Marin County Psychological Association
Marin County Psychological Association

Couples Counseling

Author: Dr. Roberta Seifert

Happy marriages are correlated with better emotional and physical health, higher self-esteem, longer life, and better functioning as we age. Marital distress, frequent arguments, poor communication, all signs of an unhappy marriage, are correlated with poor health, loneliness, depression, and a variety of physical and emotional difficulties. Indeed, our satisfaction in our primary love relationship affects just about every aspect of how we feel about our lives.

Popular belief would have you think that it’s all about love. We are told that if the love between two people is strong, they will have a happy marriage. If the relationship is in trouble, we talk about a “mismatch” or that love has died. In fact, maintaining a long term relationship requires a lot of skill. There are folks who come by it naturally, but for many, if not most of us, the skills are learned.

Couples who need help often feel stuck in repetitive hurtful or deadening patterns. Couples therapy can help people learn new skills to make their relationships stronger and more satisfying. These skills include ways to communicate that promote understanding and compassion. Couples can learn to understand their own and their partner’s needs, leading to a deeper sense of emotional connection and closeness.

Here are some areas in which a Psychologist can help:

  • Communication Skills
  • Dealing with Conflict
  • Parenting Difficulties
  • Sexual Issues
  • Infidelity
  • Coping with In-laws and Step-children
  • Conflict about work/home balance

Whether conflicts arise because of differences in approaching sex, money, child-rearing, in-laws, or work/home balance, to name a few major issues, many couples need help learning how to handle differences in these areas.

Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” While virtually all couples entering couples therapy state that their goal is “better communication,” in truth, couples have different ways of experiencing distress.

Some couples have difficulty dealing with differences. A perpetual challenge in living with another person is that they will have different ideas, styles, traits, taste, and needs you may find incompatible with your own. Related to this is a couples’ style of dealing with conflict.

For some couples, conflict leads to confrontation and distress. Some partners approach conflict as a power struggle, which is always a “lose-lose” for the relationship. In counseling, they can learn ways to communicate without making each other defensive. This allows them to really hear each other. They can come to see that their differences can create rich opportunities for growth.

Other couples deal with conflict through avoidance. While they may seem like ideal couples from the outside, such avoidance can lead to a feeling of boredom and deadness in the relationship. Avoiding authentic communication in order to “keep the peace” robs a relationship of emotional depth and richness. Couples counseling can help people learn to know their feelings, be able to articulate them, and tolerate ambiguity and conflict until they reach a real solution together.

How to find help.

Finding the right couples counselor can be a challenging task. There are many resources - Psychologists, Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT’s), Psychiatrists, and more. Here are a few principles to remember in making a choice:

You need someone with whom both partners feel they can work. An experienced couples’ counselor will not take sides or act as a judge or arbitrator in relationship conflict. Both partners need to feel respected and understood.

It is essential to feel safe. It may take time to establish a sense of safety, but if you don’t feel safe, this is not the therapist for you. Be aware that safety does not mean freedom from anxiety or other difficult emotions. Part of therapy is stretching to grow, and that may be difficult at times. But you should always feel that your therapist is pulling for you and for your relationship.

If you feel comfortable sharing your goal, ask a friend for recommendations if he or she has had a good experience in couples therapy.

Use the Find a Therapist feature on this website to look for Psychologists with an expertise in couples counseling. Check out how they describe themselves. Look at their websites if they have a link, and see if you feel any sense of connection with what you’re reading. Then give them a call, ask any questions you might have, and try to get a sense of how you connect with them on the phone.

Remember that the first few sessions are exploratory. If you don’t think you can learn and grow from the person you see, don’t give up on getting help. Try someone else. It is worth the effort to find the help you need in having a happy marriage.

Below are MCPA Members with specialties in this area: