see as a potential step forward is scheduling time for our physical intimacy on the calendar. What do you think?’”

What To Do If Your Partner Rejects Marriage Counseling

In the event that your partner absolutely refuses to engage in marriage counseling, you can still benefit from going by yourself. “Seeking counseling on your own is a great way to help you cope with your feelings and provide you with tools that will hopefully bring your partner around,” Montanile says.

Remember: It Takes Time

All therapy takes time. Marriage counseling is no different. Wright and Montanile agree that for some couples it may take as little as one session while for other couples, it could take over a year of dedicated work. “Regardless of the time, if you know you and your partner are making progress and it feels good, then continue with what is working,” Montanile says.

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