There’s growing distance between you and your partner, you’re fighting, it’s not getting better. Divorce has crossed your mind, but you aren’t ready to take that step. “Do we need marriage counseling? Can’t we just handle this on our own?” you wonder. “Is it really that bad? Will marriage counseling even work?” Deciding when to seek marriage counseling is a big decision. In this post, we’ll talk about how you know you need it. Here are 3 ways to know:
1 - You are thinking about it.
Research shows that on average couples wait 6 years after the start of problems in their marriage to seek marriage counseling.¹ Six years is a long time for discouragement and resentment and sadness to build. Six years is a long time to live with growing distance from your spouse. I believe that the fact that you have to decide together to come to marriage counseling is part of what makes this average time so long. If you were having an easy time making decisions together and seeing and valuing each other's opinions, you might not think you need marriage counseling to begin with! So if you find yourself in a place where you’re thinking your relationship could use some outside help, take that seriously. Don’t wait any longer.
2 - Your problem solving strategies aren’t working
All couples have patterns they fall into in how they interact and problem solve. Maybe it’s your norm to talk openly and heatedly about your disagreements or maybe you both go silent for a while. You might be a couple who is able to reconnect and feel close again after a few minutes and maybe it’s your pattern to stay mad at each other for hours or days. Maybe you repair the rift through laughter or sincere apologies and maybe you repair through gifts or sex. Whatever your pattern, if it’s working for both of you, you’re good!
If what you’ve used in the past to resolve conflicts in your relationship is no longer working, it might be a good idea to seek marriage counseling. If you find yourself facing something big, something life-changing and you don’t know how to handle it, marriage counseling can help. It may not be that your previous problem solving strategies aren’t working, the situation you’re facing may be so big or so different that you don’t have any strategies for it at all. You really don’t know what to do. A marriage therapist can help.
3 - Your relationship is being overwhelmed by negativity
Relationship expert John Gottman found that stable relationships have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions during conflict.² That’s five positive statements or actions for every one negative! You might read that and think, “Oh! I can increase the positive! There are lots of things I love about my spouse, I need to tell her/him what those things are more frequently. I could change my attitude or approach on some things to make more positive interactions. That’s easy or at least do-able.” If this is you, you’re in great shape!
You might read about a healthy relationship needing more positive than negative interactions and think, “Tell me something I don’t know! All the negativity is why I’m on the internet reading a therapist blog about when to seek marriage counseling! Our disagreements are so bad that I can hardly remember the things I love about my spouse. I really don’t think adding in a few compliments here and there is going to fix what we’re facing. We’re so deep in all this negative I don’t even know where to start to find the way out!” If this is you, we need to talk!
If you’re not sure, talk to your spouse and call a therapist for a consult. Many marriage therapists and counselors (like me!) are willing to do short phone consultations for free to help you decide if marriage therapy is right for you.
¹Gottman, J.M. What Predicts Divorce? The Relationship Between Marital Process and Marital Outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994.
²Gottman, J.M. and Levenson, R. W. “What predicts change in marital interaction over time? A study of alternative models.” Family Process Journal. 38.2 (1999): 143-58.