When Do You Need Marriage Counseling?

Clues on Kids #011

At one time in your life, the person you share a bed with each night was the source of happiness and hope.  Remember when you both finished each other’s sentences and giggled about all those cute and sappy private jokes?  Do you recall when you both really enjoyed spending time together… and it was easy?  No fights, no misunderstandings, nor pressure!  It’s been years since you first got together and fell in love and some of that luster may have worn off by now.  Perhaps it feels like you have less in common.  

It’s possible you are struggling to find those feelings from years ago because most of your emotions are tied up in tense debates about paying bills or about why your spouse showed up to the swim meet late AND with the wrong kind of sandwiches.  As you slowly drift apart from one another, you feel the negative impact on your emotional health.  You can feel it in your bones and you can sense the gap is getting wider.  What you may not realize is that this marital stagnation or discord is also taking an emotional toll on your kids, too!


Fighting couple being parented by their children


Sure, every couple has their rough patches.  Ours comes and goes, some patches seem to stay a little longer than others.  And right now, we are doing okay.  Every time my wife suggests that we try couples counseling, life just gets really busy and we forget to look into it.  And besides, I think we are doing okay… most of the time.

The success of couples therapy is at it’s best when BOTH spouses are still vested in their marriage.  If it’s crossed your mind that maybe you and your spouse should sit down and talk with a therapist… then that usually means you don’t quite know how to handle certain issues that keep reoccurring and could benefit from some outside assistance in getting back on track.  If you’re already fantasizing about the color you would paint the bedroom when your spouse moves out, then couples therapy might not be as effective.  

This is why going early, while still in the beginning stages of slight marital dissatisfaction is more necessary than you realize.  Think about it in this way… Let’s say you have a precious and highly valuable antique vase that has profound meaning to the family.  What is easier to fix?  Your vase with a three-inch crack along the edge OR your vase that has 18 cracks running from top to bottom and side to side?  The latter being so fragile you don’t even know how the vase is still being held together and you’re worried that the slightest breath of air on it could cause it to crumble.  

Your precious, antique vase (your marriage) with the three-inch crack could quickly be treated with a little bonding material from the inside, where the repairs are not even visible from the outside.  Your precious, antique vase (your marriage) with 18 cracks running every which way is difficult to repair because each crack is interrelated to the other and one wrong move would wreck the whole thing.  Thus turning your precious, highly valuable antique vase into a pile of devalued rubble.

Too often I see couples come in to therapy to save their marriage at the point where both partners have one foot and the other four toes already out the door.  Hope is not lost, but the road is a much more difficult one when the obstacles to reconciliation are crowded with intense mistrust, anger and disrespect.  

However, when the nagging miscommunications between the two of you are irritating, but not overwhelming, there is often much more willingness on both sides to listen to and understand one another.  The time and money you will need to commit to marriage counseling when your complaints are minor is much less than the dedication required to save your family from the abyss when those complaints grow and fester into monstrous sizes.

Except for that one couple in our carpool that everyone secretly hates because they’re always so happy, all my other friends are in unsatisfying marriages too… excluding the ones who are already divorced, of course.  Isn’t that just what happens in a marriage after kids?  

Sure, you may think that is common since it happens to almost every marriage you hear about.  That doesn’t mean that it has to happen to yours.  Your relationship with your spouse doesn’t have to be mediocre or common.  HOWEVER, realizing that it takes a great deal of determination and effort from both of you to maintain a loving and rewarding relationship is the key.

It’s easy to get bogged down with the countless plates that we must spin daily in our overly scheduled, high tech society:  chauffeuring the kids all over town, cooking dinner, grocery shopping, preparing the tax return, checking emails, finding that lost homework assignment, arguing with the plumber because the sink is still leaking even though he swears that the seventh time was the charm, the list goes on and on!  It takes a lot of work to spin all these plates at once.  Sadly, the thing that many couples “work on” last is their own relationship.  Mostly because it’s easy to take it for granted and slough it off, thinking things like, “I’ll nurture that part of my life later.  It can wait a little longer.”  Well… before you know it, “later” keeps getting farther away and a “little longer” becomes four months, then nine months and eventually 5 years!

Well, something’s got to give.  I know that he loves me and I love him.  When things slow down, that’s when we can focus on “US” time… right?

That is not only a common belief, but it’s the belief that gets most marriages into trouble.  You know as well as I that things never slow down.  There will always be one more science project to help your daughter with, one more house repair and one more thing to get done at the office.  This constant busyness leads to being too tired or too distracted to notice the disconnect that happens between you and your partner.  

What does “disconnect” mean?  What does that look like?

Spouses talking less, relying on each other less and eventually making contradictory parenting choices.  Being too busy to eat meals together.  Realizing that you haven’t asked your partner how his/her day was in four weeks.  When you do ask, you get pulled away too soon by another crisis to hear the answer.  Being too overscheduled that you can’t attend events together, or maybe you don’t even realize that there’s an event that you’re supposed to go to.  Other times, you may begin to feel like roommates who live in the same house but never spend any quality time together as you both spend your time in opposite ends of the house.

The consequences of this disconnection are increased arguments, alienation and mistrust.  Instead of having a collaborative relationship where both parties feel like they are teammates working towards the same goals, the marriage can turn into a power struggle about who is right and who is the better parent.  These battles can have no winners… only losers.  A disconnected couple will keep track of who wins arguments and not on how to resolve them.  If one of you triumphs in the argument, the other will harbor resentment, and thus the scorekeeping begins.

A connected couple is one that finds the time to talk daily to keep each other in the loop of the very thing they have created together – the family.  A connected couple can appreciate and thrive on the support received from one another, and in turn feel like they are not alone.  A connected couple takes time to show each other that they deeply love each other despite barely seeing each other during the week.  

