Every marriage needs a little help from time to time. Maybe it’s when the kids are little and you lose touch with each other. Maybe it’s when a health crisis hits or a parent suddenly passes away. Or maybe it’s just a pervasive disappointment that you can’t shake. Regardless of the cause, acknowledging your need is the first step in getting help. While sitting with an empathetic friend will sometimes lift us out of the mire and feeling overwhelmed, there are also seasons and situations when we need more in-depth and/or long-term assistance. That’s where professional counseling comes in.
When Is Counseling Appropriate?
We shouldn’t relegate counseling to extreme situations like suicidality or discovering an affair. Seeing a skilled counselor can benefit us in many scenarios, including: postpartum depression, past trauma, or an aversion to intimacy. Professional counseling is also a good option when we get stuck in grief, anger, or apathy.
We are complex human beings. Many of our behaviors and belief systems are so deeply embedded that we lack the necessary objectivity to see where they lead us astray. I’m highly sensitive and grew up with a critical mother. Until I was in my late twenties, whenever I made a consequential mistake, I would berate myself with an inner monologue that reinforced my mom’s critique; “You idiot. How could you be so stupid!” Seeing a therapist allowed me to identify this destructive pattern, stop agreeing with it, and give myself more grace.
Because we’re wounded in relationship, our healing will also come in the context of relationship. Marriage should be—and often is—the perfect place for us to find healing. Unfortunately, as anyone who has been married for more than two weeks knows, we also hurt, disappoint, and trigger each other.
My husband and I have been counseling couples for more than twenty years. We believe that almost all couples would benefit from seeing a therapist. I write almost all because there are certain situations where counseling can be counter-productive. First and foremost, if only one spouse wants to do the work and the other is coming along to placate that spouse, we typically suggest individual counseling instead. If one spouse is engaged in an illicit behavior (eg., an affair, drugs, or pornography) and unwilling to repent and move forward, couples counseling can be a waste of time and money. And finally, if both parties are stuck in a cycle of blaming each other and resist acknowledging their contribution to the problem, couples counseling can get ugly.
How to Find a Counselor
The best way to find a counselor is by asking friends for recommendations. Few of us broadcast when we’re in therapy so it may take a bit of probing to uncover this information. Once you track down a friend who’s willing to share, ask specific questions. What did they like? How would they describe the therapist’s style? If you feel too self-conscious to ask around, do an internet search or check-in with your primary care doctor.
A licensed therapist (i.e., LMFT, LCPC, or LCSW) has undergone academic training (at least masters level) and hundreds of hours of supervision. Trained but unlicensed therapists lack the post-graduation supervision time but can be just as experienced and gifted. If insurance covers counseling, ask if they accept your plan and then get a referral from your primary care doctor before you start. (It’s not uncommon to pay out of pocket for this service.)
Remember, just because someone has numerous initials after their name or a framed diploma on their wall does not mean they will be a good match for you. It’s completely legitimate to interview the therapist. If you’re coming from a faith-based perspective, inquire if they’re comfortable working within your belief system. If you prefer to be asked direct questions (helpful for those who are introverts), let them know that. And finally, go in with a specific goal that you want the counselor or therapist to help you achieve. For instance, “My husband and I are stuck in an unproductive conflict cycle and we need to break free from it.” Or, “My wife and I are drifting apart and don’t know how to close the widening gap. Can you help us?”
Unless you only need a tune-up (which works if the prevailing issue has not been in place for a long time and if both parties are highly motivated and self-aware), assume that you should continue counseling for a minimum of three months (going at least twice a month) and possibly six to twelve months. According to therapist Aundi Kobler, “The more complex the issue, the more complicated the healing.”
Give It Time
Most of our relational dynamics were not formed overnight and therefore need time to be unraveled and healed. (Free tip: don’t go in with the mentality that your spouse is going to be fixed! Go willing to own your contribution to the problem and expecting to work hard.) Be aware that a good therapist will ask insightful, probing questions that may make you feel uncomfortable or even defensive. If you can push yourself to stay present and respond honestly in these moments, you’ll get more out of the therapeutic experience.
Remember, there’s no shame in needing help. It’s far better to acknowledge your need and invite others in than assume you can handle it on your own. Seeing a counselor doesn’t indicate failure; it often prevents failure.