Can Couple Counseling Really Help?

Couples go through many stages of life. An unex­pect­ed change could be rea­son for ther­a­py. Imag­ine a young cou­ple, both about 23 and one had to pre­cip­i­tous­ly leave their apart­ment. Due to the dearth of decent hous­ing, Jere (not their actu­al name) moved into Jana’s apart­ment. Jana, a physics major, and Jere, a graph­ic artist, came togeth­er with love, pas­sion, and opti­mism. They had no idea how to squeeze a fun, easy-does-it rela­tion­ship into a stu­dio apart­ment. How did the merg­er go? The bicy­cle hel­mets got in the way of the laun­dry bas­kets. Shoes got kicked around, and worse. Mak­ing love wasn’t a romp when Jana’s perched cof­fee cup spilt over Jere’s computer.

In ther­a­py, we talked about how to share space: giv­ing space for the oth­er one to work, for house tasks, and bond­ing. More than talk, cou­ples must find time to lis­ten. Anoth­er tier of dis­cus­sion is shar­ing the air time. As a ther­a­pist I ask, “How do Jana and Jere sculpt the space for qual­i­ty lis­ten­ing?” Does one per­son always ini­ti­ate? Does one per­son con­sis­tent­ly greet the oth­er after work? Who has the last word of an argu­ment? On a good day, the ther­a­pist per­ceives where the merid­i­ans of pow­er lay and asks ques­tions. Jere had the insight that when Jana rais­es her angry voice, inward­ly he with­draws. He shuts down emo­tion­al­ly. Emo­tion­al silos and bath­tubs of social media squash inti­ma­cy for a new cou­ple. The terse words stopped but the emo­tion­al debris lin­gered for Jere and Jana. For­get sex when anger like lava churns underground.

In the first stage of com­mit­ment, many cou­ples need ther­a­py. Jana wise­ly sug­gest­ed ther­a­py ear­ly on, the week Jere moved in. Liv­ing togeth­er can be a big­ger adjust­ment than get­ting engaged. Ther­a­py isn’t just a lux­u­ry, learn­ing healthy com­mu­ni­ca­tion is nec­es­sary for sur­vive in the vicis­si­tudes of polit­i­cal chaos. We delve into com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills like acknowl­edg­ment and nego­ti­a­tion. How is acknowl­edge­ment dif­fer­ent than appre­ci­a­tion? The strengths of each per­son are lift­ed up in the ther­a­py office to build a force-field of “love in action.”

In the US psy­chol­o­gists rec­og­nize three phas­es of love in a com­mit­ted rela­tion­ship. There’s 1) roman­tic love, 2) dis­so­nance or dis­trac­tion, and 3) dis­so­lu­tion or adjust­ment. (Lar­son, 2003). The first stage is involves clar­i­fy­ing bound­aries, new­ness and joy. We rarely see cou­ples in this Stage unless one has had in their his­to­ry divorce, dis­func­tion, or forced sex. To stay healthy Jere and Jana were com­ing in for ther­a­py dur­ing the dis­so­nance, or Stage 2.

Ther­a­py is espe­cial­ly help­ful if one of the two wants a wed­ding, or even a legal con­tract. In the US mar­riage is the end of a romance and the begin­ning of com­mit­ment. In India where arranged mar­riages are com­mon, the wed­ding is the com­mence­ment of the romance. By mov­ing into the same place, divid­ing up the bills and the main­te­nance, Jere and Jana were dis­tract­ed from their ini­tial romance and need­ed to find a deep­er love that had noth­ing to do with glass slip­pers and ball­room dancing.

When you and your lover expe­ri­ence your first fights, what do you do with the pain? Is the laugh­ter, com­fort and sex worth it when fights turn hurt­ful? Many peo­ple come into ther­a­py too late. It’s easy to avoid the warn­ing signs. They may seek help after the fight turned ugly. Yel­low alert. They may avoid the per­son for weeks until she calls to say that she’s preg­nant. Orange alert. Or some­one may threat­en to walk out, for good. Red alert.

This cou­ple strug­gled once mov­ing in togeth­er. Jere showed U‑tube videos of dogs car­ing for guinea pigs and adopt­ing them. They laughed and laughed. Jere thread­ed his arm in Jana’s. A week lat­er Jana brought home a res­cue fer­ret imag­in­ing she and Jere would enjoy it togeth­er. Alert time. Jere was furi­ous but could­n’t yell. He felt trapped. Orange alert. Nobody was at fault. In ther­a­py we dis­cussed where the com­mu­ni­ca­tion broke down. Jere was com­plete­ly flum­moxed — he would nev­er bring any crea­ture into their space with­out talk­ing first. In his mind the fer­ret was like adopt­ing a baby. Jana took time explain­ing her needs; she des­per­ate­ly want­ed more con­nec­tion with Jere. Jere rec­og­nized Jana’s expec­ta­tions for con­nec­tion. They start­ed rock climb­ing every Sat­ur­day. Jana returned the fer­ret to the ani­mal shelter.

I see too many peo­ple that start cou­ple ther­a­py after the criticism/ defen­sive­ness becomes relent­less– like a ris­ing esca­la­tor. An esca­la­tor of defense is eas­i­er to resort to than tak­ing the stairs. Don’t wait until your girl­friend adopts a adorable pet. Don’t wait until the sleep­ing moun­tain turns vol­canic. Seek healthy com­mu­ni­ca­tion ear­ly and often. Ther­a­py can help.

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