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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