See the signs: Knowing when to see a marriage counselor

The old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is especially true in marriages. The earlier you work on your marriage, the easier it is. Be mindful of the common signs that a marriage is in distress.

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  • Sitting across from me in my therapy office was a conscientious couple, worried that their relationship was on the brink of divorce. Secretly I was thinking, "This is going to be an easy case." Not to undermine the concerns of this couple, but generally I get couples in my office who are at each other’s throats, threatening divorce, and about to end therapy — all before the end of the first session. My "easy" case clearly did not want to end up like my "typical" cases. But what are the warning signs of marital distress? How do you know when it is time to seek professional help?

  • The five warning signs you should seek marriage counseling:

    • Criticism: Attacks on the character of your partner, such as “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you keep the house clean?” Any global, negative labels that undermine your partner’s character would be a criticism.

    • Contempt: A general disgust for your partner. This is often conveyed in nonverbal communication such as eye rolling, sneering, or physical distance. A more severe form of contempt could include aggression, anger or threats toward your partner.

    • Defensiveness: Refusal to admit any fault regarding the problems in the relationship. This can create an atmosphere non-conducive to compromise and further the chances of a deadlock.

    • Stonewalling: When one partner becomes so overwhelmed by real or perceived attacks, they will stand like a “stonewall” by not giving any verbal or physical feedback. This tends to create more anger in the “perusing” partner. Extreme cases of stonewalling may look like the silent treatment.

    • The Four Horsemen– John Gottman, Ph.D discovered there are four behavior patterns that are destructive to relationships. He calls them the “Four Horsemen” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling) because if they are present, divorce may be likely. The four horsemen are defined as follows (if any of the Four Horsemen are present in your relationship, seeking marriage counseling is a good idea):

    • Lack of Connection Time – At some point in everybody’s life, things get too busy, and we tend to put less energy into the things that matter most, like relationships. The average couple only gets between seven and 20 minutes per day connecting with each other in a meaningful way. This is clearly not too great. So if you find yourself going days or weeks without connecting meaningfully, do whatever you can to steal time for just the two of you. If you still feel a distance after making attempts to connect, it is time to see a marriage counselor.

    • Mental Illness – It goes without saying that if one or both of you have a mental illness you should be receiving some form of treatment. However, marriage counseling can help ensure your marriage stays in good health.

    • Stressful Life Events – Occasionally events in life get too stressful for a relationship to handle. Job loss, death of a loved one, bankruptcy, severe injury or illness, legal problems and other common life events cause a tremendous strain on relationships. While it is important to take care of the event causing stress, getting marriage counseling throughout the process can help increase the odds of avoiding one of the other most common stressful life events: divorce.

    • Diminishing Affection – “Growing apart” or “falling out of love” are both results of diminishing affection between spouses. When couples become stuck in ruts and lose sight of their love, it is easy for them to be complacent in showing affection. However, affection helps keep the love alive and flourishing. There are many different reasons for loss of affection in marriage. Therefore when you notice a slow lag in affection, see a marriage counselor to help kick start your marriage.

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  • Above are some of the most common pitfalls that most marriages face. If addressed early, there is a very good likelihood of success and continued happiness in marriage. The “easy” couple I mentioned at the beginning knew this. Their therapy lasted only four sessions, and their relationship is still going strong.

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Michael is a Marriage and Family Therapist and a PhD student at Michigan State University. His treatment focus is parenting. He currently works at Sageview Youth Psychology in Richland, WA.


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