By Margaret Rutherford, Ph.D.
As a couples therapist, “We came in before there was a real problem” is music to my ears.
This very wise couple doesn’t wait until a crisis hits. No one is flirting with a coworker. Vicious, repetitive arguments aren’t heard late at night. Or worse, silence hasn’t crept into their marriage.
If only this couple were the norm.
Many couples don’t do maintenance on their relationship. Instead, they’re inundated with normal distractions - work stress, piles of laundry, figuring out how to make the car run for one more year, helping the kids with math homework. The list goes on and on. The erosion of their relationship occurs slowly and steadily over time.
Problematic patterns may begin to entrench in the relationship, as when heavy rains run down a hill, and create deep furrows in the soil. When it rains again, the water will travel exactly where those gashes have worn themselves into the dirt.
Behavior and communication between two people work in the same way. When there’s a blowout argument, both people can find themselves saying and doing exactly what they said and did before - not even recognizing the destructive pattern.
“I don’t know why I can’t stop myself, but I say the same hurtful things I’ve said before. And then some.”
“I know if I walk away, she’ll get mad, but I do it anyway. I don’t know what else to do.”
This is a problem. When trust is damaged, when you’re not sure you even like your partner anymore, when words have been spoken that are difficult to forget, it can feel like it’s too late. You can give yourself permission, out of hurt or anger, to turn away emotionally. Detachment begins, and you imagine a fresh start, a new relationship, before you’ve even attempted to fix what’s wrong with the one you’re in.
Prevention over intervention
But how about the couple that comes in before those patterns begin their ominous downward spiral? What are they doing that’s different?
First, they are likely two people who take their fair share of the responsibility for the patterns they’ve created.
Second, they’re doing maintenance. They realize they just might be able to stop the rain before it begins. These couples are smart because according to the research, prevention is 3x more effective than intervention.
Much of the time, couples aren’t this proactive. Dr. Gottman’s research has shown that the average couple waits six years before seeking help with their marital problems. What are possible misconceptions about therapy that are preventing them from acting sooner?
Misconception #1: “Some stranger is going to tell me what to do.”
Therapy is not like school. An all-knowing therapist isn’t going to tell you what to do. The assumption that the therapist wants this kind of authority can set up understandable defensiveness and even a rebellious mindset before therapy has begun.
A good therapist has objectivity and the experience of being capable of making positive desired changes in your relationship. They act as a consultant would, seeing the problems you’re describing in the context of the hundreds of stories they’ve heard. They may connect present-day issues with your past, or notice behavior or communication patterns that are harder for you to notice.
It’s the same as a coach watching your golf swing, or a chef tasting food you’ve prepared. They offer insight into your behavior and suggest actionable changes.
Therapists consult. They don’t rule.
Ultimately, you decide if you want to take their advice.
Misconception #2: “Therapy costs too much, takes too much time, and is hard to find.”
These are common excuses. The truth is many therapists will work with you on the financial aspect of receiving support to make your marriage stronger and happier. While their time has a tangible cost, so does divorce.
To help you, it’s important to realize that there are a variety of ways therapist can work with a couple. There are brief therapy counselors who do shorter term work. There are also proactive therapists who take on clients because those couples are willing to work hard, and make positive changes in their relationship. You may have to look for these kinds of therapist, but they’re out there. Start by searching the Gottman Referral Network.
Citing concerns about money, time, or availability can be a veil for a struggle with vulnerability.
My father-in-law used to joke, “People pay to talk to you?”
In many ways, his teasing revealed an important point.
Therapy is not all about the words being exchanged. It’s about creating a dynamic that is focused on you and what you want to change in your relationship. For couples, the role of the therapist is to provide compassion and support for both partners.
Couples therapy can feel vulnerable, because it is all about you. A good therapist earns your trust and provides safety for that very vulnerability. If you allow it.
Misconception #3: “I don’t want someone to know our business.”
There’s no getting around this one. At the root of this statement may lie a struggle with shame. If you’re $50,000 in debt, if you’ve got an addiction, if you were abused as a child, those are all things that are important for a therapist to know. Or the therapist can’t help.
A therapist is a professional, similar to an attorney, whose license depends on their practice of confidentiality. Not to mention, many therapist do what they do because they have had similar struggles and hardships and they know what it’s like to be alone in the messiness of life.
Problems, mistakes, and disappointments are difficult to reveal for everyone. Recognizing trauma for what it is, respecting, and letting go of shame is a huge part of therapeutic work.
It takes courage to reveal.
It takes trust to be vulnerable.
It takes humility to consider another perspective.
As a society, it’s time we changed our attitude about couples therapy.
This article was originally published on The Gottman Relationship Blog.
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