Try the “Good Morning Kiss” challenge for one month…
Every morning, with sincere physical and emotional connection.

Even though the circumstances are different from when you were newly married, that kind of blissful love is what will remind you of why you’re doing all of this crazy daily juggling in the first place.

But marriage counseling is uncomfortable!  I don’t want to talk about all that stuff.  I don’t need some stranger in a comfortable chair pointing her finger back at me telling me that I am wrong and my “perfect” spouse is always right.  I don’t want to be the “wrong” one who has to make all the changes!

Nor should you have to.  It’s quite rare that any marriage is so one-sided.  A good marriage counselor will not choose a position of judgment to shame you into submission.  An effective therapist will assist the two of you to meet in the middle, compromise and appreciate one another.  It’s not about who’s right.  It’s about rediscovering and nurturing the compassion and empathy shared between the two of you.  If you both find ways to truly understand and actively care for one another, the compromises you both make will be relatively easy.  That understanding is easily found while both of you are still getting along and wanting to be together.

But things are going relatively well.  It seems like an awful lot of money to spend to hear someone tell us to do things we are already doing.  We can get through our arguments most of the time.  Isn’t counseling for when the marriage is really in trouble?

Waiting until the marriage is in serious trouble is when divorce lawyers are being shopped for.  The couple discovering that they are in this kind of relationship is not thinking about how to rekindle their love because they don’t even remember the love that was once worth fighting for.  It is when individuals stop feeling like they are members of a united team that the transform into independent agents fighting for supremacy in the marriage.

As trust begins to significantly deteriorate, resentment quickly moves in and takes its place.  Once there, it sinks its roots quickly like a horrible strangling weed in your garden.  The more mistrust and resentment, the more likely people make decisions that hasten the growth of that resentment (e.g. name calling, lying, pitting the kids against the other parent, spitefully spending money that is earmarked for other important things in the family budget, infidelity, substance abuse, etc.).  Once a couple goes down this path, the willingness to be vulnerable with each other and trust again is severely compromised.  It’s not impossible to bounce back from this, but it is much more difficult, time consuming and expensive to turn things around.  

Do you really think our bickering is affecting our kids?  We try to hide it and don’t think they’ve ever heard or seen us really argue.

Yes, yes and yes!  Did I happen to mention that the answer is, “YES!”?  The two of you set the emotional tone in your house.  No matter the age of your children, they notice the coldness, the irritation, the frustration and the disrespect.  It doesn’t matter if they consciously see or hear you fight.  Your kids pick up on the negative energy and feelings you and your spouse pass between each other.  Even when the argument is long over, feelings of indifference and lack of concern for one another can be just as wounding.  Remember that the health of your marriage sends direct messages to your children about what to look for in their own future partnerships.  

Ok, so they pick up that their Dad and I aren’t seeing eye-to-eye.  So what?

The what is that your kids will react to this negativity between the two of you with their own maladaptive behavior.  They may become more argumentative, less cooperative, more anxious, less self-assured, more sullen or less able to enjoy their lives.  They probably won’t even understand why they are doing it much less recognize it as a reaction to your unhealthy relationship. 

As things get worse, your kid will likely start to blame himself for your marital strife.  Of course it’s not his fault, but the pain he feels can be quite convincing and sound something like… 

If I were just a better person, maybe my parents would be happier together.  

Clearly, this is an incredibly unhealthy assumption to make and a difficult one to shake off.  Even if he can intellectually understand that he’s not at fault, his powerful unconscious feelings can still pull him down, impeding his happiness and self-worth.  

The next step in this downward spiral is that now you and your spouse start to blame each other for your kid’s emotional struggles.  Now you feel the need to protect your son from the other spouse’s insensitivity or lack of healthy boundaries or any number of other traits that have now become intolerable from the person whom you once loved more than life itself.  

We can’t really afford it now though.  I’ll definitely look into it when we have fewer expenses.

While the emotional cost is pretty high on any child in an argumentative household, one must also consider the increase in financial cost when a couple waits too long to seek help.  Not only are you paying for weekly couple’s therapy, now you are realizing that your child needs a therapist as well to help him learn to cope with the toxicity in your household.  A child’s fear or anger about the uncertainty of his family’s future is terribly hard to deal with if not given the proper environment to explore these confusing emotions.  Since you don’t want to wait too long, like you did with your marriage, now there are two therapists you have to pay for… all because you allowed an unhealthy marital relationship to fester for far too long.

You must also consider the amount of time it takes to fix a small crack vs. several cracks going in every which direction.  It will take two to three to ten times more money, effort, and time to see any movement towards healing.  Those are three things that people generally don’t have any extra of.

Our marriage is pretty good, but the two of us seem to butt heads too often about how to parent.  Everything else seems to be fine.  Do you think that’s enough of a reason to seek counseling?

Absolutely.  Finding a therapist who understands kids and the importance of the parent/child relationship is key.  You want a therapist who can help with both the parenting and also how the two of you communicate and deal with conflict.  After all, every married couple has disagreements from time to time.  The goal is to effectively find productive ways to resolve those disagreements.  If left unchecked, those minor disagreements about parenting expand into all areas of your relationship… ten years later you’re screaming at each other about who’s to blame for the demise of the once great sex life you both used to share.

Starting therapy now, while the problems are minor allows you to focus on the important issues without being dragged down by other unnecessary emotional baggage.  Additionally, therapy will be much more fun and you’ll find that the two of you feel happier, closer to one another and you’ll keep that fire in the bedroom burning just as bright as ever!  

Kids should be allowed to make mistakes on their own.  But they don’t have to be alone when they try to learn from them.

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Contact Us For More Information if you have more questions or would like more information, please contact our Clinical Director, Kent Toussaint at 818.697.8555.