What comes to mind when you think of relationship counselling? A husband and wife of 30 years trying to save what’s left of their broken partnership? Perhaps a couple with children dealing with infidelity? This is certainly sometimes the case but with fewer couples choosing to marry (opposite-sex marriages in the UK have decreased by 45% since 1972) and seeking help seen as less taboo as a result of increased mental health awareness, more and more young unmarried couples are seeking therapy. You need only look at the huge success of couples therapist Esther Perel’s podcast Where Should We Begin? – a series of real-life recordings from her therapy room – to see how our mindset is changing. There’s even a wellbeing app for couples, called Paired. Like Headspace for your relationship, it offers expert-led tools for couples looking to improve communication and intimacy.
"Our parents' generation may have gone to counselling as a last resort but millennial couples see it as an extension of their personal development. People are coming to this work because they want to make their relationship stronger, not necessarily because something is broken and wrong," relationship coach Cheryl Muir tells me. Sarie Taylor, a psychotherapist who often works with couples, has noticed a similar pattern: "Younger couples don't leave it nearly as long before reaching out. Normally they’re simply looking to see someone that is impartial and [can] help them negotiate with each other better."
This was the case for Lily, 30, and Suzie, 37, who have been together for 18 months. "I see it as a relationship MOT or a repair tool that’s helpful for both of us," Lily tells me. The couple recently sought counselling after struggling with some communication issues. "Our communication had broken down and this was leading to various misunderstandings and arguments, even though we aren't naturally argumentative people," Lily explains.
It is a similar story for Anna, 32, and Alex, 35, a couple for three years. They embarked on 12 sessions of counselling last year after individual mental health issues led to a breakdown in communication. "Therapy has definitely warmed us up to ways of seeing each other's perspective. I assumed I understood everything that was going on with him and our fights, and the counselling showed me I actually had a lot to learn. It also helped me understand my needs better and advocate for them more clearly, and less emotionally," Anna explains. Of course, sometimes this is easier said than done. "The work doesn’t stop when you come home. And it won’t ‘fix’ your relationship. But it will help give you a framework to discuss things and learn incredibly useful tricks for communicating," Anna adds. Crucially, for Anna and Alex, it highlighted the commitment both had to the relationship in the long term. "It showed us it was worth fighting for," she says.
Sometimes it is a breaking point that drives young couples to counselling. Willow, 29, and Jamie, 31, have been together for over a decade and sought therapy three years ago. "Our relationship had gotten so toxic that we just couldn't continue living together," Willow tells me. "I was reluctant at first but after some time to think about it we agreed together that we would try it as a last resort to save our relationship," Jamie says. While the sessions were tough at the time (both had their own individual issues: Willow with work anxiety and depression and Jamie with expressing emotion and a major family bereavement), looking back they can see how big a part they played in making their relationship succeed. "Going through the process has taken our relationship to a level we didn't know existed," Willow says. "We learned how to trust each other again, how to ask each other for what we need, how to let go, how to have fun together, how to navigate difficult and negative feelings as a team, and how to stop playing the blame game when things go wrong," she adds.
This breakdown in communication is one of the biggest themes seen by the therapists themselves. "In straight couples, it’s often assumed that men aren’t good with emotions. That’s a misconception. Normally men are very aware of how they feel but don’t always know how to express it," Muir explains. For couples in their 20s or 30s, Taylor often sees clients coming to her when they are making difficult decisions and forming plans: "People reach out when they aren't on the same page about big decisions like starting a family and want help figuring out how to compromise."
The other issue that comes up time and time again? Intimacy. "Usually one person has a higher sex drive than the other," Taylor says. With the current climate, sex isn’t often a priority. "As a society we are overstimulated and pressured and subsequently people are tired and exhausted," she adds.
In terms of finding the right therapist, it’s all about seeing who you gel with and what approach works for you. "You need to feel really heard by that counsellor. They must listen to your answers and guide you to what’s right, not influence you," Muir suggests. "Don't settle for someone you don't feel comfortable with. Look up different profiles online and meet a few therapists if necessary until you feel you've found the right fit," Lily recommends.
When it comes to the counselling itself, Willow offers some sound advice: "Be prepared to face the worst parts of yourself and to take responsibility for things you've not done so well. Be committed to learning and trust the process." And remember, you’re certainly not alone. As Anna says: "Loads of people have couples therapy. It doesn’t mean you guys are particularly messed up, it just means you know you could be better."