Do you remember when you first got married? How you believed that you could conquer anything and defy the odds with your love? That you were soulmates destined to be together for all eternity? This is what most of us enter into marriage believing. After all, if you thought it was going to fail, you probably wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
But then the honeymoon wears off, and the infatuation dies down, and real life, tedious real life happens. Work, kids, mortgages, bills, laundry, cooking, cleaning…these things can be difficult navigate. Sometimes, we get stuck, and we just need some help to move forward.
All marriages take work, most of us know this. It’s not always easy to share your life with another person and grow together. There will be bumps, hills, and even mountains to climb along the way. But when do you need the help of a professional therapist? How do you know the difference between normal growing pains and signs of a troubled marriage?
According to relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before getting help. That’s an awfully long time for people to be unhappy. Unfortunately, during all of that time, communication is breaking down, resentment is building, and pain and sadness is growing.
Therapy is a wonderful exploration of who you are, both as individuals and as a couple. It can help expose and change unhealthy patterns of interaction and communication. Marriages can be greatly improved if both parties are committed to understanding the other’s point of view and are willing to find common ground. Other times, unfortunately, couples just wait too long, and it becomes evident that the damage cannot be undone.
Nobody wants to be the one who waited too long. I hear all the time from divorced people that “we should have gone to counseling sooner”. Don’t be one of them. Know what to look for and when things aren’t going right. Here are some signs that your marriage needs help:
YOU ARE NOT HAVING SEX. Sex is an important part of a romantic relationship. While you don’t need to be acting like love-crazed teenagers, you should still be enjoying a mutually satisfactory sex life. If you are not, something is very wrong. Either one or both partners have become so resentful that there is no interest, one is withholding sex as punishment, or even worse, it can often mean one is having sex outside of the marriage.
YOU YELL AND SCREAM AND CRY ALL THE TIME. Sure, we all have our moments. Sometimes we lose it or get overly emotional. But if this has become your normal way of interacting, something is very wrong. This is emotionally unhealthy and actually exhausting. You should be able to have calm, rational and civilized conversations with one another, even about difficult things.
YOU ARE FILLED WITH ANGER AND RESENTMENT. If you are barking orders at one another, rolling your eyes, and just incapable of showing any semblance of kindness or respect to one another, run…don’t walk, to a therapist. You have so much unexpressed anger that it just seeps out of every crevice. And every time you let this happen, you are further damaging your own relationship.
YOU’VE STOPPED TRYING TO PLEASE EACH OTHER. Part of what draws partners to one another is all the ways that you try to please each other. Whether it is baking his favorite cake, taking her to a favorite restaurant, rubbing her shoulders, etc…, nearly every couple shows love through these acts early in a relationship. But if you’ve stopped trying to please one another altogether, that speaks volumes to the state of your marriage. The act of trying to please one another with loving acts of kindness should never stop.
YOU DON’T GO ANYWHERE TOGETHER. If you’re going on vacations separately, declining invitations to socialize with friends or accompany him to business events, and just sort of each doing your own thing, that is not a marriage. I’m not saying you can never be apart…it’s healthy to also do things for yourself that you enjoy. But if that is all you are doing, there has already been a devastating blow to your marriage.
THERE HAS BEEN A TOTAL BREAKDOWN OF COMMUNICATION. The scenario that most often presents itself is that something has been bothering one partner for a while, sometimes even years. But whenever he tries to bring it up, he is met with defensiveness, avoidance, passivity, and/or aggression. So, eventually, he just stops talking. He resigns himself to just live with it, as it’s easier than trying to get through a brick wall. He becomes resentful and this builds over time. She notices the distance between them, but doesn’t want to talk about it, as that’s just too difficult and painful. She’d rather pretend everything is fine and sweep it all under the rug. So they grow further and further apart, until there isn’t much of a relationship left at all. Often, spouses end up living like roommates rather than partners. This frequently leads to affairs.
Most often, the problems that present in therapy are related to a lack of communication skills. Unfortunately, nobody seems to teach us how to effectively communicate, and it is no easy task. When I work with couples, I try to help break down the “topic” of the argument and focus more on the “pattern” of the argument. What I notice very quickly with couples is that patterns emerge that are actually observable in my office during the 50 minute sessions. Once the faulty patterns are exposed and understood, they can be replaced with more effective ones that will improve communication. Once this improves, everyone seems to feel more heard, loved, understood and appreciated, and the ill will is now replaced with compassion, kindness and desire.
The most important thing is to trust your intuition. If something feels wrong, or things don’t seem to be working, or it just seems too hard, then you need professional help. Seeking help sooner than later is a sign of strength and commitment to your marriage. If your partner suggests going to therapy, always say “yes”.