DEAR DR. JENN,
My girlfriend of six months and I have a great relationship but we seem to really set each other off. She wants us to go to couples therapy. If we need therapy this early on, isn’t that a sign that we shouldn’t be together? What do you think? —Trouble in Paradise
Not necessarily! In my experience, more and more couples are starting therapy early in their relationship. Studies show that millennials are getting into therapy more often than previous generations.
People used to see couples therapy as something married couples did after an affair to save their relationship. But that’s not the case — at least not anymore. I would estimate that more than 50 percent of the couples I see in my private practice are not married. It's not just a last-ditch effort to save a failing marriage; people come in earlier on in the relationship for check-ins, too. And that’s a good thing.
Sure there are couples for whom early conflict can be a sign that they are not meant to be together, but for many it can be a great opportunity to increase relationship skills and grow individually. Here are six reasons why I recommend it:
In a good relationship you push each other’s buttons. We tend to pick mates who have many of the same qualities — positive and negative — as our parents. The unconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between past, present, and future and is always trying to heal old wounds in current time. As a result, in relationships, we tend to trigger each other’s old wounds. Therapy is a great opportunity to heal that pain.
Here’s a hypothetical example: Ava’s dad left suddenly and inexplicably when she was eight years old. As a result, Ava had some pretty serious abandonment issues. She had a whirlwind romance with her boyfriend, Tom, and they moved in together after only being together for six months. All her abandonment issues were triggered every time he left the house. He found himself feeling claustrophobic and frustrated, and she was constantly anxious. It wasn’t until they came into therapy that he was able to better understand her anxiety and respond differently. She was able to see this new anxiety as an opportunity to work through her old abandonment. Early therapy in the relationship helped them to stop pushing each other’s buttons and allowed Tom to aid in his girlfriend’s healing. If you and your partner really push each other's buttons, that's a good reason to investigate why those buttons are there in the first place, and therapy can help.
VIDEO: 10 Signs You're in an Unhealthy Relationship
You can prevent bad communication patterns. All too often, I get couples in my office who have terrible communication patterns and don’t know how to fight fairly. Often in these cases, so much resentment builds over the years because of cruel things that have been said, or difficulties that have not been worked through in a productive way, that the relationship is beyond repair. Learning good relationship skills early on is the best way to avoid this kind of negative emotional build up that can be toxic to a relationship.
Couples work leads to individual growth. Being in a romantic relationship provides a mirror to ourselves. There is certain work that cannot be done on ourselves without the experience of being in a close, intimate relationship where we get feedback from our partner about how we really are. While this can be painful or frustrating, it's a great vehicle for change and self-growth.
It’s cheaper than a really fancy date, and way less expensive than a divorce. With the widespread availability of low-cost counseling in clinics around the country, insurance that can help defray the cost, and other affordable options, couples therapy is more accessible than ever. If you were going to go for a nice dinner and a concert, therapy will cost you way less and bring you closer together. People tend to think of therapy as being super expensive and out of reach — and it can be, but it isn't always. Furthermore, while this isn’t necessarily an immediate concern for those of you in a budding romance, divorce, which can be the result of not developing healthy relationship skills, is way more expensive.
Couples therapy is great divorce prevention. In addition to learning important relationship skills for life, having a neutral person who can give you both feedback about how you were interacting and what in your history is creating problems in the relationship, can be just what you need to prevent a negative outcome down the line. Doing this kind of work on the front end of the relationship can prevent a lot of pain and suffering on the back end.
It brings couples closer together. Couples therapy provides a forum for airing differences in a productive way. Knowing that you have a regular appointment where you get to work through conflicts that come up in your relationship can reduce tension between sessions. Sharing, being vulnerable, and working through issues in therapy dramatically increases intimacy. Speaking of intimacy, therapy helps couples talk about sex. Any good therapist doing couples therapy will ask about sex. These conversations, with the help of a professional, can take your sex life to new levels. Rather than something to fear when you're with someone new, this is a step that's highly worth taking.