The Case For Couples Counseling

Every relationship hits occasional potholes. Time can pave over some of them; others require more immediate attention. Whether to smooth out communication snafus or address deeper rifts, couples counseling can prevent those potholes from turning into sinkholes.

Research supports its efficacy. In a 2010 UCLA study, 134 “chronically, seriously distressed” couples engaged in 26 therapy sessions over a year followed by a maintenance session approximately every six months for another five years. After the first 26 sessions, about two-thirds of the couples reported significant improvements. Five years later, about half had maintained the momentum.

Success depends on timing: One reason counseling fails is that couples wait too long to seek help.

“There can be a stigma that a relationship is ‘broken’ if couples seek therapy,” explained couples and family therapist Trisha Hartmann, LMFT.

“Research shows that couples tend to feel unhappy for six years before they get help. Couples who enter therapy early on can work to ensure the relationship is progressing in a healthy and satisfying way, which helps to prevent emotional damage that can result from years of discord.”

Read on for ways to spot trouble before the situation gets too dire — as well as what to expect both in and outside of the therapist’s office.

When to Seek Help:

For some couples, an elephant-in-the-room issue such as an affair or addiction compels them to seek counseling. But problems also often arise within the daily routine of relationships.

To catch these types of issues early on, watch for what psychologist John Gottman, PhD, cofounder of the Gottman Institute and one of the leading researchers in couples therapy, calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Contempt
  • Stonewalling (or any gesture communicating withdrawal or disinterest, such as the silent treatment).

While each of these habits contributes to discord, contempt is the most pernicious. In fact, frequent expressions of contempt — when one partner regularly communicates disgust toward the other — are the single biggest predictor for divorce; this can be as simple as an eye roll or a disdainful comment.

Couples can also be mindful of the Magic Ratio. Gottman Institute research shows that, during times of conflict, healthy relationships need at least five positive interactions, such as moments of affection, joy, or laughter, for every negative interaction. If the ratio gets out of…

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