Couples Series #3: To Go or Not To Go (to Therapy)

Jeremy Sharp, PhDrelationships, therapy Leave a Comment

Hello again! Some of you may know that I’m in the midst of a four-part Couples Series inspired by Elizabeth Weil’s NYT article, “Married (Happily) With Issues.” This is the third installment in that series. As per the usual, I’ll start with a quote from her article (which is actually a quote from a psychologist):

Some in the field are outwardly critical of most marriage therapy; among them is William J. Doherty, a psychologist and the director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota, who writes, “If you talk to a therapist in the United States about problems in your marriage, I believe that you stand a good risk of harming your marriage.”

As someone who’s both a couples therapist and one half of a real-life couple, I have a lot of professional and personal feelings about the idea that couples therapy can harm a marriage. I’ll tackle the professional first.

As Elizabeth Weil states, the research on couples therapy is dubious at best. Difficulties with measuring therapeutic effectiveness aside, it’s safe to say that many couples who go to therapy actually end up breaking up. I’m too lazy to find the actual reference, but I feel like I read some research stating that the most frequent outcome of couples therapy is separation or divorce. If you think about it though, most couples only seek therapy as a last resort – the relationship is already sinking, and one or both partners are looking to assuage any guilty feelings for not trying to save it. Very few seek therapy as a preventative measure or a way to increase the health of a relationship. Why fix what’s not broken, right? So in this sense, therapy can “harm” a marriage, if you consider ending the relationship to be harmful.

Another way of looking at it is that couples therapy will certainly stir up strong emotions and cause you to look more closely at the relationship dynamic. Couples therapy is a scary undertaking because it can turn the intimacy level up to 10 really quickly, and this can be dangerous for a couple of reasons. In many relationships, there’s already a distinct fear of intimacy (conscious or unconscious), and suggesting that couples actually express genuine, vulnerable emotion to one another – heaven forbid – can push the panic button. It’s also tough because the increased level of intimacy in session can actually cause couples to feel more distressed when they leave session and fight, because they’ve experienced a bigger gap between what could be and what is. All of a sudden, there’s more to lose. I’ve seen many couples experience incredible closeness and attachment in session only to come back next time and describe the worst week of their lives. So in this case, “harm” may be done if strong emotions are stirred up without also teaching skills to process or deal with them.

All of that said, I truly believe that couples therapy can be an amazing experience. The Emotionally-Focused Therapy approach has shown excellent results for increasing intimacy and keeping couples together, both in the short-term and long-term.

That’s the professional piece.

Personally, I’m also a fan of couples therapy. We’ve utilized it mainly as a preventative measure – sort of like a periodic “check-up” on our marriage. That’s not to say that bigger issues don’t arise, but we didn’t enter therapy in crisis by any means. I think it’s a shame that more couples don’t seek therapy or counsel earlier in their relationship…it’s so easy to let things slide or put it off until it’s a true emergency. I once had a supervisor who framed it like a business partnership. He said, “How can you possibly enter a long-term relationship without having weekly or monthly ’business meetings’ to talk about how things are going?” I completely agree with him, especially when couples are managing joint finances, pets, kids, vacations, etc.

I can’t lie though – there have definitely been times when we’ve walked out of session feeling more confused, angry, or lost than when we went in. But we’re fortunate enough to have found a therapist who can place these feelings in context and help us work with them in a way that brings us closer. The overall feeling is one of growth and a stronger connection with one another.

I’m aware as I’m wrapping this up that this has been one of my more “energetic” posts. It’s something that’s very relevant for me both personally and professionally, and I have a lot of passion when writing or thinking about it. As always, I welcome any thoughts or feelings around the post or Weil’s article. If anyone’s willing to share an experience with couples therapy, feel free to post in the comment section as well! Thank you all for reading 🙂


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