We talk a lot about how to stay connected to your partner and build intimacy (and last week's post was about taking advantage of your new empty nest). But what if, in spite of your best efforts and intentions, the relationship is still unsatisfying? Here are a few places you can look for help.
Books. How do you find the good ones? Ask people you trust for recommendations. Books that my patients have found helpful include: The All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work (Eli Finkel), The Five Love Languages (Gary Chapman), Ten Lessons to Transform your Marriage, and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (John Gottman).
Podcasts. Esther Perel has a great podcast called “Where Should we Begin.” Each episode features a couple in an actual counseling session with Perel, who helps them articulate their feelings and get to the bottom of what’s really going on.
Seminars and retreats. Using Google, you can find everything from reasonably priced retreats hosted by religious organizations to pricey seminars hosted in scenic locations by marriage experts (often authors of books on marriage). Be sure to do your research and discuss what you’ve learned and what you expect with your partner before signing up. Some are classroom style with small group breakout sessions, while others may include public roleplaying, couples counseling, or game playing designed to foster connection.
Counseling. A good marriage counselor can help identify the underlying issues in your relationship and then facilitate the conversation as you work through them together. Look for counselors who specialize in marriage and family counseling and find out what kind of approach they use. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on changing negative thoughts and behaviors, is quite different from a Freudian approach, which focuses on unconscious meanings and motivations. Imago relationship therapy (IRT) is another approach; it explores how emotional wounds in childhood affect adult relationships so partners can better understand each other.
How will you know if a counselor is good? Our friend Ann McKnight, a clinical social worker who is experienced with couples and families, has some thoughts. After the first session, you’ll likely have an idea of whether or not the person understands the issues and can offer a direction that makes sense to your and your partner. Don’t be afraid to ask about the counselor’s training and experience working with couples, as well as what kinds of outcomes they see. And, she says, “Do your own homework, as well, in considering ahead of time what outcomes you are hoping for from the process. Willingness to take ownership for your own role in the challenges of your marriage is important.”
All marriages go through rough patches. Often, they can recover with some extra help. Ann says that, of the couples she sees “an extremely high percentage of marriages can recover, particularly if people start to work on the marriage before they’ve reached the point of total burnout and hopelessness.”* It’s important to point out that she sees a self-selecting group in that they have sought out therapy—but you would fall into that category, too.
Whatever you do, don’t wait. Just like with your physical health, the sooner you address whatever the issue is, the greater the chance that it can be fixed.
*This holds true as long as there’s no domestic violence and/or untreated substance abuse.