Signs it’s time to go to couples counseling (and when it’s just not worth it)

Many people are under the impression that going to couples counseling is a sign that your relationship is on the rocks and that it’s a sign of imminent doom. That’s not actually true, except in the case of couples that are so distressed that they can’t effectively do any repair work and have both given up on the relationship on some level.

It’s unfortunate, though, because couples counseling can be a really excellent tool to facilitate hard conversations and to have someone kindly reflect the dynamics in your relationship that create friction and disagreement.

Every couple fights, though how often and about what are very specific to the couple. If you’re one of those classic lesbian types of relationships where everything gets talked about and examined, you have a higher-than-average rate of conversations that could be conflictual. Research shows that gay women have higher-than-average rates of emotional intelligence in their relationships, but that doesn’t mean that we never hit the skids and need some help.

John Gottman, a marriage researcher and counselor in Seattle, says something like 64% of all arguments are about the same subjects throughout a couple’s entire time together. Five years later, you and your partner will probably be fighting about the same stuff. If you’re in the thick of it, that probably sounds horrible. But alternatively, what can change is the intensity of the fight, how hard the impact is on you, and how well you are able to reconnect after the fight. The content won’t necessarily change, but the way it feels when you fight can.

Some good reasons to pursue couples counseling include:

You have weathered some big changes recently.

Maybe a move or you opened your relationship, or you’re thinking of having kids, or you moved in together, or you’re thinking about getting married. There are all really big things, and bring up our core issues around trust, connection, and our security in relationships. If it feels like you need the support, it’s not a bad time to try it out!

It feels like your fights are getting meaner.

It’s pretty normal when we are worn down and defensive to get more impatient and short with everybody, including the people we love. Sometimes this means evolving in the way we talk to each other and then later feeling really ashamed and embarrassed about this. This is not the greatest way to be, but if this is not the norm, it sounds like a good time to seek out some help to help have those fights more effectively.

If you are two really different people in general.

What’s exciting about partnership is you get to find somebody who is often complimentary ( rather than matching) in terms of personality—you get the benefits of somebody who cultivated really different life strategies, and that can be so exciting and fun! In the beginning, people usually find this really thrilling in their partner. As time wears on, the other person’s strategies come off as irritating or illogical to them, and fights can break out. A couples counselor can help smooth out the communication between the two of you so that you can come to the understanding that she’s not lining up her shoes at the end of the day AT you; she’s doing it because it soothes her sense of anxiety and need for control.

Some bad reasons to pursue couples counseling:

You want somebody else to tell your partner she’s wrong.

Some couples disagree on core issues, like where they want to live or whether or not they should have kids. Resolving these can be hard—sometimes people can seek out couples counseling because they love each other but want fundamentally different things. I’m sorry to say, there is no way to convince somebody to want something different than what they want.

If one or both of you doesn’t really care anymore.

If your feelings have changed, fine! But don’t drag somebody through the expense of couples counseling to wring themselves out in front of another person if you just don’t care anymore or aren’t invested.

She never listens to you and hurts your feelings all the time.

It’s not clear from the above statement whether you’re in an explicitly abusive relationship, but a couples counselor will not be able to make your girlfriend or wife listen to you. If she is acting like a bully and will not respond to requests for change, nobody can make her act like a better person.

The majority of couples and conflicts can be supported and eased better with somebody else facilitating the conversation. Consider outsourcing your problems (like you do with your plumbing and dry cleaning and taxes) and getting a professional to look at what you two have going on. Most likely, you’re just in need of a gentle tune-up.