Throughout early American history, love within marriage was a luxury. A successful marriage was a practical one. #Marriagegoals mainly consisted of remaining fed, safe, and alive. Marriage counseling wasn’t necessary because the bar was much lower. A shift toward marriage for companionship—to love, be loved, be sexual—started to occur around 150 years ago in the move towards urbanization.
According to social psychology professor and author Eli Finkel, we are currently living in the era of the self-expressive marriage, meaning we look to marriage for self-esteem and personal growth. Marriage is viewed as less essential and more of a voluntary way to achieve personal fulfillment.
We want our partner to provide romance while aiding in our own self-discovery. We want security and spontaneity, a best friend and a lover. The list of expectations is quite lengthy and often conflicting. We try to squeeze into one person everything an entire community once provided. Then, we wonder why our relationship requires so much work to maintain.
According to Finkel’s research, when individuals can invest enough time and emotional energy into their partnerships, while also decreasing their list of expectations, they will see incredible benefits. But relationship care often gets overlooked in the long list of life to-dos.
The good news is, marriages can thrive today like never before. They just can’t do it on their own.
How can couples sustain a healthy, fulfilling, long-term relationship? Where do you find tools to better understanding yourself, your partner, and overcome the big and little challenges you’ll experience in the lifetime of your relationship?
An excellent place to start is marriage counseling or couples therapy.
Often times, couples arrive at couples therapy in crisis—there’s been a breach of trust, major life changes, financial problems, or a lack of sex and intimacy, to name only a few. On average, couples wait six years before addressing any unhappiness or dissatisfaction in their relationship. Six years fueling your resentment is much too long and can be too late for help.
Marriage counselors or couples therapists teach couples how to:
- Behave in relationships
- Come to compromises
- Better understand your partner’s needs
- Better understand your own needs
- Live with your differences
- Identify changes to create a more gratifying relationship
Couples therapy is slow and steady. Change won’t happen overnight and the time you both invest outside of the therapy room is essential.
If you’re curious to know what happens inside a marriage counseling room, brilliant couples therapist and podcast host Esther Perel invites real couples to participate in therapy in each episode of her podcast Where Should We Begin with Esther Perel. As a listener, we get to listen in as the couples talk about their problems. Problems that often strike a familiar chord in your own life. Venturing into the therapy room for the first time can be unnerving if you don’t know what to expect. Perel uses her podcast to help unshroud the mystery within the therapy room while maintaining the integrity of her work.
How can happy couples benefit from marriage counseling?
Couples therapy isn’t just for couples in crisis. If the foundation of your relationship is healthy, but you need help navigating issues or boundaries to prevent work, kids, finances, and other substantial commitments from overpowering your commitment to each other, couples therapy can help.
Dr. Ellen Wachtel says hope is one of the essential ingredients for a successful outcome in couples therapy.
It’s important to come to the therapy room with an open mind, a willingness to do the work, and specific goals to work toward.
Healthy couples can benefit from couples therapy in many areas. A few of my favorites include:
- Improving communication: In my opinion, this is the number one reason any couple should seek the professional help of a couples therapist. Poor communication is the foundation on which many relationship issues are built. Developing healthy communication habits allow you to connect more deeply with your partner and learn to overcome your differences.
- Learning to argue better: Have you ever been in an argument that spirals into listing everything your partner has done wrong over the last week, month, or year? Elana Katz calls this the kitchen sink approach: dumping every injustice the partner has been guilty of inflicting on the other. Conflict is unavoidable but how you handle it matters. Developing ways to address the immediate issue at hand and avoiding spiraling into bad habits will lead to more productive arguments and less pain.
- Talking about sex: Most individuals don’t know how to talk about sex. Or know what good sex can be like for them. We grow up in a society that teaches us sex is shameful and dirty. Then, once we are with the right person, it’s suddenly supposed to be a fantastic experience. More often than not, we lack the vocabulary or tools to express what we want and sex can still lead to feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment, and shame, even with someone we deeply love. Couples therapy can help break down those barriers and help you build a safe space to talk about sex, expand your definition of what sex is, and improve your sexual experience together.
How to find a good couples therapist or marriage counselor
Look for a licensed therapist with advanced training in couples therapy. There are many training models out there. Each has their benefits and reaches people in different ways. What worked for your friends, might not work for you. Educate yourself on the training model your prospective therapist follows. Check-in with yourself and your partner to see if it resonates with your needs.
Sexual connection is an important aspect for most within a marriage or a long-term partnership. Just as we each carry our own biases around sex and sexuality, so do therapists. Look for a therapist that holds certification in sex therapy through AASECT or who is a member of the Society for Sex Therapy and Researchit (SSTAR).
A good therapist should:
- Make both partners feel understood and heard—does not blame or take sides
- Dig deeper to find the root of the symptoms
- Use compassion to make sense of an issue
- Share the same goals as you
Not all therapists are equal. Be sure to do your research before you invest the time, money, and energy into marriage counseling.
If your back hurts, then you make an appointment with your doctor. When your tooth aches, you call the dentist. If your car doesn’t start, you take it to a mechanic. When a marriage experiences a pain point or hurdle, most are reluctant to seek help. But just like we would seek help when our bodies are in pain or something of ours is broken, we should be OK seeking help when our relationship become strained. Couples therapists can help investigate a couple’s problem and help them reframe how they communicate and behave with each other. Ultimately, this honest and sometimes vulnerable experience can lead to a more fulfilling and healthy relationship for the long haul.