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  • Writer's pictureDonna McMillan

When to start relationship counselling.



It probably comes as no surprise, that many couples seek relationship counselling when things are difficult, the negative interactions have become ingrained, and relationship counselling is the last resort. There are different reasons for why this can happen.


  • People think they should be able to work out their relationship issues themselves, without external help.

  • They are reluctant to discuss the intimate details of their relationship with a stranger.

  • They don’t believe in the process of relationship counselling, or counselling in general.

  • Previous negative counselling experiences have led to a reluctance in seeking further help.

  • Finances are a concern, and they’d rather not use their money towards relationship counselling.

  • The idea of seeking relationship counselling, might make it feel like the relationship is at the end.


These reasons are all completely understandable. We all have our own ideas of what going through the process of relationship counselling means. However, hopefully the following can help make the decision to do relationship counselling a bit easier.


You think you should be able to work out relationship issues yourselves, without external help.


Elderly Asian couple embracing on a park bench.

Through our relationships we had in childhood and the relationships we witnessed, is where we learn how to be in a relationship in adulthood. When parents have a healthy dynamic with their children, this can have a positive influence on the children’s romantic relationships in adulthood (Rutkowski, 2018). Social learning theory is the idea that our behaviours are learned through role modelling (Jamison, 2020). Therefore, how we see our parents’ relationship with each other, can serve as the blueprint for how we behave in our adult romantic relationships. Moreover, due to social learning theory, it is suggested that our beliefs about romantic relationships stem from our experiences in childhood as well. When there is high conflict in the family home growing up, this can also influence how we are in romantic relationships.

 

You are reluctant to discuss the intimate details of your relationship with a stranger.


Male kissing female partner on forehead on mountain top.

It makes sense that we don’t want to share our inner world with a stranger, but sometimes that is exactly what we need to heal. When we talk to friends and family about our dilemmas with our partner, we run the risk of not having an objective perspective of what is really going on. Due to their relationship with you, well-meaning friends and family may want to do anything they can to protect you or help you feel better because they worry about you. However, because of their personal relationship with you, they may struggle to see things objectively and potentially give you unhelpful advice.


 

You don’t believe in the process of relationship counselling, or counselling in general.


Male couple looking into each others eyes and smiling.

A review was done on the vast research of relationship counselling efficacy, and it was found that there was a 70% success rate. However, couples with significantly higher distress tend to have a decreased chance of success. John Gottman, psychologist, and relationship expert found that it takes a couple an average of six years before they seek relationship counselling (Ammirati, 2021). By then, couples have endured six years of ongoing conflict and negativity. Therefore, it makes sense to seek help sooner rather than later. As soon as you start to notice any negative interaction patterns between you, it is important to change these before they become chronic or progressively worse.


 

Previous negative counselling experiences have led to a reluctance in seeking further help.


Caucasian female couple kissing on the beach.

When we seek out a service such as going to seeing a doctor or physiotherapist, and it’s a negative experience, we simply find someone more appropriate for our needs. However, when it comes to a service such as counselling, we already might feel apprehensive about going in the first place. This apprehension, paired with any other concerns we have about going to counselling, means that we might have a lot riding on our first experience of counselling. If it does not meet our expectations, then we may not want to try again. If this is the case, here’s a couple of things to consider. The counsellor’s approach may not have been right for you, or you may not connect with the counsellor you chose. If this is the case, try not to let that deter you from the process of counselling. There are plenty of counsellors to choose from whether it’s someone in your area or online. Sometimes it can be just a matter of finding the right fit for you. Some people might find that person straight away and for others it might take a few tries. The best way to find someone that works for you is to do your research. If the approach is something that is important to you, look for counsellors that specifically do that approach. Once you’ve done this, look at their website or profile, to get a feel for the person and see if it resonates with you. Making a phone call can be helpful too. That way you can get an idea if this person sounds like someone you’d get along with.


 

Finances are a concern, and you’d rather not use your money towards relationship counselling.


Caucasian couple embracing on a field.

If our budgets are already stretched thin, some people may not want to invest in something such as relationship counselling. But if you’re in constant conflict with your partner, you probably already know that the relationship stress further compounds any other stresses you have. When our relationships are working well, it makes it easier to face life’s other challenges such as financial pressure. For some couples, even talking about finances can be a struggle. And relationship counselling can help with this by facilitating these conversations in a healthy way. There are also some organisations that offer relationship counselling on a sliding scale based on your income, such as Relationships Australia.



 

The idea of seeking relationship counselling, might make it feel like the relationship is at the end.


When the idea of relationship counselling is brought up, we might worry about what that means. Does it mean we are at the end? Not necessarily. Because so many couples tend to seek help once they have tried everything else on their own, it can feel like people only do relationship counselling as a last resort. But relationship counselling is beneficial at all phases of the relationship.


 

When to seek help


Asian female couple standing side by side in front of lake.

When things are going well and in the early stage of the relationship, it can be helpful to see a relationship counsellor. It is much easier to learn healthy ways of interacting, when a couple is thriving, as there are usually minimal challenges to work through first. Behaviours such as criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt might get dismissed in the early stage of the relationship, because the couple is still in the honeymoon phase. But if these behaviours don’t change, they become worse over time. Leading couples to feel stuck. Couples have a better chance of lasting and being able to face challenges, if they address issues early on.


It can also be helpful to seek relationship counselling during major life transitions such as moving in together, having a baby, entering into or creating a blended family, dealing with a health issue, coping with a death, experiencing a change in financial situation due to job change or loss, moving interstate or overseas, having children move out of home and taking care of elderly parents. A lot of these experiences will be the first time for the individual, and it will be a struggle to deal with alone. Knowing how to navigate these changes together, can make challenges easier to face.


If you are passed the early stage of your relationship and those negative interaction patterns have become a consistent pattern, now is the time to get relationship counselling. It doesn’t matter how difficult your experience is, relationship counselling can help. Having someone objective, that can see where you are getting stuck as a couple, can be a valuable experience that can help move your relationship from surviving to thriving.




Black male and white female embracing on a beach.









References


Ammirati, T. (2021) When is it a good time to seek counseling?, The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com Here are the red flags that signal it's time to get help. Available at: https://www.gottman.com/blog/when-is-it-a-good-time-to-seek-counseling/#:~:text=According%20to%20Dr.,%2C%20fantasies%2C%20and%20negative%20bias. (Accessed: February 23, 2023).

Hunter, C. and Commerford, J. “Relationship education and counselling” (2014). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Jamison, T.B. and Lo, H.Y. (2020) “Exploring parents’ ongoing role in romantic development: Insights from young adults,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(1), pp. 84–102. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407520958475.

Lohan, A. et al. (2021) “Does relationship counselling for one work? an effectiveness study of routine relationship counselling services where only one individual attends,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 42(3), pp. 320–335. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/anzf.1458.

Rutkowski, C. (2018) Early family experience affects later romantic relationships (2018) National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Available at: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/early-family-experience-affects-later-romantic-relationships (Accessed: February 23, 2023).


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