Do We Need Couples Counseling? A Guide to What’s (Not) Normal
You and your partner are starting to wonder. You’ve always fought, and it’s only become more intense. At least once a week, major-level emotions erupt even if the cause is minor.
What will it be this week? Did you accidentally shrink your partner’s t-shirt because you forgot to wash it on cold? Did your partner fail to do the dishes even though you washed the sheets? Or did one of you do something truly hurtful, like lie about something important or target an insecurity with a cruel insult?
You feel different from other couples. It’s not just the fighting. It’s how you feel so much of the time. Sometimes you don’t feel seen by your partner. Your partner tells you they feel like it’s impossible to get it right.
Are you doomed, do you need professional help, or is your relationship actually normal? Read on for tips to help you figure out whether you might benefit from going to couples counseling.
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Normal Relationships Versus Relationships in Distress
Most couples fight, but most don’t post their fights online. Even the rare few who don’t fight might have other problems or a more distant relationship than the one you want for yourself.
Think of it this way: we post our best moments on social media not just to look good, but to make ourselves feel good. Few people use their feeds to share a completely accurate picture of what life looks like for them most of the time.
The next thing: nearly anyone who lives together fights sometimes, and fights are more intense in a couple, because the emotions are higher and there’s more at stake. It’s hard enough to find inner harmony, and it’s even harder to find harmony with another person.
Compromise is the only way to make a relationship work, but you can’t compromise on everything. There are some things you just can’t walk away from or accept. And that’s good—it’s a sign you have healthy boundaries. But it also means you’re going to have conflicts. Part of “choosing your battles” is that you do sometimes choose to fight.
If you fight a lot, it might be a sign you need outside help. But it might not. It might just be a natural dynamic in a passionate, generally happy relationship.
If you feel better after your fights, that shows that the fights are productive and that your relationship is working. It’s probably worse if you’ve stopped fighting altogether and have let yourselves drift apart. Yet in times of stress, a little bit of distancing is natural, too.
So, if the same thing can happen in healthy and in distressed couples, how can you know whether you need to worry? For more insight, let’s meet two couples and learn from their stories.
Megan and Kelly: How a Healthy Couple Fights
Megan and Kelly love to go on adventures together. But they also usually fight in the course of planning their adventures. Megan tells Kelly there’s too much pressure and Kelly feels like Megan is unnecessarily rigid.
“Why do you always have to ruin our trips by making us do too much?” Megan screams. “You make me so stressed out and I always go back to work tired! I need a real damn vacation!”
Kelly replies, “Well, if you weren’t such a boring, lazy ass, you’d have fun! If it was up to you, we’d just Netflix and chill for four days with kittens and blankets!”
Megan looks puzzled. “What’s wrong with that?” she asks.
They spend more time talking and agree to go camping as planned, but also agree to spend their next long weekend at home—and to get a kitten.
Sometimes, their fights are more intense.
“Why won’t you fucking listen to me?” Kelly yells. “You’re so selfish!”
In response, Megan says, “Why would I listen to you? You’re such a child!”
The fight escalates. Deep feelings come up, as well as memories of being invalidated as children and fears of never being successful or happy.
They acknowledge that Megan isn’t actually a selfish person and that Kelly isn’t acting like a child. They end with a hug and feel even closer afterward.
Sarah and Sam: A Couple in Trouble
Sarah and Sam fight for many of the same reasons as Kelly and Megan. They disagree about what kind of trips they want to go on. Each accuses the other of not listening. Sam calls Sarah immature and Sarah calls Sam rigid.
Sarah responds to the frustration by mocking Sam. “You’re lucky I put up with you. I don’t know anyone else who’d want to be with someone who was born with no emotions. I just hope you’re one of those quiet sociopaths and that you aren’t out there serial killing someone.”
Sarah’s never sure if the harsh insults have any effect until Sam brings it back up weeks later. “Why are you even trying to talk to me since you think I’m a sociopath?” Sam says out of the blue.
Sometimes, even when they’re not fighting, Sarah and Sam can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. After their latest fight, they chose to spend a weekend apart instead of going on a planned day trip. Both were relieved to not have to deal with the other person.
The Four Horsemen and Other Warning Signs
Sarah and Sam exhibit what psychologist and couples counseling expert John Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen” of relationship apocalypse:
- Criticism: Blaming conflict on your partner’s negative character traits.
- Contempt: Feeling superior to your partner, mocking them, and being mean.
- Defensiveness: Refusing to accept criticism and attacking back instead of listening.
- Stonewalling: Shutting down, withdrawing, and refusing to communicate altogether.
It’s important to understand that Gottman doesn’t believe it’s bad to share critical feedback. It’s natural, healthy, and necessary to communicate with one another about what isn’t working.
