Marriage counseling and couples therapy still have a bad rep. Despite the stigma that’s been lifted off therapy in the past decade, signing up for marriage therapy sessions is still viewed by many as weakness, an admission that a relationship is in shambles. And who wants to admit that in a social setting? This is far from the truth: Attending couples therapy does not mean your marriage is in bad shape; it means that you’ve recognized the need to talk to a third party to understand your dynamic and talk through some lingering issues. Therapy is often the nuclear option for couples, a last resort before filing for divorce. This needs to stop. Just as your car needs a tune up after so many miles, so does your marriage. But, of course, there are some immediate and unimpeachable signs that couples should attend therapy. Here’s what to know.
You Don’t Communicate
The number one thing that continues to be a marriage counseling red flag is communication.
If you find yourself unable or unwilling to communicate with your spouse, if you’re hiding things from them (financial worries, a firing) or if you just don’t feel the desire to open up and talk, then you should head to counseling ASAP.
“There are numerous reasons for couples to lessen or cease speaking to one another — fear, anger, depression — and these are all good reasons for the couple to seek help,” says Melissa Fecak, a divorce attorney based in New Jersey. “Communication is key in keeping a marriage together.” Similarly, if you find that little conversations blow up into massive arguments, then you should see a counselor. “Couples often report feeling blindsided by how their communication can go from 0 to 100 so quickly,” says Tracy K. Ross, a licensed clinical social worker. “They don’t know how they get to this volatile place and don’t know how to navigate their way back.”
You Can’t Resolve Arguments
If you find yourselves having the same arguments then there’s something larger that isn’t being dealt with. “It’s difficult or impossible to repair after you have a fight so you just brush it under the rug but it never actually feels resolved,” explains Ross. “You have a recurring issue that follows a cycle but leaves you both feeling unheard.” Through counseling, you both can actually get to the core of what is making you feel hurt or frustrated and resolve that, as opposed to having the same fights over and over again.
Your Sex Life Is Suffering
Lack of sex means a lack of intimacy or connection, which can continue outside the bedroom into other facets of your married life. This is a touchy subject for many couples, Ross notes, which often leads to it getting ignored, which then creates more problems. She says to be on the look-out for issues with your sex life that have always been there, specifically that one or both of you is unhappy with your sexual and intimate life but there’s a lingering fear that if you bring it up you’ll only make it worse.
You Don’t Parent the Same Way
This is quite common in any parenting situation. One parent is the good cop, the other is the de-facto disciplinarian. If this is discussed and agreed upon, that’s fine. A big problem occurs when it’s not. In time, resentments can fester. Especially if the frustrations are not acknowledged or discussed. “When you avoid talking about it or, even worse, you undermine each other thinking your way is best for the child,” says Ross.
You Feel Disconnected
When it feels as though you and your spouse are just going through the motions of living together, paying the bills, doing the chores, taking care of the kids, rather than actually connecting and working at your lives together, that’s a sign that things need to change. Sometimes, that sense of disconnection can be so pervasive that you both can feel alone and isolated even when you’re together. “Feeling alone with your mate indicates the loss of warmth and togetherness often found in good marriages,” says Dr. Gail Gross, a nationally recognized family and child development expert, author, and lecturer. “There is nothing as lonely as being alone in a marriage.”
You Fight Dirty
Even the healthiest marriages have disagreements. Those disagreements even turn into full-blown fights at times. But, if you hit below the belt during an argument, or fall back on using remarks that are designed to hurt, as opposed to constructive comments that address the problem, that’s a sign that the marriage is in trouble. According to Gross, “Phrases such as, ‘I hate you,’ ‘pack your bags,’ ‘I never want to see you again,’ or ‘I want a divorce,’ can actually force you into a situation from which there is no return.”
You Hold Grudges
In a marriage, you have to let things go. You’re not always going to agree, you’re not always going to get along, and inevitably, one of you is going to piss the other one off. The key is, when that happens, to be able to let it go. If you hold on to resentments or harbor bad feelings, they will infect every other aspect of how you and your spouse relate to each other. If you’re harboring grudges, then it’s time to get help. “This failure to resolve or to forgive needs to be worked out,” says Marin County–based marriage and family therapist Jacob Brown, “or it can inhibit any communication and affection between the partners.”
You Fantasize About Leaving
Okay, let’s be honest. In the wake of a particularly frustrating argument, we’ve all thought about just packing up and splitting town. But, once the anger has passed, those thoughts dissipate and you and your spouse move on with your lives. However, when those feelings begin to become more persistent, and you start actually imagining life as a single person, or with another partner, it’s a sign that you’ve checked out of this relationship. “If one of the partners is thinking about [leaving] on a regular basis,” says Brown, “checking apartment listings, going online to search for information on divorce, this represents a significant problem.”
You Can’t See a Future Together
This might represent the rock-bottom moment in a marriage that is in need of counseling. When you look ahead to your future, do you imagine sharing it with your spouse? Can you see yourself actually growing old with this person and living with them every day? If not, then you need to ask yourself what has changed and why. “If you can no longer visualize a life together filled with happiness and optimism,” says Gross, “your marriage can’t be happy.”