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It is often the same story: Two people fall in love, and everything seems to be rosy. The first few weeks go by in the blink of an eye, and a few months down the road both think, they found their partner for life.

What are possible problems couples encounter?

Plans are made to get married, the relatives are invited and after a big party and maybe a honey moon, things are still going fine. Sometimes reality kicks in a little and some other times a lot later, but couples often find out at some point that they don’t fit as well together, as they first thought, that life as a couple is different from what they had imagined, or other problems like money, jobs, kids take over in life and leave little time for the couple to connect. Some of the most common problems, couples encounter are problems with money that can be caused by the loss of a job, or by different expectations about what standard of living should be achieved in what amount of time.

Communication is also often a cause for problems with marriage. Many people feel loved, if they feel understood. This, however, often leads people to think that their partner would know what they want, if he or she loved her or him. This can lead to fights over situations like this: she wanted to spend the Saturday afternoon with him, but did not tell him so and he does not understand, why she is mad at him, when he did exactly what she told him, when she said “I don’t mind you going golfing with your friends this Saturday.” It can also go the other way around that he accompanies her to visiting her mother, and then he’s so miserable that he starts behaving in a way that is making everybody uncomfortable.

These examples seem to be easily solvable, but if not addressed in time, they can lead to more serious problems like total disengagement, problems with alcohol and substance abuse or they can precipitate depression in people with a predisposition for this disease. Other problems that couples can encounter are problems with coping skills, e.g. the loss of a job can not only mean money problems, but can also create a feeling of loss of self-worth. Some couples grow stronger in the face of adversity, but the loss of a loved one, or serious illness in the family can rattle the foundations of many relationships. Dishonesty in a relationship whether it is about cheating, or secretly gambling the paycheck away in the casino have destroyed many relationships. 

What can couples do when things are bad?

Essentially there are two possibilities, when things are bad: staying together and working things out, or separating. While many people practice a third alternative: staying together and pretending nothing is wrong, this alternative can lead to more severe problems down the road and should therefore not be seriously considered. If the couple decides it is worth a try to stay together and try to work things out, the question is often: how? The answer to this question is often not easy and needs a lot of work, and frequently the couple is so involved in their little I’m right-you’re wrong-war that they are unable to find constructive solutions without the help of a third party. This is where couples counseling comes into place.

What can go wrong when seeing a couple’s counselor?

Counseling can only work if the patient is willing to make changes. This is true for all counseling and in particular for couples counseling. If one of the two partners was only dragged to the counselor by the other partner, but doesn’t feel like this will do any good, or that he or she needs to change anything, there is only a chance of a positive outcome, if the first few counseling sessions are able to change this persons mind. Sometimes couples counseling achieves the goals of empowering one partner to the point that he or she decides that it would be best for his or her future to leave the partner. In other cases both partners realize that they are incompatible, as they learn to know themselves and the partner better, and to respect and value each other’s desires.

Why is it important to go to counseling?

The couple has decided to try to improve their relationship, but neither of the two know how, and where to start. A counselor can help analyze behavior patterns in certain situations that lead to conflict. Once the behavior patterns are identified, they can be modified.

Behavior is usually influenced by emotions, and the emotions involved in a conflict situation can be better interpreted with the help of a counselor. Knowing what kind of emotions a certain behavior will cause in your partner, might help with communication and also might help change the behavior. In our earlier example, if the husband knows that his wife might actually not like him to leave to play golf with his friends, he might directly ask her what her plans would be, if he would stay here. If she realizes that even if he loves her, he is not psychic, and he will not be able to know that she really wanted to spend the afternoon enjoying a glass of wine and a movie (and maybe something more), if she does not tell him, she will eventually do so.

Couples counselors can help create a more accurate picture of who the partner really is, rather than whom we want him or her to be, and this can help settle misunderstandings and miscommunication. If you know your partners desires and motivations, it is much easier to find common ground. Knowing your partners desires also enables you to respect and value them and in some cases new common interests can be found. To know your own motivations and background emotions can also lead to better decision making in situations of conflict. Hidden agendas can be combated, when they are in the open and no longer hidden. Communication becomes a means to share and to connect and not a battle in a war that each partner wants to win. Listening skills can also be learned and practiced with the help of a couples counselor.

Many communications problems of couples that lead to serious problems in their relationship stem from bad listening habits like interrupting, not listening, speaking too long and not giving the partner time to respond and similar things. Couples counselors can help identify these bad habits and practice the uses of better habits. Couples counselors can also help with coping skills in stressful situations like the loss of a loved one or serious illness in the family. In situations that involve depression, or alcohol or substance abuse, visiting a couples counselor can strengthen the healthy partner and might lead the other partner to seek individual treatment for their disease. A couples counselor can help find the reasons that are behind dishonest behavior like cheating.