My ex-boyfriend and I probably should have been in therapy for years before we actually were. In hindsight, it would have saved us a lot of miscommunication and emotional turmoil. It certainly would have made our relationship healthier. It might have even made it end sooner, which could have been a good thing. I don’t believe every relationship has to last forever to be considered “successful,” and to simplify an incredibly complex event, my seven-year-long partnership was an incredible learning experience if nothing else. For that reason, I have no regrets, especially not our decision to go to therapy during those last few weeks. Looking back, I’ve actually come to the understanding that every couple could benefit from attending counseling at some point, even if things aren’t on the rocks. In fact, I intend to bring therapy into every relationship I have moving forward. I know that isn’t a widely shared thought in contemporary American culture, but allow me to explain…
Despite all the progress we continue to make to destigmatize mental healthcare—to prioritize the health of our brains like we do the health of our bodies—couples therapy is still extremely hush-hush. A few months after my boyfriend and I broke up, a friend who was having some trouble with her boyfriend approached me, telling me in a whisper that she’d heard I’d been in couples therapy and was wondering if I’d be comfortable sharing the name of the person we saw. It disappointed me that she didn’t feel at ease asking me openly about that sort of thing, though I understood it: In our culture, seeking a couples counselor is still such an unmentionable thing. We share this false idea that if you’re a couple in therapy, then you’re failing at your relationship, which we as a society consider unacceptable.
“For some reason, people think that they should know how to have a good relationship,” says Illinois-based therapist David Klow, LMFT, author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist and founder of Skylight Counseling Center. “Yet for most of us, we are still learning how to have conscious romantic relationships. Just as there would be no shame to bring your broken car to the mechanics if you didn't know how to fix it, there is no reason to hesitate to seek help if there are concerns about your relationship.”
Not to mention, most of us don’t even realize what couples therapy actually is. What people don’t realize before trying it for the first time is that the experience isn’t some intimidating purgatory where you air out all your dirty laundry before a judgmental stranger taking secret notes about how screwed up you are. Once you get in the room with your therapist, the atmosphere should feel really natural (and confidential).
“Couples therapy is a process in which two people meet with a trained clinician to find solutions to the problems in their relationship,” explains Klow. “Topics that couples might talk about include how to resolve issues about money, sex, division of household labor, other people, extended family members, or infidelity. A lot of what also takes place has to do with learning how to have healthier arguments and resolve conflicts more effectively.”
My ex and I didn’t have any of the giant, glaring relationship issues that we associate with couples on the verge of a split: Nobody was lying or cheating. Nobody was physically harming anyone. We simply weren’t connecting anymore, and we didn’t know why. On the surface, that didn’t seem like “that big a deal.” That’s part of why my ex was hesitant to go to therapy at all. Plus, having had a bad experience with therapy as a kid, he was wary of sharing our issues with some stranger who was surely no personal expert on love themself. However, once we got in the room with our therapist, it quickly became clear that what our eventual therapist had was a set of helpful communication tools and insight from years of schooling that we simply didn’t. Once we started applying those tools and insights to our relationship outside her office, it gave us an immense amount of clarity about why we weren’t working anymore.
In the end, my ex and decided mutually and compassionately that it would be best not to stay together. In a way, I think going to couples therapy to try to “save” our relationship actually helped us achieve the insight we needed to part ways. And we were better off for it. I think any relationship I have moving forward could benefit from that type of insight, even if there’s nothing going terribly wrong.
“Couples therapy is for everyone,” Klow says. “Your relationship does not have to be on the rocks before you come to couples counseling. In fact, many people try counseling after it’s too late and too much damage has been done to the relationship. Being proactive and resolving issues before they put your relationship in jeopardy would be a wise move.”
It’s a shame that simply asking for help to maintain the health of your relationship isn’t as accepted as, say, seeking a personal trainer to maintain the health of your body. But hopefully, the more proactive each of us is about couples therapy, and the more vocal we are about it, the more that will change.