Every relationship has its ups and downs--even the happiest, healthiest relationship. Sometimes, getting things back on track after a "down" is a breeze. A good talk, a sincere apology, a date night or even a little extra sleep can go a long way toward making it through that rough patch.
But what happens when the problem is too overwhelming, too deep-seated or too serious for a do-it-yourself solution? Or, what if you want to get to the root of those everyday conflicts and create a more peaceful home?
Consider these two words: couples counseling. Even if you never pictured yourself seeking help, it might be just what you need.
"Most couples [deal with] the same set of problems that continue over and over, and most are solvable," says Britt Anderson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Portland, Ore., who specializes in counseling couples and individuals. Counseling, she says, can help couples get to the bottom of those problems and find solutions that work for both parties. The main requirements: a willingness to communicate honestly with the therapist (and each other) about the issues at hand, and an understanding that the blame doesn't belong to one person.
"It's a dance between the two," Anderson explains. "A problem is not one person's fault."
Many reasons for therapy Couples seek therapy for all sorts of reasons, Anderson says. Some are in full-on crisis mode. Others are there because they want to avoid crisis mode. And many are perfectly satisfied in their relationship--they just need some help navigating a new or difficult challenge.
In fact, one common reason couples seek counseling is the need for help with a transition, Anderson says. It's not unusual, she explains, for couples to ask for help after moving to a new city or state, making a career change, or having a baby.
"Having children is one of the biggest stressors on a relationship," she explains. "Some people [initiate counseling] when they first get pregnant. It can also be post-partum or even years later when they realize they have not had as much focus on each other."
Each couple is unique Although there are some pretty standard reasons couples go to counseling, every counseling experience is going to be a little bit different, depending on the needs and desires of the couple and the personal approach of the counselor involved. A typical session, however, will involve the counselor asking to hear about the problem from both perspectives.
Then, depending on the specifics of the situation, the counselor will likely work with the couple to identify the positive aspects of their relationship and, in some cases, the true root cause of the conflict (some couples fight without really knowing why they are fighting). She'll also help them enhance their communication skills and coach the couple as they learn to express themselves more effectively. Often, this is done through role playing, Anderson says, explaining that the goal is to "deepen each others' understanding of what their partner is experiencing on an emotional level."
Worth the effort So, it sounds nice, but does it work? Well, that depends on whether both parties are willing to do their part.
If so, then yes: There's a good chance counseling is going to help improve the situation (or least help the couple make appropriate decisions about the relationship).
"The more the couple can understand why the conflicts are happening, the easier it is to step back and be less reactive," Anderson says. "It's less likely to become a big fight."
In some cases, however, only one member of the couple is interested in counseling.
"It is fairly common to get a polarized couple," Anderson says, and when this happens she'll often begin by meeting individually with the one who really wants the therapy, in hopes that his or her partner will eventually come around.
Another factor in determining the success of the therapy is finding the right therapist.
"It's challenging to find someone who is good for both [people]," Anderson says. And she doesn't recommend seeking couples counseling from one individual's personal therapist. Instead, she recommends talking to a few different people until you find one that seems to work for both parties. If you don't have someone in mind, ask trusted friends or your family doctor for a referral. Or, visit , which is affiliated with the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, and that offers referrals based on location and type of counseling desired.
Taking the time Just as every couple's counseling experience is different, so is the number of sessions each couple needs in order to see real improvement. Some, for example, have already decided to split and need just a few sessions to iron out the details of the transition. Others are committed to staying together, but have lots of work to do in order to get to a healthy place.
"It varies quite a bit," says Anderson.
And what if the therapy just isn't making a difference? Trying out a new counselor is always an option (a good counselor, Anderson says, will never hesitate to refer a client to a therapist who might be a better fit). Or, try individual therapy--sometimes that will do the trick.
About the Author
Freelance writer Dawn Weinberger lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband, Carl, and her cat, Lucy Liu. She covers health, fashion, pets and green living for several local and national publications.