A therapist explains how it works — and why most couples should try it.
If you’ve been lucky enough to find your partner in life, you probably have an entire list of things you love to do together — activities that enrich your relationship, solidify your bond, and keep you on the right track. We’ve got one more to add: Seeing a therapist.
Whether you’re dealing with one of the most common relationship problems or you think things are working pretty well right now, the reality is that every couple can benefit from working with someone who’s trained in unpacking your emotional baggage and facilitating healthy debate without unnecessary aggression.
Mental health professionals have a keen eye for the signs of a healthy relationship, and they also act as unbiased observers who can diffuse tension you may not even realize you’re causing. (Plus, their work is utterly fascinating, which is why we’re glued to series like Showtime’s Couples Therapy, which pulls back the curtain on this intimate process.)
In observation of Mental Health Awareness Month, we got the scoop on this potentially relationship-saving practice from licensed therapist Kier Gaines, who has already given us the lowdown on what you should know before trying therapy and how to recognize when your work is paying off.
When is the right time to see a couples therapist — and does it mean my relationship is doomed?
“There is this fear deep within some people that, ‘If I go to marital counseling, I’m going to get a divorce, or maybe we’ll break up, or maybe things will happen in my marriage and my relationship will go downhill,’ and I completely disagree,” Gaines says.
The truth is it’s always the right time to see a couples therapist. Their professional expertise is just as valuable to couples who are preparing to make a big decision, like getting married or having a child, as it is to those who are in crisis or considering a split.
Gaines has personal experience with this from both sides of the equation. In addition to helping his own clients navigate relationship issues, he and his wife benefited greatly from seeing a therapist together before walking down the aisle.
“The best thing that my fiancée — now wife — and I ever did was go to premarital counseling,” he says. “It taught us that the issues we had with each other actually had nothing to do with the other person. It was about our stuff from the past, our relationships with our parents, and our former relationships. All of that stuff that didn’t exist within the circle of us was infecting the circle of us.”
It worked so well, in fact, that they’re currently planning another round of visits.
“My wife and I haven’t gone to therapy in a year, but we’re about to start going back,” he says. “It’s not because anything is wrong. Our marriage is actually great. It’s because we want to keep it great. We want to make sure that we’re dealing with a new baby and new jobs and new responsibilities in a way that is healthy and equally supportive of both parties in the relationship.”
How does a couples therapist help, exactly?
You’ve heard the old saying that there are three sides to every story: Your side, my side, and the truth. In the case of couples in a committed relationship, each person’s unique perspective — including their early life experiences, the things they learned from previous partners, and the patterns they’ve observed in the current relationship — make it difficult to see a disagreement from their mate’s point of view.
“There’s nothing like an impartial party in the room that two people can both give their perspective to, and that person can give clarity to the situation, allow both people to have voices, and give you the means to have conflict with one another and figure it out yourselves,” Gaines says.
In the heat of the moment during a period of relationship stress, it can often be near impossible to take a step back and logically examine what’s happening, which causes us to miss important cues in our partner’s behavior — and many times, the most fundamental part of their message is hiding between the lines of what they’re saying. A trained therapist can observe from a helpful remove, which allows for much greater clarity about what’s really going on.
In fact, part of your therapist’s job is to take their personal opinions out of the equation — which is, of course, the opposite of what the two halves of the couple in question are meant to be doing. And that personal distance is exactly what allows them to illuminate the pathway to more productive communication.
“In therapy, you’ll learn the tools to not just vent your frustrations at one another, but talk to each other in a way that the other person can understand what you’re feeling and help you problem-solve,” Gaines says. “When you’re pissed off or when you have kids — when marriage is what it really is, and not the happy fantasy that people try to pretend it is — it’s important to have somebody help you navigate all of that.”
How do religious counselors differ from couples therapists?
So many partners bond through their faith and come to better understand one another through the context of their beliefs. But ideally, religion-oriented solutions should be one piece of a bigger puzzle when it comes to dealing with your mental health as individuals and as a couple.
“It’s important to say that even though in our religious communities we have counselors who do an amazing job, if you do see a religious counselor, I suggest that you also see a licensed clinician, like a licensed marriage and family therapist,” Gaines recommends.
While members of your church offer deeply valuable insight into how your beliefs can help you make sense of the struggles within your relationship, they’re not necessarily trained in understanding the behavioral nuances of how a couple communicates or how their personal quirks might influence the dynamic between them.
“Pastors and religious leaders have great skills and they’re able to take the word and the theory of religion and spirituality and apply it, but there are specific clinical interventions that therapists are trained on and they’re not, and those can come in handy in your relationship,” he says.