When is the right time to go to couples therapy? Do you wait until there’s constant arguing? Until someone issues an ultimatum? Or until you think it’s your best shot at keeping your relationship? Many couples struggle with when to try couples therapy, and sadly, many wait entirely too long. Pushing it off is an attractive option: one of you wants to go more than the other, you struggle with personal stigmas, or perhaps most common, your problems are ‘bad, but not bad enough to warrant therapeutic intervention.’ So the idea gets thrown between two parties like a hot potato until the window for therapy has largely passed, and all that’s left is resentment, distrust, and contempt.
So while every couple struggles with issues unique to them, there are some common themes that can help you identify the right time to enter into couples therapy:
1. You’re having the same argument
You know the saying if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Well, if your relationship is stuck on repeat - it’s broke, and it needs fixing. There are many different terminologies for this situation: a gridlock, a stalemate, but really it’s a perfect opportunity to invite an objective third party into your disagreement. You know that if you and your partner don’t change anything, you’ll almost certainly have the same fight again, and again, and again, to infinity and beyond. But with a pair of fresh eyes on the old, tired argument, you may start to see things from a different perspective. All it takes is a little help. This is a great time to enter into couples therapy and explain to your therapist that you have been unable to push through a certain roadblock. Their job, as a licensed professional, will be to help you dissolve that roadblock as well as identify others you may not have even seen.
2. You’re looking outside your relationship
If you’ve noticed that your eye is starting to wander, it’s likely time to speak to someone. Whether you or your partner are attracted to someone outside your relationship, obsessed with comparing yourselves to other couples, or simply fixated on external distraction to keep you from looking at the issues in front of you - several sessions in couples therapy will save you months of heartache. You will be able to air your doubts in a safe environment and dissect the underlying reasons for thoughts and feelings. Couples therapy will be the most efficient option here, as well as the fairest to both you and your partner.
3. You have undergone a major change
Many of us need additional support when adjusting to transitions: the transition from dating to commitment, from casual sex to monogamy, from partners to parents. This can also apply to life changes such as a cross-country move, new job, major purchase, career pivot. Anything that disrupts the status quo is going to be more challenging to adapt to and it’s in those vulnerable environments that all therapists - couples therapists especially - become invaluable. Finding a consistent pattern in an uncertain time can be the life raft which carries you and your partner to calmer waters. Speaking to someone about the challenges, the change to your dynamic, and gaining insight into how your partner has handled (or struggled) with the change will give you a clearer picture of how to take your relationship from where it is, to where you want it to be.
4. You’re avoiding sex
As adults, we’re all too familiar with the concept of ‘playing the part.’ We smile at our bosses when we’d like to scream ourselves hoarse, we say ‘No thank you’ when we’d rather say yes, and we abide by social etiquette even after the crappiest of days. But while it’s easy to fake it in other areas, it’s almost impossible to be convincing in the bedroom. If you are dealing with an aversion towards your partner (whether physical, emotional, or otherwise) you will not be able to successfully play the part of ‘someone interested in having sex with them.’ It’s simply too vulnerable an area of our relationship to falsify. Pay attention to these indicators, they are meant to flag your attention to much deeper issues than mediocre sex. If you feel yourself turning away from your partner’s bids for intimacy, sleeping in another room, or faking a headache for the fourth night in a row: it’s time to schedule a session. You will be able to identify and understand your barriers to sex through unfiltered honesty and a thoughtful evaluation of your feelings.
5. You don’t feel like you in your relationship
This is a much more sinister and insidious issue, one harder to pinpoint, because it likely occurs incrementally over a period of time and might also involve manipulation or gaslighting from your partner. However, there are patterns that you can look for to see if this applies to you. For instance, if you notice yourself escaping your relationship to seek support from close friends, swallowing your words often in the presence of your partner, or hearing from your inner circle that you’re different, or you’ve changed, it may be time to call for an intervention. Our relationships, at their best, are meant to lift us up and make us the best versions of ourselves, and at our worst, they magnify and inflame our worst characteristics, fueling a caustic environment in which you both suffer. If you have a suspicion that you aren’t yourself with your partner but you don’t feel ready to jump to therapy immediately, you can always ask a confidante to confirm your hypothesis. If they can corroborate your worst fears, you should move forward and speak to a therapist both alone and together.
