When you think of couples counselling you might not think of fairy tale romance. Many of us have come to see couples counselling as a sign that a relationship is in trouble. But according to experts, it can be one of the greatest tools for improving your connection.
“You don’t need to have a big issue to go to couples therapy,” says Diane Gibson, a couples counsellor on the Inkblot platform who has worked with couples for more than 8 years. “We have this belief that the honeymoon phase should last forever and it’s almost impossible. What therapy can help couples with is to manage their expectations and also build resiliency.”
Building resilience – in the form of strengthening one’s connection with their partner or their communication skills – may be particularly helpful when it comes to surviving the external pressures of a pandemic.
“Right now, many couples are experiencing some of our biggest mental health stressors – shifts in finances, changes to how you work, changes in social interactions, etc – due to COVID-19,” says Laella Saffer, another therapist on the Inkblot platform. “While we see some couples thriving being together 24/7, others hate it. And that’s understandable. Being in a relationship even without a pandemic is challenging.”
So whether you’re constantly bickering with your partner over house chores and finances, feeling the strain of COVID-19 lockdowns or in the swooning stages of early love, couples counselling could be the key to making your relationship better.
We spoke to three Inkblot therapists about a few reasons couples may consider signing up for online couples therapy right now – and what you’ll learn along the way.
- You’re experiencing communication breakdowns. Are you and your partner constantly fighting over things that seem mundane? Do you find yourself not feeling heard after an argument? Or generally feeling distant? You could be experiencing a breakdown in communication. “Communication breakdowns occur when one person isn’t feeling heard or understood. What a therapist can do is go underneath and figure out what that root cause is,” says Saffer. “There’s usually patterns inherent to different arguments and we work together to figure that out. I help people understand their different communication and attachment styles and break communication patterns that are no longer working. One person might be avoidant and passive and the other might be more aggressive...you can see how that might be a problem. I try to teach my clients how to truly listen to what their partner is saying and needing and how to ask for things effectively themselves.”
- There’s intimacy issues. It can be hard to keep the fire going in a long-term relationship. From the stress of parenting and work to underlying health issues, it’s not uncommon for couples to experience a change in their sex life that leads to one person feeling rejected. “The root of intimacy issues is often the same thing: lack of trust or communication,” says Saffer. “It can happen when each partner has a differing level of desire, when one partner wants to have sex a lot more. Maybe desire has changed because of a life altering event like a death or maybe there’s even physical pain.” Therapists can help couples explore the difficult topic of changes in physical intimacy in a safe and non-judgemental space: “Therapy is a place where you don’t have to feel shame,” Gibson points out. “We, as a society, have put shame on a lot of things, especially to do with sex. There’s no law out there about how things in the bedroom should happen. It’s whatever works for the couple.”
- There’s been an affair or a big breach of trust. Affairs might seem like the end of a relationship – but Gibson assures her clients that they don’t have to be. Not only are extramarital affairs quite common – around 15 percent of married women and 25 percent of married men have had extramarital affairs (these numbers are about 20 percent higher when including emotional affairs) – but many couples are also moving towards exploring new couple forms. Gibson, who works with both monogamous and polyamorous couples, identifies cheating as your partner not knowing about the other relationship. When it comes to moving forward, she says it takes a strong commitment from both parties to heal: “I love it when couples come to me when there has been an affair; it tells me that a couple wants to work on it. There’s so much history in a lot of these couples that to give it up just because of poor judgements is sometimes not the best idea,” she says. “An affair happens for a lot of reasons: loss of connection, opportunity, curiosity...even happy marriages have affairs. The question is, can we address the root of the affair and move on from it?” Therapy can provide a neutral, non-judgemental space to explore these breaches and begin to rebuild trust again. “What I always do to build trust is look at how the relationship has been before. What do they have to hold onto,” says Bolaji Akinyele-Akanbi, an Inkblot therapist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “You want to remind the couple of their strengths in the past and the present.”
- You’re dealing with external life stressors. Sometimes life just gets in the way of your connection to your partner by adding too much to your plate. Maybe you’re managing grief, experiencing a mental health issue, or feeling burdened by the added pressures of the pandemic. Whatever the external issue, couples counselling can bring these issues to light and help you and your partner find a path forward. “Difficult times happen. Therapy can help teach a couple how to maintain a strong relationship during challenging times by working on learning individual coping skills and teaching couples how to express needs without blame,” says Saffer.
- One of you has a change in values. Value alignment is one of the key ingredients to a successful relationship. Values are big picture questions like how we want to raise children, spend our money, whether we’ll practice religion together, whether we want children. If there’s a big shift in these values, it can cause a rupture in connection. “Couples that are healthy are able to explore and find alignment in values. But things can change along the way,” says Saffer. “For instance, maybe both partners said they didn’t want children when they entered the relationship and now one partner does. It’s important to discuss these shifts and whether it’s possible to get back on the same page.”
- You want to proactively build your resilience as a couple. Both Gibson and Staffer stress that you don’t need a problem to enter couples therapy. Instead, couples counselling can be a good way to learn about how each person loves and communicates and how to take accountability for our own behaviour as issues arise. “A lot of what we think is a problem in relationships is just anxiety,” says Gibson. “The anxiety of having our partner think differently and feel different than we do ourselves. But we’re not going to be on the same page every time.” Couples therapy can teach you how to manage those differences and navigate a future consciously together. “A couple doesn’t have to wait for the issues to become really big before they seek help,” says Saffer. “If you think of all the things that need to line up, someone from a completely different family, a different background, a different past, different history, different life...To put those two people together, it’s a huge, huge challenge. Therapy provides couples with the tools to navigate that and have a happier and healthier relationship.”
Reach out to the counsellors at Inkblot Therapy to help if you want to work on your relationship skills. Remember – you are not alone. Inkblot can help. It’s easy to make an appointment with a therapist tailored to your individual needs and sessions are available as soon as today.