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Psychologist helping a couple with relationship difficulties in the office

For those of us involved in a romantic relationship, we are likely aware of how much work it takes to keep our interpersonal interactions warm, positive, and intimate.  When you think about it, there was a time in virtually every relationship when being with one’s partner was a priority – a positive, exciting, and cherished time.  Most partners strive to preserve or return to that exhilarating stage.  Efforts between partners to grow closer can be achieved, but when it is hard to reach that goal, couple’s counseling (also called couple’s or relationship therapy) can be a great option.

Couple’s therapy is the coming together of two romantic partners and a mental health professional to assist the couple in talking through difficulties that exist in their relationship.  Another goal is to assist partners in gaining insight into why conflicts occur, and to help them in developing skills to effectively manage those differences.  This therapy can serve the couple in coming to terms with a decision to separate or divorce, but this type of counseling is not just about resolving major conflict.

This type of counseling is often initiated because partners feel that they have lost the excitement originally experienced in their relationship.  They want to work with a counselor to return to the interactions they initially had with their partner.  Also, some couples who are thinking of getting married may want to enlist the services of a couple’s counselor.  This is called pre-nuptial counseling and it helps partners see where they agree (or do not) regarding overall attitudes and values.  Sometimes, couples seek this type of help as a last straw before separation or divorce.

Money and finances can be a big topic.  It is not unusual for a couple to be aware that one partner tends to be more careful with money, is a disciplined saver, and who sets goals and saves to achieve them.  The other partner may be less disciplined, more spontaneous, or even clueless about where all the money goes.  These varying attitudes need to be discussed and managed so as to lessen conflict.  Other common areas of conflict can include a condescending attitude toward one’s partner, communication, sexual concerns, parenting of children, unfaithfulness, in-laws, division of labor in the house, and how to spend leisure time.

Regarding parenting, partners may have different attitudes about what is acceptable behavior for kids and what is tolerated in the household.  This is another area where arguments erupt when partners are unable to achieve a clear and consistent message.  Specific examples might be do both parents believe in allowances for a child?  If so, at what age should a child get an allowance?  Is it money that is doled out weekly solely to teach them how to save and/or spend, or do one or both parents feel that an allowance should be earned by performing some specific chores?

Is there a right or wrong answer to these matters?  Probably not, but there are justifiable reasons for the different ways that chores, allowance, and schoolwork expectations are handled at home.  This has a lot to do with our personal values.  These values result from what we saw and heard in the family in which we grew up.  Often, when we are part of a couple, we become keenly aware of how our partner’s attitudes develop from how they were raised.  This can work in one of two ways: 1) the childhood home offered good examples of communication and managing money, so the partner works to establish the same positive features with their mate in their family; or 2) their childhood experiences were painful, punishing, cruel, or worse, so the partner strives not to repeat the same problems with his/her kids.

Usually, health insurance covers mental health diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and addictions, however, relationship problems, per se, do not warrant an official  diagnosis because they are not considered a mental health illness.  Sometimes one of the above diagnoses can be treated and its impact on the couple can be taken into consideration.  This is a good question to raise with a couple’s counselor or with your health insurance representative.

Finding the right professional to provide your counseling is crucial.  A first resource might be a trusted friend or colleague.  Maybe someone you know has shared concerns about some of their relationship difficulties.  This opens up the possibility of inquiring if they know of a good therapist or counselor.  If you are not comfortable with this option, you can check out, “mental health counseling” or “psychotherapy” on your health insurance company website.  Giving them a call to inquire about mental health professionals in your area is also an option, and generally there is no need to go into details.  This method of locating help makes it easy since the professionals recommended will be on your insurance list of preferred mental health care providers.

One additional way to locate a couple’s counselor is to visit the website of your state’s psychological association (such as California Psychological Association or Florida Psychological Association, etc.).  Look for a tab such as, “Find a psychologist,” or “Find a clinician,” or “Community Resources.”  Every state has a list of qualified professionals who can assist.  Such resource lists typically include contact information and a list of concerns that the counselor is skilled in addressing.

Research over the past few decades has shown an increase in effectiveness from 50% to some research studies reporting success rates of 90%.  Couples who see an improvement in their relationship typically have both partners who are ready, willing, and able to engage in the couple’s counseling process.  When a couple is free of addiction problems and partner abuse, they are more ready to begin the work of improving their relationship.  When addiction concerns and abusive behaviors are present, sometimes a couple’s counselor will encourage that these issues be addressed in individual therapy first, so that the subsequent couple’s counseling will have a better chance of success.

Many couples find their relationship strengthens with couple’s counseling.  If your relationship with your partner is strained, it is good to know that couple’s counseling offers a third alternative to separation or divorce.  I encourage you to seek out this help and give it a chance before throwing in the towel on a relationship.  I have seen amazing things happen with couples who were struggling, and hope that is what happens for you if you are having problems, as well.

~ Dr. Terence P. Hannigan is a licensed psychologist in New York and New Jersey.  Trained as a Counseling Psychologist, his focus is working with healthy people who want to use psychological principles to improve the quality of their lives.  He is a semi-retired psychotherapist who works with both couples and individuals.  His personal interests include cycling, travel, and gardening.

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