Couples' counselling: The norm, not the last resort
February, the month of love, offers many opportunities to express our appreciation and commitment to our partners. Mostly, because the shops are full of teddy-bears and hearts which means it would look really awkward if we did not do the expected effort during this time. The question, however, remains: What do we do to maintain a good and healthy relationship with our partners for the rest of the year?
As we enter March, the highlights and lightness of the festive season is dying down; we are already feeling more strain and stressed after the holiday break in December. Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that if we are feeling anxious, angry, frustrated or pressure we can lash out at those closest to us (11). We can sometimes “displace” our emotions onto someone who make us feel safe, like a partner, because we lose sight of what the real stressors are (11). Compounded with individual frustrations, then come the challenges we face as a couple. The most common issues that couples face include financial stressors, loss of trust, communication struggles, ineffective management of time, resentment and a lack in intimacy sexually and emotionally.
When to consider counselling?
The rule of thumb is- always. Always consider counselling, even if you are in a strong and healthy relationship. Studies have shown that couples who do consistent counselling have a 75% success rate (2). Every couple, at some stage, faces challenges (9). If we are lucky, time can smooth them over, but, sometimes it needs more immediate interventions to prevent couples from reaching break-point. John and Julie Gottman of The Gottman Institute identified, what they call the four horsemen of the apocalypse ; that are responsible for failing relationships: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling (5).
When is relationship or couples’ counselling effective?
The effectiveness of this process is not influenced by the type of relationship (heterosexual or same-sex) or even cultural differences and beliefs. Success depends on timing, and it is unfortunate that most couples wait too long before seeking help (9). Due to the stigma that a couple must be “broken” when seeking professional counselling, many couples avoid counselling until it becomes a last resort (9). The effectiveness of a relationship also depends on the goals that are set as a partnership (2), the balance of power within the relationship (1) building a unified vision (8), beliefs about traditional gender roles within a relationship (6) and whether both partners are committed to the counselling process in order to stay together (2).
Couples have increasingly become more open to counselling with the shift that took place on mental health in general. During the Covid-19 pandemic, couples were thrown from the routine of separate workplaces and had to adapt to being in the same space for months (3). In their study, The Kinsey Institute found that 63% agreed that the pandemic was putting stress on their family, 54% agreed that it was testing their marriage where 16% of the participants were thinking of separation or divorce (3). This emphasises that an external stressor, like the pandemic, can put even more strain on an already detached relationship. Couples’ counselling could therefore offer a safe space to allow individuals to be vulnerable with their partner and in so doing
10 reasons why this works:
The Gottman Institute has identified a 1/5 magic ratio: For every 1 negative interaction, a couple must have 5 positive interactions to reset the balance (9).
Further, couples’ counselling helps improve communication between partners. It assists in getting each person to see the perspective of the other as well as the underlying narrative that shapes their interactions (7).
Counselling provides couples with practical tools to use when facing difficulties in the future (7).
Couples counselling helps each partner become more objective and not participate in the “blame game” 10. The look at the issues within their relationship as a process instead of an emotional reaction to an event (10).
Through this process couples will be guided to understand and change dysfunctional behaviour patterns that cause harm to the relationship (10).
The most common defence mechanism within a relationship is that of emotional and physical avoidance. When in counselling, avoidance is eliminated and partners feel safe to express their private feelings and need for closeness (10), couples will therefore not become emotionally distant or grow apart.
Communication is an essential aspect of a deep and sincere connection with your partner. This process will teach you effective skills to listen more attentively and empathically to your partner (10).
Even in the darkest of times, every couple has “something” that makes them hold on- the strength that they have built their foundation on. Through counselling, partners will re-discover the strength and resilience of their relationship and find a place of enjoyment again (10). By directing the focus on this aspect, partners are more inclined to believe the “positive story” or narrative about their relationship (10).
This is a relatively short and powerful process that can take between 4-12 sessions with long-lasting and successful results.
When counselling is the beginning of the end, this process helps to facilitate the difficult steps of separation or divorce (9).
The good news is that couples’ counselling has become even more accessible with the emerging medium of online counselling. This means, couples no longer have to be “seen” doing counselling but can undergo the process from the privacy of their home (4). A study done by Curtin University in Australia showed that even though participants were apprehensive about the process on screen, they were able to fully immerse themselves in their counselling (4) some even felt that it created a sense of “distance” from the counsellor which allowed them to feel more in control and comfortable.
There are many reasons why couples’ counselling would be an immensely beneficial process for your relationship. Do not see it as a last resort, but as the norm for a healthy relationship.
1 GoodTherapy. (2021). Power. Retrieved from GoodTherapy: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/power
2 Grande, D. (2017). Couples Therapy: Does it really work? Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/za/blog/in-it-together/201712/couples-therapy-does-it-really-work
3 Kinsey Institute. (2020, November). Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on marital quality. Retrieved from Kingsley Institute Research & Institute news: https://blogs.iu.edu/kinseyinstitute/2020/11/20/impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-marital-quality/
4 Kysely, A., Bishop, B., Kane, R., Cheng, M., De Palma, M., & Rooney, R. (2020, January). Expectation and experiences of coupes receiving therapy through videoconferencing. Retrieved from Frontiers in Psychology: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02992/full
5 Lisitsa, E. (2013). Couples. Retrieved from The Gottman Institute: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/
6 Nicholson, J. (2020, March). Relationships. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/za/blog/the-attraction-doctor/202003/gender-roles-do-they-make-or-break-romantic-relationships
7 SACAP. (2020, October). Is couples counselling a good idea? Retrieved from Applied Psychology: https://www.sacap.edu.za/blog/applied-psychology/couples-counselling/
8 Sheras, P. L., & Koch-Sheras, P. R. (2006). Couple Power Therapy: Building Commitment, Cooperation, Communication, and Community in Relationships.
9 Smith, A. (2020, February). Couples. Retrieved from Experience Life: https://experiencelife.com/article/the-case-for-couples-counseling/
10 Whitbourne, S. K. (2012, March). 5 Principles of effective couples therapy. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/za/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201203/5-principles-effective-couples-therapy
11 Williams, J. A. (2021). Emotional Intelligence & Fitness. Retrieved from Heartmanity: https://blog.heartmanity.com/why-do-people-take-out-their-anger-on-others-and-what-to-do-about-it