The dilemma of the couples counseling stigma is all-too familiar to professionals who work with couples. We’ll sometimes hear:
- We feel like a failure that it’s come to this — that we need help with our marriage.
- We didn’t know where to go for help — We were embarrassed to tell anyone we were struggling.
- We put off going for years because we were intimidated by why might occur in therapy for our relationship.
In this post, we’ll discuss the stigma of seeking relationship counseling, marriage counseling fears that keep couples from coming for therapy and what couples can expect when they take the step to come for help.
Why Michelle Obama Shared Her Marriage Counseling Experiences
“That was jaw-dropping news,” one radio commentator said when discussing the former First Lady’s disclosure. That phrase, alone, reveals that the couples counseling stigma still exists.
However, in interviews, Mrs. Obama has said why she revealed this personal information: “I know too many young couples who struggle and think somehow, there’s something wrong with them. I want them to know that Michelle and Barack Obama — who have a phenomenal marriage and who love each other — we work on our marriage, and we get help with our marriage when we need it.”
She notes that marriage counseling was “a turning point for me” and that “marriage counseling was one of those ways where we learned to talk about our differences.” “I want young people to know that marriage is work. Even the best marriages require work.”
Couples Counseling Stigma: Diminishing, but Still There
The stigma of going to counseling or therapy of any kind has long existed. Unfortunately, keeping the stigma “alive” are some outdated and even false beliefs.
These marriage counseling fears have included:
- Counseling is associated with mental illness, and having any emotional problems has long been stigmatized in our culture. In fact, however, many people who seek counseling are looking to address very common concerns, including low self-esteem, grief and loss and, of course, help with a relationship.
- Seeking counseling has been associated with “weakness.” Some people believe we should be able to independently solve our problems. Americans, in particular, may feel that independence is an important personal strength. Part of the couples counseling stigma is that couples should be able to solve problems themselves.
- Talking about problems is not a seen as a valid way of coping. Many believe that people should be able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” rather than looking to professionals when they need help.
- Therapy isn’t really “science.” It’s just talking. However, over the past few decades study after study has validated the role of counseling — whether for individuals or couples — as a scientifically based source of help for a range of problems and a valid resource to get through tough times.
- “Our relationship has been hard for us to talk about ourselves — much less with a stranger.” It feels so vulnerable to open up about such highly personal issues. Professional relationship therapists recognize your marriage counseling fears, and we make every effort to go at your own unique pace.
- “We have put this off for so long. We’re afraid we’re hopeless.” This is a fear we often hear; however, as mentioned above and discussed below, we use the most-researched and most-successful approach to helping couples regain closeness, trust and joy.
We Understand You May Delay in Seeking Help
Myths and misconceptions abound that contribute to the couples counseling stigma. It is well-known that couples often delay seeking help — putting off the decision for years, sometimes decades.
It’s unfortunate that the misunderstandings about couples or marriage counseling have been so prevalent. You’re not alone, however, if you have felt concerned or intimidated.
Some of the misconceptions — and the actual facts — include:
- “The counselor will take sides.” This common marriage counseling fear is understandable because we all want to be heard and understood — particularly by a professional whose help we seek. However, in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (known as EFT), the focus is on helping both partners understand themselves and each other.
- “We’ll be judged by the therapist.” No one wants to be criticized or felt not accepted by their counselor. In EFT, the role of the therapist is quite different and well-defined. We help couples learn to understand why they argue or have become distant. We assist in teaching you how to resolve issues. We accept that each of your intentions are wholesome. There’s no place for judging of any type!
- “Counseling will take years — and we need help now.” We understand this concern. The EFT model is considered a “brief” therapy model, with many couples gaining a new understanding of their challenges in the first phase of the process. Yes, counseling does require a commitment; however, it is our intention to help you quickly acquire new skills and tools to reduce distress as soon as possible. What you learn in counseling can then be used well beyond after therapy has ended.
- “We tried marriage counseling in the past, and it didn’t work.” But not every counselor is skilled in working with couples. According to a survey by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, while 80 percent of therapists in private practice offer couples therapy, few have taken a single class in couples therapy or have completed an internship with someone who has mastered the art.
Here at A Peaceful Life Counseling, our therapists are skilled and trained in EFT. The path of learning this model is lengthy and arduous and includes study and supervision by a Certified EFT therapist/supervisor.
“I’m Ready, But My Partner’s Not Willing to Come”
Marriage counseling fears can weigh more heavily on one of you than the other. The greatest gift you can offer your reluctant partner is compassion and honoring his or her trepidation.
Yes, it’s possible to get some benefit if only one partner participates in couples counseling. You can learn about your own contribution to the issues and disconnection in your relationship and perhaps gain insight into your partner’s concerns as well.
However, the best chance of reaching your goals occurs when you both make the journey together.
Also, recognize you may have different marriage counseling fears: It’s easy to dismiss or minimize the importance of your partner’s concerns when you don’t share the same perspective. Accepting their fears as valid for them can be a first step in fully listening to each other and realizing that seeking relationship counseling is a big step for both of you.
Perhaps the Biggest of the Marriage Counseling Fears
One of the key focuses — and what distinguishes the EFT model — is on the patterns of interaction between the couple. This often diminishes the biggest fear: “I’ll be blamed and found at fault for our relationship problems.”
We refer to the arguing and disconnection couples are experiencing as a “negative cycle” that has emerged between you. Couples learn that this negative cycle — not each other! — is the source of their misunderstandings and repeated, unresolved arguments.
The negative cycle can have different forms:
- One partner keeps pressing the other to talk and for answers during an argument. The other partner withdraws, leaves the room or goes silent.
- Both partners argue and pursue the other to talk things through, often causing an escalation or continuation of the argument.
- Both partners withdraw, feeling reluctant to engage in a discussion, often fearing he or she will make matters worse if they try to work on the issue.
- One of the “symptoms” of the negative cycle is the feeling that one or both of you are frequently “walking on eggshells” and afraid to try to reconnect.
In our sessions together, couples learn to recognize their own cycle. Then, importantly, they learn to stop the cycle more quickly. Without blame, they then learn to talk through their differences calmly and repair any misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
The Fear of Being Vulnerable
Being open about personal feelings can be more challenging for some than others. And, to do so with someone you don’t know can seem overwhelming.
For some, feelings were not openly discussed in their families. Or, expression of feelings and emotions was discouraged. Children may have been chastised, even, when they spoke up about problems or concerns they were experiencing. Parents may have had the best of intentions to help their children be able to weather life’s challenges; however, these early memories can surface when thinking about going to counseling.
Professional relationship counselors are well aware that you may feel fearful about opening up and about revealing your true feelings. We ease into this process gently and respect the brave work you are willing to try.
When You’re Ready to Seek Help for Your Relationship
We recognize that “making the call” might be difficult for you. We make every effort to respond quickly to you and to help you feel as comfortable as possible when you visit with us. Let us know any concerns you may have, as we are always open to your thoughts.
We also want to emphasize that marriage and couples counseling has evolved greatly in recent years. We have chosen to offer EFT because it is the most research-supported and scientifically based approach. We want to give our couples the greatest opportunity to rekindle their relationship.
We encourage you to read more about Emotionally Focused Therapy with A Peaceful Life!