6. You check your partner’s phone
If the bond of trust between you and your partner is so shattered that you feel the need to look through their phone, you have rebuilding to do. This is a huge betrayal of their personal autonomy (and of yours, if they are looking through your phone as well) because it not only indicates that you think they are hiding something - but also that if you asked them about it, you anticipate not getting an honest answer from them. Without radical change and immense effort, you and your partner cannot move forward in a healthy relationship. However, if you enlist the services of a couples therapist and methodically work through your past, your suspicions, and your insecurities, you can essentially ‘plug the leaky bucket’ of your relationship and have a chance at building trust once again.
7. You feel lonely
There are few feelings worse than loneliness in the company of someone else - especially when that person is your partner. Loneliness is an anticipated side effect of being alone, but when it pervades your relationship it can be a symbol of a systemic issue. How can you tell if you’re lonely in your relationship? You don’t feel like you’re being heard, you feel no support, you aren’t often affectionate, you don’t communicate often or well, and you feel disheartened about the future. If you can identify one or more of these patterns, you might be lonely in your relationship. With the help of a couples therapist, you can find a safe space to bring these feelings to the attention of your partner, to be heard, respected, and validated.
8. You don’t want the same things
You and your partner are both human beings, and human beings change. Things that you agreed on earlier in your relationship might not be true for you anymore, and things you didn’t think you wanted might begin to seem important. That’s why discussing values and goals is not a conversation that just happens initially: it’s an ongoing conversation, open to change and shifts as you and your partner grow as people. Common manifestations of this issue are disagreeing about wanting children, disagreeing about how to raise children, not having similar religious views and not wanting the same lifestyle. These disagreements are indicative of a larger problem, that you and your partner might have grown away from each other, into people who have less in common than you think. Getting a therapist’s perspective is especially helpful here, because they can zoom out and look at the big picture, giving you and your partner some honest feedback and clear insight into whether or not you will be able to build a future together that you find mutually beneficial.
9. You or your partner have had an affair
Although infidelity is something you hope will never happen in your relationship, affairs occur more often than we think. If you have had an affair or have discovered that your partner is or has been engaged in one, one of your first calls should be to schedule a therapy appointment. That is, if you still want to be in your relationship. If you don’t, an affair is a terrible and unfair way to break up with someone, but you realize that it’s over. If you want to fight for it, a therapist is essential because they afford you perspective. Affairs evoke such dramatic and emotional responses that you and your partner will find it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate effectively without a third party. Having a licensed therapist in the room as you begin to navigate the first conversations will allow you to give and get information, process the facts, and analyze your reactions to them. Without intervention, you and your partner are in danger of falling into vicious cycles of jealousy, suspicions, and accusations.
10. You are committed to your partner
Bottom line: seeing a couples therapist is not a ‘last-ditch effort’ or ‘an act of desperation.’ It is simply proof that you’re in a relationship you want to work on. At its most basic level, relationship therapy is meant to improve your future - much like an insurance policy. You don’t always have to wait until you’re in a car accident to think about insurance, you can have a bright shiny new car with nothing wrong with it… and want to keep it that way. Many couples advise others to enter therapy when they’re at their happiest, because you didn’t wait for things to disintegrate before investing in what you love. The skills you learn in couples therapy are applicable and beneficial whether you have been together 60 days or 60 years, have never fought or fight all the time. It’s a tool that everyone benefits from, and the only couples that should not, under any circumstances enter into therapy are the ones that do not feel committed to each other. For all others: couples therapy will almost undoubtedly improve your relationship, making it one you want to continue to be committed to.
Looking for more advice on whether couples therapy is right for you? Check out Relish's Relationship Coach, Briony Leo's episode on Couples Therapy on our YouTube channel!