Relationships require work and are bound to face challenges large and small. Simple, everyday stressors can strain a relationship, and major sources of stress may threaten the stability of the relationship. As long as each partner is willing to address the issue at hand and participate in developing a solution, most relationship problems are manageable, but when challenges are left unaddressed, tension mounts, poor habits develop, and the health and longevity of the relationship are in jeopardy.
Strain can be placed on a relationship when stressful circumstances affect the couple as a whole, or even just one of the partners. Chronic illness of one person, for example, can impact the well-being of both partners. Many couples struggle with communicating effectively and feeling that they are heard by their partners, as well as differences in parenting, political views, or expectations. Severe stressors include infidelity, terminal illness of one partner, and serious mental health issues. Resentment, contempt, and an increase in the frequency of arguments tend to be signs of underlying problems that have been left unaddressed.
Some common relationship concerns include financial difficulties, barriers to communication, routine conflict, emotional distance, sexual intimacy issues, and lack of trust. Sometimes, marriage itself can be the issue at hand for unmarried couple, when one partner wants to marry, or is subject to social or familial pressure to do so, and the other partner is reluctant or feels unready to marry. Couples who are considering marriage may seek premarital counseling for these and other issues.
Chronic relationship conflict or stress can contribute to mental health conditions, like depression or anxiety, for one or both partners. Relationship problems can also affect one’s self-esteem and physical health or lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or anger. Sometimes addictive behaviors, like substance abuse, are employed by one or both partners in order to avoid confronting the source of the relationship conflict. Relationship problems can also adversely affect family members, such as children, who may repeatedly witness relationship conflict between their parents.
Couples often seek couples or marriage counseling when relationship problems begin to interfere with daily functioning or when partners are unsure about continuing the relationship. Couples often approach counseling with the expectation that a therapist can help in some way—though they may not know just how they expect the therapist to help. Some couples may want to develop better communication skills, enhance intimacy, or learn to navigate new terrain in their lives. Others may expect the therapist to mediate their arguments, or take sides and declare which partner is right.
Several therapy approaches have been designed for couples in particular, such as Imago Relationship Therapy, but any type of therapy can help with relationship issues. In fact, many people address their relationship problems through individual therapy, and then they apply that learning in context with their partners. In addition, family therapy can benefit families whose children are affected by the tension in their parents’ relationship.
Relationship counselors are unlikely to take sides or recommend that a couple end their relationship. Instead, they will allow the therapy process to unfold naturally without a predetermined goal of “saving” the relationship. The counselor will help the partners by supporting the goals set by the couple and helping each partner to communicate his or her needs, thoughts, and emotions more clearly and to listen to the other partner more carefully.
For relationship counseling to significantly help a relationship, each partner needs to commit, at a minimum, to the relationship counseling for the time it continues. Each partner should demonstrate honesty, an interest in doing relationship work, and a willingness to accept personal accountability.
All couples argue sometimes, but when insults, criticism, intimidation, threats, humiliation, or stonewalling become commonplace, the relationship enters the realm of emotional abuse. Signs of emotional or psychological abuse are often more subtle and harder to recognize than those of physical abuse, although the psychological impact of emotional abuse is likely to be as severe as or worse than that of physical abuse.
Healthy boundaries are not present in abusive relationships, and this fact may make the therapy process difficult or impossible, as the safety of each partner is paramount to ensuring positive treatment outcomes. Some therapists will not engage in relationship counseling if violence has occurred, unless and until both partners show tremendous growth in the areas of boundaries and safety.
Rachel and Paul, in their 30s, enter counseling because they have been fighting often. Inquiry reveals the fights are verbal and very emotional, but not physical. In sessions, the two are affectionate but anxious, and they make little eye contact with one another. They interrupt one another but don’t seem to mind. They report fighting about “everything” and “stupid things.” Both profess a desire to “make it work.” The therapist approaches the work in several ways. First, he encourages the partners to speak directly to one another, and helps them choose language that is honest and tender. Second, he facilitates the uncovering of patterns of thought, emotion, and action that are not working and offers alternatives. Third, he interprets the family-of-origin issues that may have led to those patterns, enhancing the mutual empathy and understanding between Paul and Rachel.
Please note that premarital counseling, affair recovery, emotional abuse, domestic violence, reproduction, sex and sexuality, and other topics pertinent to marriages and relationships are covered in separate sections of GoodTherapy.org.
Last updated: 02-26-2014
Relationships and Marriage Articles