For some people, the mere suggestion of "couples therapy" could signal the death knell of a relationship. If the portrayals of such moments in popular culture are any indication, the only reason a couple would ever go to counseling together is because they are about to break up. But the truth is, in the same way that individual therapy can be helpful for people who aren't in crisis, couple's therapy can be beneficial for couples in varying stages of their relationship.
In fact, a lot of couples actually seek some kind of counseling early on in their long-term relationships — and they don't even realize they're doing it. "If you think about many religious protocols with respect to marriage, there's typically pre-marriage counseling," says Yamonte Cooper, EdD, a licensed professional clinical counselor. "This gives the couple a chance to really understand certain things about their partner, so that each person knows what the other person wants or needs." These pre-marriage meetings — which can happen in Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish faiths, among others — give the couple a safe space to discuss certain aspects of their relationship together in a judgement-free zone. And that's exactly what couples counseling is — without the religion. "It's a parallel tradition," Dr. Cooper says.
But what if you and your partner aren't about to get married? Couples therapy can still be incredibly beneficial. "Couples come to therapy to deepen their connection and strengthen their relationship," says Geoffrey Steinberg, PsyD. "They want to have a deeper connection with their partner, and that means confronting issues that may arise that have nothing to do with breaking up."
Dr. Steinberg says that there are myriad speed bumps that partners may experience in relationships — speed bumps that don't necessarily point to the end of a relationship. "One person might have a higher sex drive than the other," he says. "Or one partner might have discovered that the other is interested in porn, and they may have trouble expressing why that's a problem for them." Dr. Cooper agrees, and says that these communication breakdowns often indicate that a third party might be beneficial. "There may be things that the partners find they're unable to discuss independently, so then the couple's therapist is there to facilitate some kind of dialogue between them that they haven't been able to have successfully on their own," he says.
Both doctors agree that needing a third-party to help with communication shouldn't be stigmatized. "People think that there has to be a crisis to seek out mental help services," Dr. Steinberg says. "They also tend to be in denial about how big their issues have become to them." He adds that couples often feel that they should innately be able to figure out problems on their own — especially if there are two of them working on it. "But sometimes, something isn't working, and a couple can't quite figure it out, and emotions are heightened," Dr. Cooper says. So it can be beneficial to get a couple's counselor in there to assist. Not only will it help partners work through any immediate problems, but it gives them the tools to help when issues crop up in the future — it's almost like an open-notes test, but with your relationship. And who wouldn't want that?