Woman First

Beyond Love: Relationship Counseling to the Rescue

by Emily Lambert

What happens when you have the same argument over and over and over again? Or you start to feel numb, despondent or lonely in your marriage? Or worse yet, things have turned abusive? These are times it’s important to seek help. Being proactive could be the key to saving your relationship.

What Are the Odds?

In 2001, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that 20 percent of all first marriages have ended within five years, 33 percent within ten years, and 50 percent within 20 years

Source: All You Need Is Love and Other Lies about Marriage by John W. Jacobs, MD (HarperCollins, $24.95).

Every relationship has conflict. “Conflict in and of itself isn’t the problem. The problem is confllict that leaves one or both people with a bad taste in their mouth,” says Joellyn Ross, PhD, a licensed psychologist practicing in Cherry Hill, NJ.

Dr. Ross recommends couples seek counseling “at the first sign of distress. It’s much easier to be effective when things haven’t gotten to a horrible point.”

A third party provides an objective observer. Couples can feel safer that “things won’t get out of control with threats or someone going on and on berating the other person,” says Bonnie Witmer, clinical supervisor in Wynnewood, PA for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).

“When therapy is done correctly, the first thing is to solve the immediate crisis,” says Richard Brousell, a mental health counselor in Delaware.

Brousell teaches couples communication skills that are both respectful and productive and tries to help them move to “a position of mutual acceptance of each other’s differences, where they can experience reconnection, improved intimacy, improved partnership and a better ability to resolve conflicts when they arise.”

Common Problems
Couples enter into therapy for many reasons. “It’s really difficult when people come from families that are so different and they have different expectations of what the relationship should be,” says Witmer. For example, something as simple as sharing household responsibilities could become an issue if one partner expects a 50-50 split and the other expects an 80-20 division of chores.

Stephanie Brooks, interim director of Family Therapy Programs at Drexel University in Philadelphia and in private practice in Bala Cynwyd, PA, agrees. “People underestimate the power of couples’ differences in social class, values, race or faith.”

“Another reason couples seek therapy is due to blended family problems from divorce and remarriage, when they are establishing a new family from the ashes of the old,” says Brousell. Other frequent conflicts stem from fertility issues (“very stressful on a relationship,” says Brooks); affairs; sexual problems; and even divorce.

“If you don’t understand what happened wrong in your marriage, you’ll do it all over again. I’ve done post mortems where we find out what went wrong and get some sort of closure,” says Ross. When children are involved, however, divorce is less likely. “I’ve really seen a change,” says Ross. “Couples today don’t want to break up the family, which is a good thing because sometimes they work it out.

“A lot of couples go through a really rough patch, especially in their 40s. If they can live through that rough patch, they’re glad they stayed together,” says Ross. “In the hypothetical ideal nuclear marriage, the statistics are overwhelmingly in favor of staying together for the sake of the children, unless there are out-of-control addictions not being addressed or chronic verbal, physical or sexual abuse. These should result in rapid separation,” says Brousell.

“Even in the case of an affair, it’s best to work it out. Although very few couples do,” he says. Approximately 5 percent of relationships in which one of the partners has an affair survive, notes Brousell. But with his own patients, he has seen a much higher survival rate.

Your Time Investment
How much time can a couple expect to spend in counseling before they see results?
“It depends on the couple and what kind of shape the relationship was in from the beginning. One couple was back on track after four visits,” says Ross, although this isn’t common.

She says the fast-track couple had strong shared values, did something at the first signs of distress, valued being together for the sake of the family and were both mature people who could reflect and see their own part in the problem. “When people can do nothing but blame the other person, the prognosis isn’t good. Everybody makes a contribution,” she says.

Barring a crisis situation, “If they practice skills from therapy at home and they’re effective, I can see them bimonthly to monthly. Usually it’s 6-10 times for the average marital problem, but it can take up to a year,” says Brousell.
“Some people only come in for eight sessions,” says Brooks, because that’s all their insurance company will pay for. But as Ross points out, “Any couple’s therapist is much less expensive than an attorney.”

Preventive Care
Even without counseling, a relationship requires work and effort. “The thing people often don’t do is put their relationship as a priority, spending time and attention on one another. Even if it’s 5-10 minutes a day of uninterrupted time, there should be some kind of tuning into each other,” says Ross, “something that indicates to each other, ‘you’re important to me,’” she says.

Brousell strongly advises flicking off the television during these times of reconnection. “TV is deadly for relationships. It’s an interference and often used as a barrier to intimacy,” he says. He also advises couples to “take care of themselves as individuals, with enough sleep and a good diet, and seek adult company if they’re with kids all day.”

Balancing a relationship while raising children is especially challenging. “The hardest years on a couple’s relationship are when the kids are under five,” says Ross. “With teens there can be more parental conflict, which may or may not cause marriage problems.”

Ross says some people conclude marriage counseling doesn’t help, especially when their friends, “The Smiths,” went for counseling and still got divorced. “The Smiths might have been well on their way to breaking up. Happy people often don’t advertise the fact they saw a therapist and got back on track. Being proactive is always better,” she says.

Emily Lambert is a local freelance writer.