It was Mark and Lindsay’s* first time in couples counselling, and I could tell. They were overly eager to engage in small talk for as long as possible, but their voices trembled ever-so-slightly as they talked about the weather. “First time?” I asked. They nodded, sullenly.
Mark and Lindsay were in their late twenties and had been married for about a year, which had been a surprisingly stressful experience for Lindsay. “I always blamed my anxiety on something else,” she said. “But then I realized it might be coming from our very relationship.” The small talk ended there.
Mark was desperate to keep his marriage together, but he also seemed to know it might be unsalvageable—which is something I see a lot in my practice. In these cases, one partner has been asking the other to come to counselling for months, or even years, but until the relationship is really endangered, they don’t think counselling seems necessary.
When I started working with couples two years ago, I quickly learned that relationship issues don’t discriminate. Whether I was working with 20-year-olds or 70-year-olds, heterosexual or same-sex couples, the monogamous or polyamorous, similar issues kept showing up. And with them came questions I repeatedly had for myself, too: how do people who lovingly share wedding vows get to a place of such detain, resentment or withdrawal? And am I bound to repeat the same disintegrating patterns in my own romantic life? It was through answering these very questions that I was able to uncover some crucial tips on how to maintain a healthy relationship. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Listen to what your partner says (like, actually listen)
My first few sessions with Mark and Lindsay were filled with timid “I don’t knows” that made it hard to conduct the session. Eventually, however, Lindsay made a difficult admission: “There were so many instances where I told you why I felt unhappy, Mark, yet you never seemed to hear me.” After a moment of silence that was heavy with sadness, her husband replied, “I guess I just didn’t realize it was such a big deal.”
I see this a lot: someone continually says something is bothering them while their partner thinks it’s “not a big deal.” When we feel like our needs are continually brushed aside, it becomes all too easy to feel like we’re in an unsupportive relationship where our partner just “doesn’t care.” And so begins the journey down Resentment Road. And in fact, a month into therapy, Lindsay said she wanted a divorce.
When your partner tells you something, listen. Whether it’s some minor story about a topic you couldn’t care less about, or a significant concern about their career, do your best to give them your undivided attention—even if that means forcing yourself to listen. That work email can wait and so can the laundry, because making your partner feel heard is a feeling that lasts.
In my work with Anne and Mary*, a couple in their mid-thirties, Anne expressed that she felt invisible and neglected when Mary failed to ask how her day was. “Doesn’t she want to know? Doesn’t she care?” she’d ask rhetorically. This is when I utter one of the most commonly-used phrases in couples counselling: “I’d love if you could ask Mary that rather than asking me.”
Many of us are so afraid of conflict, or so stripped of quality time with our loved ones that we forget to tell them what we need. I started practicing this habit myself. I might tell my partner, “I need to vent about something but I just need you to listen rather than give me advice, OK?” Remember, it’s impossible for someone to be helpful when they have no idea what “helpful” means to you.
Be teammates, not adversaries
I have a sneaking suspicion that the culture of competitiveness that plagues our country’s workforce has seeped into our relationships. Just as one might feel the need to prove themselves to a boss, couples seem fixated on who’s more tired, stressed or overwhelmed in their relationship. Instead of leaning on the person we’ve chosen to be our partner, we often use them as a yardstick for our own exhaustion.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of competing about whose life is harder, we work with our partner to make things better together? For me, I’ve consciously learned to listen empathetically when my partner says he’s tired rather than allowing the defensive part of me to start arguing about why my day was worse. I’ve realized that competitiveness encourages distance rather than closeness.
Go to therapy sooner than later
There’s a common misconception that going to couples counselling means your relationship is in a really, really bad place. I so desperately wish people didn’t see it that way. Couples counselling isn’t just about talking through what’s going wrong; it also offers a beautiful opportunity to check in with your partner in a safe space where you have each other’s undivided attention. It gives you the chance to discuss what’s going right in the relationship, and celebrate the awesome parts of it, too.
My eagerness to debunk therapy’s bad rap is precisely why I gave my clients Courtney and Michael* the advice I did as we wrapped up our tenth and final session together. A couple in their thirties, they had been working on improving their communication skills so they could avoid explosive anger during difficult conversations.
“Come back when you’ve caught a cold,” I said. Confused, they asked what I meant. “Couples therapy is like going to the doctor,” I replied. “It’s not very useful to go when you’ve been bed-ridden for days and are on the tail-end of your sickness; you want to catch the bug early on.”
I added: “When you feel like your relationship may have caught a cold, that’s when I want to hear from you again.”
*All names have been changed