“This Isn’t Working”: Ten Warning Signs That Your Relationship Needs Couple Counseling
Sometimes, despite their own best efforts, couples find themselves unable to resolve the issues their relationship is facing. Emotionally focused couple therapists Brent Bradley, PhD, and James Furrow, PhD, reveal the red flags that may signal that it’s time to seek outside help.
If you’ve been together for a substantial period of time, there’s a fair chance that at some point you’ll find yourself saying (or at least thinking) these three fateful words: This isn’t working. When that happens, these four even more dreadful words—I want a divorce (or I want out)—are just a hop, skip, and jump away. And all too often, say couple counseling experts Brent Bradley, PhD, and James Furrow, PhD, all that’s standing between these two sentences is guidance from a professional. Before you can seek help, though, you’ve got to admit you have a problem.
Perhaps your struggling marriage resembles that of Monica and Dan. Two years after the birth of their child they haven’t been able to satisfactorily divide parenting responsibilities and constantly argue about how to raise their son.
Or maybe you’re more like Chris and Lena, for whom the bank account—and how it should be allocated—is a constant source of friction. Every time the checkbook or credit cards come out, so do raised voices, accusations, and contempt.
Still other couples may identify with Adrienne and Adam, for whom past infidelity is a constant black cloud…or with Nadia and Tyler, who have almost completely disengaged from one another…or with Sarah and Stephen, whose interactions pendulum between bitter sarcasm and icy silence.
“These couples are just a few examples of how struggling relationships manifest,” says Bradley, who along with Furrow wrote Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies® (Wiley, 2013, ISBN: 978-1-118-51231-9, $22.99). “Whatever the details, there usually comes a point when your problems grow too big for you to work through alone. There’s just too much hurt, anger, and misunderstanding.”
What’s more, if you’re like many couples, you never even saw the crisis coming.
“In the stress and chaos of everyday life, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the ways in which everyday issues can become insurmountable problems over time,” comments Furrow. “The more these seemingly small elements increase, the more likely a couple is to divorce—and the more evident it is that they might benefit from couple therapy.”
This approach described in their book helps both partners identify the powerful emotions underneath the surface that are driving their behaviors with each other. When these deep emotions become tangible, the beliefs and thoughts wrapped up in them also become clear, helping partners to finally break free of the negative behavior patterns that have been troubling their relationship.
NOTE to EDITOR: See attached tipsheets on what to expect from couple therapy and what to ask a therapist before booking an appointment.
First, though, you need to recognize when professional help is needed. Here, Bradley and Furrow share ten warning signs of a struggling relationship. Especially if several of these signs are present, seek couple therapy right away:
Few arguments ever get resolved. Most couples have common issues they argue about: money, the division of household labor, in-laws, parenting, and more. And that’s normal! The idea that happy couples don’t argue is a complete myth. In fact, prominent couple researcher John Gottman found that even “master” couples—those who stayed happily married over many years—argued regularly. Problems begin to creep in when arguments become chronic, personal, and unresolved.
“When couples find they can’t resolve key issues in their relationship, the relationship is in trouble,” says Bradley. “Extreme stonewalling—a refusal to give ground or compromise—is actually a reliable predictor of divorce.”
You feel like you have to walk on eggshells around certain issues. “We’re spending too much money—we should set up a budget.” “If we want to feel better, we need to get up off the couch and be more active.” “I feel like you aren’t telling me everything. What’s wrong?” In healthy relationships, these comments might lead to productive discussions, even if a certain amount of conflict takes place first. But in other relationships, similar observations might only spark arguments, tears, misunderstandings, blame, or name-calling.
“When that’s the case, many individuals might prefer to avoid hot-button topics altogether,” observes Furrow. “If you find yourself avoiding topics and protecting yourself from conflicts, it’s a sign that there is a lack of safety in your relationship. It’s never advisable to blurt out whatever you’re thinking whenever the impulse strikes—you should always avoid being unnecessarily hurtful or angry—but for a relationship to remain healthy, it’s crucial for the lines of honest communication to remain open.”
You find it difficult to reach to your partner for emotional support. For a variety of reasons, emotions are often a stumbling block for couples. One partner (often—but not always—the male) may see emotions as irrational, undesirable, or unhelpful. In other cases partners may not understand the reasons underlying why the other person feels and reacts a certain way.
