It is not so long ago that couples would have needed to be on the point of permanent separation before they would consider any type of counselling for themselves. If they did decide to embark on such a course, it might well be done as a last-ditch attempt to save things, often within the context of one or other of the couple having already made up their mind as to the outcome they wanted.
A dearth of couples counsellors working in private practice was another issue, with couples often turning to church members and leaders to find help. Although, much excellent and wise counsel could be found through this route, it was not always perceived as a non-judgemental space, particularly when one of the pair was not committed to the church in the same way as the other.
This picture, a common one until relatively recently, might help to explain the reluctance of people to seek help with matters they feel (and those around them feel) they should be able manage themselves. It also reflects the general stigma associated with any thought of ‘not be able to cope.’
These social, systemic difficulties, which can prevent people seeking help, are often exacerbated by other less-conscious forces within the people themselves. People may be carrying feelings of shame, guilt or anger. Perhaps they have hurt each other; perhaps they feel their (or their partner’s) behaviour has let them or their family down. Whatever the difficulties, it would seem at times that they would lose the whole relationship rather than face the pain of working through whatever their issue might be.
Over the last ten years, there has been a steady change in attitudes to mental health generally. This has been led by the young – often millennials – who have grown up in a society where it is becoming easier to discuss their inner world as a matter of course.
Schools are becoming much more mental-health savvy, with many staff trained in mental-health support. Consequently, the stigma associated with seeking help is beginning to dissipate. It is no longer necessary to put a brave face on what is troubling us – either in our individual lives or in our relationships.
Learning from our children
I am not sure Wordsworth had matters of our mental wellbeing in mind when he wrote that ‘the child is father of the man’, but his sentiment, that we could learn much more from our young than we might first think, is a wise one. In the matters of relationship support, it is surprising how many middle-aged couples are seeking therapy prompted by their children.
Not only do those children suggest support, but they also model a non-judgemental approach to difficulties within the scope of wellbeing.
What is noticeable in the therapy room is that there is a growing number of younger couples seeking counselling. Many of them are not seeking help with a relationship that is on the brink of catastrophe, but instead are looking for a space to better understand each other and, crucially, to learn how to communicate effectively. As one of my clients put it to me, they wanted to ‘future-proof’ their relationship, hoping to head off difficulties long before any crisis is reached, or defensive behaviours become so established that clear and effective communication becomes difficult.
Back to the question
When do you need couples counselling? It could be any time and it could be at different times for different purposes. If you feel there is a problem preventing you from communicating effectively, why not address it? If there is something driving angry or resentful feelings, why not talk it through with someone who will not judge but may well
help you to understand what is the root of the difficulty that feels so overwhelming. It may take a few sessions, or it may need longer. Of course, for some couples, the visit may be one of last resort – but it does not have to be.
Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy is a collective of experienced psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors working with a range of client groups, including fellow therapists and health professionals. If you would like more information, or an informal discussion please get in touch. Online therapy is available.