We believe we're getting the fairytale when we get married. You know: meet "the one," have a whirlwind courtship, and live happily ever after. What the fairytales don't tell you is that relationships take work.
Often times, we don't go into a relationship with the tools to manage the challenges, which is where the pros come in. And by pros, I mean a counselor or therapist who can help you learn new ways of relating to your partner.
The question is: at what point should you consider couples counseling? Here are some trigger points and behaviors that are signs you may need help.
1. You're barely speaking. Many relationship challenges are simply challenges in communication. A therapist can help facilitate new ways to communicate with each other. Once communication has deteriorated, often it's hard to get it going back in the right direction.
2. You bicker constantly. Negative communication includes anything that leaves one partner feeling judged, shamed, disregarded, insecure or wanting to withdraw from the conversation. Negative communication also includes, the tone of conversation because it’s not always what you say, but how you say it. Negative communication can also escalate into emotional abuse, as well as non-verbal communication.
3. You're afraid to speak up. When it's just too frightening to even bring issues up, whether it be sex, money, or even annoying little habits being blown out of proportion. A therapist's job is to help couples identify their issues and better understand what they're truly talking about.
4. Affection is withheld as punishment. My client Ann's ex-husband would get angry over small things and then withhold affection (including giving her the silent treatment). If one partner starts to act as a "parent" or "punisher," starving the other of actual love as a weapon, there is a lack of balance in the relationship.
5. You see your partner as "the enemy." You and your partner are not adversaries; you're on the same team. If it begins to feel as if you're on different sides, then it's time to seek help.
6. You start keeping secrets. Each person in a relationship has a right to privacy, but when you keep secrets from each other, something isn't right.
7. You're contemplating (or having) an affair. Fantasizing about an affair is a signal that you desire something different from what you currently have. While it is possible for a relationship to survive after one partner has had an affair, it's prudent to get some help before that happens. If you both commit to the therapy process and speak with honesty, salvaging the marriage is possible. At the very least, you may come to realize that it's healthier for both of you to move on.
8. You're financially "unfaithful." Financial infidelity is often just as — if not more — damaging to a relationship than a sexual affair. If one partner keeps his or her spouse in the dark about spending or needs to control everything related to money, then the other should bring up the topic of family finances. It's fair to say, "I want a better understanding of our monthly bills and budget, our debt, how many savings/checking/retirement accounts we have, etc." If your spouse objects, consult a professional to help work out the conflict.
9. You believe everything would be OK if he or she, would just change. The only person you can change is yourself, so if you're waiting for your spouse to change, you'll wait a long time. This is often when I recommend hiring a coach or therapist to better understand who you are and what you want. Then, if challenges continue to persist, reach out to a couple's therapist to learn better tools for relating to each other.
10. You’re basically living separate lives. When couples become more like roommates than a married couple, this may indicate a need for counseling. This doesn't mean a couple is in trouble just because they don't do everything together. Rather, if there is a lack of communication, conversation, intimacy or if they feel they just "co-exist," this may indicate that it's time to bring in a skilled clinician who can help sort out what's missing and how to get it back.
11. Your sex life changed dramatically. It's common for sex to taper off a little after you've been together for a while. However, significant changes in the bedroom signal something isn't right. An increase in sex, by the way, is also a sign of challenges, as it can signal one partner trying to make up for something they’re doing that they feel is wrong.
12. Little things feel like big things now. Every individual has trigger behaviors — specific things that drive them crazy that wouldn't bother the majority of other people. This can include issues like laundry, how to load the dishwasher and having the same thing for dinner too often. The other partner often doesn't understand why these fights keep happening and what he or she can do about it. A therapist can help a couple discuss these issues and figure out what the real root of the issue is.
13. There are ongoing relationship issues. Every relationship has sticking points or those big-ticket arguments that carry over for months without any kind of resolution in sight. This includes differing views on family finances, incompatible sex drives and differing parenting philosophies. These challenges feel impossible, but working them out with a resolution, both partners find reasonable resolution is entirely possible. Therapists help if both parties fully commit to understanding the other's point of view and willing try to find common ground.
Most couples wait too long before seeking help. In truth, you're best served if you seek help sooner rather than later.
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