All couples have challenges, there is no doubt about that. Sometimes the challenges are external; job related stresses or job loss, familial conflict or major life events like the birth of a child. Some conflicts are internal; depression and anxiety can result in conflict in a relationship, poor habits from past relationships or even patterns learned as a child all contribute to how you relate to your partner. Add to that personality differences, cultural differences and you have loads of potential for conflict.
Is it just inevitable that at some point in a long term committed relationship you would need to seek marriage counseling?
Just as the question gets complicated so does the answer. All couples can benefit from learning new relationship skills. Couples who are able to manage conflict in a healthy way are far less likely to divorce or need counseling. While all couples can benefit from a good marriage therapist, counseling can likely be avoided if you are proactive about learning solid skills as early on in your relationship is possible.
According the Dr. Alice Boyle there are 21 essential relationship skills that you can rate yourself on when thinking about how well you and your partner get along and support each other. These skills range from talking and listening, empathy, positivity, trust, conflict resolution and more.
John Gottman, relationship researcher and educator claims that not all conflict in a marriage has a resolution. According to him, successful couples are able to recognize which conflicts need to be resolved and which conflicts they must learn to live with. In contrast, Dr. Susan Heilter creator of Power of Two and well known marriage therapist says “Yes, All marriage conflicts can be resolved.” A win-win approach to conflict resolution in a relationship allows couples to navigate potential differences both big and small and create a satisfying solution for both parties.
Skills like these are essential for the health of any long term committed relationship. Unfortunately there are not many opportunities outside of counseling to learn them. What that means for most couples is that as they move through the challenges of life, dissatisfaction increases and for a variety of reasons find themselves considering divorce. Many couples wait a long time before seeking help, exacerbating the need for counseling. The sooner you can recognize that something is off and take steps to turn the tide the better!
Here are a few signs that may indicate it’s time to upgrade your skill set and maybe help you avoid marriage counseling.
You are spending less and less time together. Time together is an essential component of a successful relationship. Spending less time together can be a signal that things are getting off track. It can be a chicken or the egg situation too, the more arguing and resentment the less likely you are to want to spend time together, leading to more resentment and less connection.
You are arguing more and more. Couples who are low on relationship skills tend to argue rather than communicate. Daily arguing, especially when it escalates to name calling and raised voices is a sure sign that something needs to change.
Every decision seems to lead to a fight. Perhaps you used to get along fairly well and then something changed. Now it seems like every time you have to make a decision about something you fight and compromise on what you really want.
Criticism is rampant. When conflict is high in a relationship, criticism often accompanies it. Even what’s thought of as “constructive criticism” is so damaging to a marriage. In a recent article Dr. Heitler suggests an alternative way to share these thoughts… “skip the complaining and go straight to the explaining.”
While marriage counseling may not always be necessary, if you find the right therapist or program it will almost always be a net benefit. If marriage counseling doesn’t float your boat look for alternatives. There are plenty of marriage books and if you prefer something a bit more interactive you can look for a web based program like Power of Two or a marriage therapist who is tech savvy and able to do skype sessions. Once you upgrade your skills there may still be deeper issues that individual or couples counseling can help with. Finding a good therapist can make all the difference.
Marriage counseling doesn’t have to be inevitable. Educating yourself in whatever way works with your lifestyle, be it counseling, marriage education classes, interactive skill education programs, religious counsel or the like, will benefit both your day to day as well as the future outlook on your marriage. As the stigma around seeking marriage counseling fades hopefully more couples will look at it more like preparation and education and less like a failure of sorts.