After the new year, many couples start thinking about whether to embark on couples therapy. The festive season can often be difficult for couples who have already been struggling with their relationship. The presence (or absence) of extended families; high expectations not always met; bring in close proximity to each other for more time than usual; too much alcohol, too often, can all be factors that make the season difficult for couples.
This time of year is as good as any time to start couples therapy, but this piece isn’t about the calendar year, but about when in the relationship is a good time to start. Couples often tell me in their first session that they ‘should’ have started sooner, years ago even, and wonder whether it’s too late for their relationship. It’s perfectly natural to realise that there are things that need addressing, but busy lives get in the way and can allow couples to carry on, to put the problems to one side, and to hope that things get better as a matter of course. They probably sometimes do, but often not. While I think it’s never too late to start, the longer the problems have been embedded, the longer the change process is likely to be.
The discovery, or the admission of an affair can sometimes be the prompt to start couples therapy, whether it’s a ‘traditional’ affair involving a physical relationship or encounter, or a secret emotional relationship with someone else, with the prospect of it becoming physical or simply that it provides something to the participant that they realise is something that the primary relationship should be offering. In my work, I try to help couples avoid blame, and why there needs to be profound regret for the affair and a sense of reparation, there also needs to be a mutual understanding of what it was about the primary relationship that prompted one partner to stray. For more on this, see this piece.
Sometimes, couples start their couples therapy ‘too late’ in the sense that one partner has already decided that they want out. However there is still great value to be had to work together on understanding, mourning the losses and to think about parenting together.
Some couples at some point early on in their couples therapy wonder whether they started it ‘too early’. They feel their problems are too trivial, there is no question of their commitment to each other, and come to sessions unsure about what to talk about. Sometimes this is because the problems are really hard to face and they have become skilled at avoiding facing things together. Or, it could be about some underlying anxieties about being left, or whether they truly deserve something good.
Finally, there are some couples who are at the time they apply for couples therapy are finding things really difficult and spend the sessions doing nothing but arguing, blaming each other or interrupting. While it’s absolutely worthwhile to couple back for a few more sessions to see, with my help whether we can start to be more reflective and allow space for thinking about the shared difficulties, there are occasions when couples might be best to start individual therapies first.