“The truth is, a full, shared emotional life is important for couples,” confirms Bradley. “That’s because emotions are what organize and prioritize our lives. No matter what causes emotional disengagement, it drains the life from a relationship. If you no longer trust your partner with emotional vulnerability, your relationship is at risk.”
You find yourself spending less time together for no good reason. We’ve all known couples who seem to co-exist as roommates in the same house, living largely separate lives, instead of approaching life as partners. While this type of relationship may not be characterized by spectacular blow-ups and window-rattling arguments, it’s still headed for trouble.
“Even if your relationship dies with a whimper instead of with a bang, it’s still dead,” points out Furrow. “Partners who choose to spend less time together without purpose are often enacting emotional disengagement. No, you don’t have to (and in fact, you shouldn’t) spend all your free time with your spouse. But do keep in mind that time is a crucial resource for sustaining intimacy. If you want to spend as little of it as possible with your spouse, something isn’t right.”
Your arguments often include criticism, defensiveness, and contempt. Once again, Bradley reminds that all couples—even very healthy ones—argue. The difference is, healthy couples argue without extreme criticism, defensiveness, and contempt. In other words, they remain focused on the issue at hand instead of using the argument as an excuse to attack each other.
“When conflicts take on patterns that include attacks against a partner’s character, mindreading, counter-complaining, and insults or name-calling, damage is being done to the emotional security of the relationship,” confirms Bradley.
It has been months since you showed your partner you needed him or her, or vice versa. In the hustle and bustle (or outright chaos) of everyday life, it can be easy to assume that your partner knows how you feel about him, or to take for granted what she means to you. But when these feelings remain unspoken and unacknowledged for too long, problems can take root.
“Shared vulnerability is how partners show and share intimacy,” says Furrow. “When partners stop depending on each other, their relationship loses its importance, and closeness is lost.”
Anger and frustration over couple issues has turned to apathy and indifference. Especially when important topics are at stake, beware of phrases like, “I don’t care,” “Do whatever you want,” and “Have it your way.” In researcher John Gottman’s two-decade study, the only couples who didn’t argue had grown distant and were headed for divorce. That’s because giving up on an important issue is usually a step toward giving up on the relationship.
“A complete lack of conflict isn’t a sign of an exceptional relationship; it indicates that you and your partner no longer place enough value on your relationship to do the hard work of maintaining it,” comments Bradley. “Partners who give in to apathy and indifference are purposefully moving away from the relationship.”
You find yourself trying to control circumstances rather than trust your partner. Controlling actions within a relationship can take many forms—for example, restricting access to money, disapproving of outside relationships, putting the other person down, or playing on a partner’s emotions to get what you want.
“No matter how they manifest, controlling actions usually indicate one thing: that the perpetrator is insecure in the relationship,” says Furrow. “Perhaps he feels injured or misused, or is fearful of how his partner might act if not otherwise influenced. Either way, these efforts at control undermine efforts to rebuild trust.”
You don’t share personal thoughts and feelings without fear of criticism. Say that your partner is being considered for a promotion at work. While a great honor, this promotion would also require your family to relocate to a different city. You’d like to discuss the fact that a possible move makes you uncomfortable, but based on past experience, you know that your partner will accuse you of being “selfish” and “not supportive.” So you bottle up your fears and keep your mouth shut.
“Fear of your partner’s lack of care and concern is a sign of an insecure relationship,” explains Bradley. “Managing this fear through withdrawal is a short-term solution to eroding trust, which can threaten a long-term relationship.”
A difficult life event has caused strain. According to Furrow, certain life events can place a lot of stress on couples and families. They include: getting married, losing a job, the death of a family member or someone close, a serious illness or disability, the birth of a child, depression or another mental health issue, a natural disaster, children leaving home, addiction, and a crisis with one of your children.
“The changes to a couple’s daily routine that these events necessitate, not to mention the emotional distress they cause, can spark dissatisfaction, dysfunction, and conflict,” Furrow says. “Many times, couples come to therapy while experiencing one or more of these common life events, or soon after.”
“If you and your partner have been facing one or more of these issues for some time and haven’t made much headway in resolving them, consider making an appointment for couple counseling,” concludes Bradley. “And please don’t feel ashamed that you need to call in a professional. Human relationships—and especially marriages—are very complicated. And often our beliefs about how they should work are full of misunderstandings.”