For example, it’s more destructive to tell your partner, “You’re a selfish person,” than to say, “I wish you would let me pick the movie more often.”
Focusing criticisms on behaviors makes it easier to come up with solutions. It’s a lot easier to figure out how to fix “You pick the movie we watch most of the time” than it is to figure out how to fix “You’re selfish” (or to even figure out if it’s true).
It’s natural to feel and act defensive if you feel like you’ve been unfairly criticized. But if your first instinct every time your partner gives you critical feedback is to say they’re wrong and tell them they’re the one causing the problem, it makes it difficult to resolve the conflict.
Escalating insults are damaging. It’s easy to start resenting someone who makes you feel like a bad person, and it’s hard to work with someone who refuses to change something they do that hurts you.
Stonewalling, or giving someone the silent treatment and refusing to even discuss an issue, has the same effect. When you can’t acknowledge or address fixable issues, the outcome is increasing hostility, resentment, and alienation.
What Do We Do If Our Relationship Is in Trouble?
Given that couples break up as or more often than they stay together, and many couples wait until they’ve been having problems for six years before they seek couples counseling, it’s not surprising that counseling doesn’t always save the relationship. Sometimes, it just helps to confirm what a couple has already decided: that they need to split up.
That said, couples counseling can and does work. In fact, research indicates that it works about 70 percent of the time.
One of the most important factors that determines whether couples counseling will be successful is the attitude you have about each other and the relationship. Many people make the mistake of hoping a counselor will choose sides and try to fix the “wrong” partner, but that’s not how it works. Couples counseling only works when both of you are open to changing your behavior.
How Do Therapists Analyze Relationships?
Attachment theory is one of the frameworks that modern marriage and family therapists use to assess relationships. Figuring out your attachment style helps a therapist know how to help you.
Developed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s and 1960s, and expanded by his colleague Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s, attachment theory connects patterns in adult relationships to the type of bond a child had with their parents.
When you have a secure attachment style, you trust your partner. You can ask for or give them space as needed and don’t fear what your partner will do when they are out of your sight. You trust that your partner will be there when you come back and that they will be there for you even if you make a mistake.
You are comfortable with intimacy and with being vulnerable. You communicate openly and are confident that you deserve love. You feel safe in your relationship and in general.
If you have an anxious or preoccupied attachment style, you feel dependent on your partner. You fear being abandoned and can’t tolerate being apart. You defer to your partner and believe that you won’t be able to make good decisions without their input.
You are drawn to controlling or domineering partners. You may try to appease your partner by negating your own needs and desires, or you may become demanding, constantly asking for proof of their love and fidelity. You need frequent reassurance. You feel safest when you’re with your partner.
For More Information
If you’d like to learn more about how couples counseling works and whether it might work for you and your partner, you can read our article “Does Marriage Counseling Work?”
For more insight on when do-it-yourself couples counseling techniques might work, you can read our article “DIY Marriage Counseling: Exercises and Techniques You Can Try at Home.”
If you have a dismissive or avoidant attachment style, you deal with the anxiety intimacy causes you by avoiding it. You may opt out of having relationships altogether, or you may seek only brief flings that don’t get emotionally deep. You are independent to a fault. You enjoy solitude, but you also feel like something is missing.
You have a hard time trusting others and letting yourself get close to another person. When a relationship does start to get deeper, you pattern is to avoid conflict or emotional conversations until your repressed emotions boil over into a rage. You’re quick to walk away from relationships. You feel safest when you’re alone.
If you have a disorganized attachment style, you waver between extremes. You pull your partner toward you, wanting to be close, but when they get closer, you push them away. You may have experienced trauma or abuse as a child, and you tend to be drawn to abusive or dysfunctional partners or relationships.
You respond to emotional triggers by lashing out to protect yourself or by dissociating. You may know how to disconnect from your emotions mentally or you might use substances or other tools to help you disconnect. You have a hard time feeling safe at all.
How Do Counselors Treat Relationship Issues?
In nearly every case, both people contribute to the problems in a relationship and both people must be fully engaged in the therapy process in order to heal it. (Exceptions include relationships in which one partner is physically or sexually abusive.)
During your first sessions, your counselor will become familiar with your attachment styles and the patterns of your relationship. After getting to know you, they will address gaps in your communication skills and the specific ways communication breaks down in your relationship. They will explore your attachment styles to help you overcome fears of being close and other barriers to intimacy.
Even when your issues are deeper, counseling can help. Sometimes, with intensive individual and couples therapy and a long-term partner who’s as committed to the work as you, an insecure attachment style can become an EARNED secure attachment style. Making the change is far more likely in the context of long-term therapy than it is in the context of a romantic relationship without therapy—even if the relationship is a good one.
So, please reach out—the help you need to create a happier, more fulfilling relationship may be only a call or click away.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.