For whatever reason, it seems that couples are the last to make it to therapy. They come in covered in emotional barbs, glaring at each other from across my couch and alternate between broiling silences and spewing negativity. Maybe the reason they are here is out of a sense of obligation for their children, maybe it is out of years and years that they have already put in, maybe its just because they are stubborn and don’t know when enough is enough. They have come with the same unasked question “did we wait too long”.
I tell all my couples that marital love is NOT unconditional. We all have conditions regarding what we will tolerate and what we won’t in romantic relationships. With that being said, sometimes we aren’t the best at resolving when those conditions have been breached or hurt has occurred. We may try, but if resolution is not possible, we fold that hurt away inside of us putting in the emotional drawer of other unresolved hurts and from there resentment and negativity grows.
Another thing I tell my couples – and individuals who are considering couple’s therapy – is that you don’t wait until you are dying to see a doctor (hopefully) you go and see a doctor when you are feeling sick. This really makes a world of difference when you are going to couple’s counseling. I’m talking the difference between continuing the relationship and ending it.
Ok, so when is a relationship sick? Valid question. I base most of my couple’s work off of Gottman* therapy and the Gottmans have researched predictors of divorce extensively and found these four relationship dynamics present. They refer to them as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These nasty communication patterns are contempt, stonewalling, criticism, and defensiveness. The link really explains them in full detail but I will do so briefly here for you.
Lets start with contempt. Contempt is the big ol’ nasty #1 predictor of divorce and needs to be resolved ASAP. Contempt looks like name calling, disrespect, sarcasm and from the person oozing it a feeling of superiority is conveyed. If this is in your relationship, you need therapy yesterday.
Criticism is up next. Criticism is what it seems – you are criticizing your partner’s character or actions. Words like “always” or “never” often accompany criticism. It’s typically “you” directed instead of “I” statements. It is different than a complaint or critique in its goal. Instead of wanting to work together to solve a problem, you are looking to blame or be right. We all criticize from time to time, its a matter of how often that this happens that differentiates between a sick relationship and dying one.
Along with criticism comes defensiveness. The two tend to work together to erode positive feelings in a relationship. The person being defensive makes excuses and avoids taking responsibility. Taking responsibility in the relationship feels unsafe, so they don’t. They blame, they avoid, they become the victim.
Last, and probably my favorite, is stonewalling. I don’t know why I like it so much – maybe its the heavy physiological aspect to it. Stonewalling happens in response to contempt as well as criticism. Typically these two dynamics have been in play for some time for a person to use stonewalling. Stonewalling is a process of shutting down in which a person gets emotionally flooded and becomes silent. It is frustrating to be on the other end of this as well as to be the one doing the stonewalling. It is a difficult pattern to break, but with therapy, can definitely be accomplished.
The consistent presence of these four horseman is a good indicator that therapy is in order, and that you need to get there fast. A really solid indicator that things are bad is the amount of negativity in the relationship. If you have a hard time finding things you like about your partner, if you have stopped talking in “us” and “we”, if you aren’t laughing together anymore, if the silences last longer than the conversations, if name calling is part of the daily grind – these are all symptoms of the dying relationship.
I usually ask my couples in the first session to describe to me how they met and how their relationship started. In this conversation I look for small smiles, hints of affection, glances at each other. All of these tell me that they still have admiration for each other, which we can build on. If these things are not there, then we are in trouble. Not to say that it is doomed but the likelihood that therapy will be successful, when you have given up fondness and admiration, is low.
So when is a relationship sick? Maybe you have been bickering more often. Maybe negativity has been creeping up. Maybe you have tried to address this together, but change did not come. There are lots of reasons not to go to couple’s therapy – its time consuming, it can be expensive, its scary.
I think that couple’s therapy is more intimidating than individual therapy. It feeds directly into the fear that someone is going to gang up on us and affirm all of our partner’s crappy beliefs about us. And its complicated. You aren’t dealing with just one personality meshing with the therapist but both of your personalities. But really, with a skilled couple’s therapist, you should feel supported, even when you are being held accountable. Like any therapy, you should feel comfortable but challenged. And like individual therapy, it is important not to give up your search if you try someone and they aren’t a good fit. Honestly, even with the reasons not to go, I think that saving a marriage or relationship outweighs all of those negatives.
The moral of the story here is it is better to go early than to wait too long. There is such thing as waiting too long in a relationship to go to therapy. If you aren’t sure, go in for a “check-up” with a therapist and let them assess the health in the relationship. Or better yet, do a self evaluation. Look for those four horsemen and see how frequently they pop up. If they are happening and not being corrected or accounted for, then that is the indicator that it is time to seek some therapeutic intervention.
*Just a disclaimer, I am not certified or formally trained in Gottman therapy – I have spent lots of time reading regarding Gottman therapy and pull from it frequently in couple’s treatment.