“The good news is that an emotionally focused couple therapist can use the strong emotions you’re feeling to pull you and your partner back together, instead of allowing those feelings to continue pushing you apart,” adds Furrow. “Making the decision to attend couple therapy may not be easy—and therapy itself won’t be easy, either. But if your relationship is on the rocks, taking this step might mean the difference between separating and staying together. Often, the safety, support, and guidance couples need to heal simply can’t be found in any other resource.”
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Step into My Office: Four Things Couples Should Expect in Counseling
by Brent Bradley, PhD, and James Furrow, PhD, authors of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies® (Wiley, 2013, ISBN: 978-1-118-51231-9, $22.99)
If you and your partner are experiencing problems, you may decide your relationship would benefit from seeing a couple counselor. But if you haven’t participated in couple therapy before, you may have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. Here, Bradley and Furrow answer four common questions couples have:
How long will it last? Couple therapy is usually 50 minutes per session, and people typically go once a week. The number of sessions you attend will vary depending on the level of distress you’re in and the model of therapy a therapist employs.
“Ask any therapist you’re considering seeing which model(s) they most often use and how long they usually see couples,” advises Bradley. “In general, though, if you and your partner need help resolving a surface problem, you can expect one to five solution-focused sessions. Emotionally focused therapy, which targets relationship closeness, might last for eight to twenty sessions. If the therapist works from an approach that looks for unconscious processes and individual dynamics, sessions could go on anywhere from one to five years.”
Will the counselor see us together or individually? Most therapists trained specifically in couple therapy will see both partners together in a session. Especially over the past 15 years, explains Furrow. The emerging field of couple therapy has moved away from individually oriented models of therapy in favor of treating relationships themselves—which means they see you in session as a couple.
“Relationships involve two people intimately working out their lives together with their own arguments, patterns of interactions, and much more,” he comments. “My coauthor and I are definitely biased toward the couple relationship itself being ‘the client’ in couple therapy, and we firmly believe that couples should be seen together in session. Individual sessions along the way are expected, but the vast majority of sessions should be focused on the relationship with both partners present.”
What does an emotionally focused therapist do? Broadly speaking, an emotionally focused therapist will help you and your partner to identify the powerful emotions underneath the surface that are driving your behaviors with each other. They will work toward the success, health, and positive growth of your relationship while striving to help you both feel comfortable, safe, and understood.
“Going into therapy, you may find it comforting to know that an emotionally focused therapist doesn’t assign blame to one partner; rather, they put the emphasis on how the relationship has gotten negative over time, which is something neither of you wants,” explains Bradley. “While one person may have done something that stands out as most hurtful to the relationship, both you and your partner are responsible for the current level of distress, and it’ll take both of you working together to make things better.
“It’s been my experience that some men in particular don’t want to go to couple therapy because they’re afraid that they’ll be blamed,” he continues. “With an emotionally focused therapist, that shouldn’t be the case. Again, the relationship itself is the client. The way that you and your partner interact, along with the emotions underlying those interactions, become pivotal. The focus is on what’s keeping you from connecting emotionally rather than on who’s most to blame.”
How do we know if the counselor is any good? In a nutshell, you’ll feel it—and so will your therapist. Even in the first session of emotionally focused therapy, emotions usually come forth that you and your partner don’t normally talk about at home. If you go three sessions and you haven’t uncovered some vulnerable emotions and felt them—not just talked about them, but felt them in session—it may be time to find another emotionally focused therapist.
“Remember that you’re paying for a therapist to help heal your relationship, not just give you a warm and fuzzy hour every week,” reminds Furrow. “They should be an active participant in the discussion and should also push you when necessary. That’s to be expected, as long as you continue to feel safe and supported. Overall, an effective therapist will prompt you to share directly with your partner, help you stay on track when doing so, highlight the critical elements shared by each of you, and then help each partner hear and respond to what’s been said.”
About the Authors:
Brent Bradley, PhD, and James Furrow, PhD, are coauthors of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies®.
Dr. Bradley is president of The Couple Zone (www.couplezone.org), a center for counseling, counselor training, and research in Houston. He is a former tenured associate professor of family therapy and a published scholar/researcher in emotionally focused couple therapy.
Dr. Furrow is professor of marital and family therapy at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. He is executive director of the Los Angeles Center for EFT and a certified emotionally focused couple therapist, supervisor, and trainer.