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Stressed couple sitting on the bed looking away from one another

As a couples counsellor, I often find myself thinking of boiling frogs.

Do you know this parable? If a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that arise gradually.

People spring into action when there is a crisis in their relationship – infidelity, betrayal, financial stress, or pronounced disagreement on a key issue, for example. But vague dissatisfaction can become the new normal. Tension might whir around in the background for awhile, but by the time many twosomes arrive at my office for couples counselling, they are at their wits end with one another. They have tried date nights, vacations (and, in a few instances, psychedelic drug trips) to repair broken connection. Curiously, couples counselling is often treated as a last resort.

“No relationship is perfect,” they say (this is true). “Things will improve once the kids are older,” is also a familiar refrain (actually, the opposite tends to be true). On average, by the time that first appointment is grudgingly made, a couple’s relationship has been suffering for an average of six years! (!!)

Couples counselling is basically the root canal of all therapy.

Especially in the absence of a crisis point, it’s easy enough to put off couples counselling. In life, we tend to rationalise our difficulties and avoid things that we anticipate to be thorny. We tell ourselves, “not all relationship problems require professional intervention!” – and I agree with this. So, what is the litmus test for a relationship being eligible for professional intervention?

This article isn’t meant to convince you that you must get couples counselling, nor is it intended to proffer solutions to address your marital ennui. This is for the couples who are wondering: are we at the point of needing help? To help you out with that query, I’ve put some serious thought into compiling some of the most well-worn themes that cue a need for relationship intervention (and my omission of infidelity here is intentional, as it is deserving of its own article).

Your sex life has tanked

“By 10:00pm, I’m just too tired!”

If the only thing getting in the way of a satisfying sex life were time and energy, then your money would be better spent on a babysitter or a house cleaner rather than couples counselling. But could there be more?

Sexual alibis aside, dwindling desire can be a barometer of other issues. Resentments can simmer. The vagaries of life are played out in the bedroom. The daily grind provokes existential crises of the YOLO variety. The eros-killing minutiae of raising young children is, well, a real thing. Career anxiety chips away at our sense of self-worth (ergo, how sexy we feel), and the colleague at the office might seem way more inspiring (and interested in you) than your partner. The fusion that the enterprise of marriage provokes – with its comfort, exposure and predictable practicalities, can also be, uh, un-hot. And then, the biological realities of fluctuating hormone levels and waning libido – these matter, too.

All of this might be a lot to process à deux. Raising these concerns can feel exposing and vulnerable. Moreover, fumbling our way through these discussions requires trust and connection – things that can erode with conflict, exhaustion, and feeling misunderstood. Working through such impasses is more difficult than it seems – which is why it can help to have a wise third party facilitating the conversation.

Your interactions are laden with negativity

“Sometimes I can’t believe how mean we are to each other.”

Resentment, frustration, and loneliness often beget polarised forms of communicating: nagging, criticising, and yelling on one end; shutting down, tight-lipped responses, and tuning out on the other end. When a relationship is in crisis, this pursuer/withdrawer dynamic becomes particularly pronounced (and rather stroppy).

How many times have you vowed to yourself: “I’m going to stop nagging!” or “I need to make more of an effort to listen?” These well-intentioned resolutions are, unfortunately, trumped by our auto-pilot reactions to feeling attacked or ignored. Thanks to our primitive nervous system, we always seek to defend ourselves first and foremost when we feel threatened – and feeling dismissed or misunderstood by our partners feels very threatening indeed! One of my first tasks in couples counselling is identifying how this negative communication cycle gets triggered, and getting to the roots of what sustains this unpleasant dynamic. Why can’t you do this on your own? It’s much harder to call ourselves out on this type of reactivity when it hijacks us.

You chronically feel like your partner doesn’t notice, appreciate or ‘get’ you.

“I feel like she doesn’t really know me anymore.”

Recently, I saw a photo of someone at a rally or protest holding up a sign that read: “I see you.” When this phrase first started trending (credit goes to the movie Avatar, circa 2009), I didn’t think much of it. It struck me a while back, though, that it is a helpful phrase to keep in mind for relationships, too.

When we first meet our partners, we notice every nuance and quirk about them. We take delight in getting to know them, and we sense their delight as they discover who we are. Over time, that keen attentiveness gives way to familiarity. Sometimes, we feel like we don’t even register on our partner’s radar (and then, there’s that other culprit, that device on which you might be reading this article). Adjustments can be made to redirect our attention, but over time, not feeling seen or heard or understood can erode connection. Over time, this can drift into living parallel lives, and that feeling of being ships passing.

Most of us hate feeling invisible, and if we have a history of feeling ignored or dismissed by those important to us, a distracted partner can leave us feeling rejected and unworthy. It’s no wonder that this is one of the main issues that brings couples into therapy.

You’re often dissatisfied with your mate

“Am I with the right person?”

Recently, I stumbled upon some relationship wisdom in the novel “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara (a gorgeous, devastating book). One of the characters, reflecting on his own relationship, comes to the realisation that “relationships never provide you with everything. They provide you with some things. You take all you want from a person – sexual chemistry, let’s say, or good conversation, or financial support, or intellectual compatibility, or niceness, or loyalty – and you get to pick three of them.”

Three might be a bit stingy, but the point here (that I totally agree with) is: it’s a set-up to expect your partner to meet all of your needs – and to that end, thank goodness for good friendships!

Still: there are some qualities that, when missing, lead a relationship to feel terribly empty. The idea is not to give up what is dearly important to you in a partner, but to understand the strengths – and limitations – of your particular spouse (and if this is something you can live with in the long haul). Couples counselling can’t force alignment, but it can provide a skillfully facilitated exploration of mutual values and the needs of each partner.

That same character I mentioned earlier goes on to muse that “he now viewed a successful relationship as one in which both people had recognized the best of what the other person had to offer and had chosen to value it as well.”

You fight constantly about the same issues

We’re both so stubborn.”

Constant bickering and push-back about issues such as discipline, money, chores, and child-rearing can indicate more than just differences of opinion. If the same issues keep coming up, again and again (one client referred to this as the “Groundhog Day of my relationship”), it can also point to a difference in values or a disrespect of one another.

Let me stress one thing: arguing is a normal – even healthy – phenomenon in relationships (I worry far more about the couples who never argue. What are they suppressing?) But when certain issues become intractable, the impasse that results can launch a relationship into bitterness and resentment. In high conflict couples, I often hear undertones of stubbornness and rigidity. To me, those descriptors are defence mechanisms. Our task in couples counselling is not to preside over the age old feuds of “who does what.” Instead, we look beneath the window dressing, and help each person understand and experience the vulnerabilities beneath these defensive stances (I say ‘get to’ because I actually love this part of the work).

Sometimes, the aforementioned issues are unlikely to go into spontaneous remission without some type of intervention. Couples counsellors do more than broker truces – they look beyond the content of the arguments and facilitate increased safety, openness and connection in relationships.

When your relationship problems go underground for a while, only to pop up later, it’s discouraging and depleting. If you’ve been feeling like your relationship is a constant game of whack-a-mole, you don’t need to figure this out on your own. When delivered by an experienced and skilled therapist, couples counselling can be a highly effective intervention.

Is reading this article leading you to wonder if you and your partner could benefit from couples counselling? Feel free to get in touch with me to see if I might be able to help. 

About the Author

Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.