Couples counseling has gotten a bad rap as a last-ditch effort to save a already-failed relationship.
But recent studies find that couples therapy can be very helpful in making relationships better, stronger, and longer-lasting—including if you are not married. After all, marriage rates among millennials have reached historic lows, and more and more young women are having children with partners to whom they are not married. [More on millennial marriage and motherhood]
In short: People are still in relationships, and relationships are hard. We're just not getting married as often, but that doesn't mean that relationship or couples therapy is not useful for the unmarried partners.
Here is how to know whether relationship counseling / couple's therapy is right for you.
The good news is that couples counseling as it is currently practiced using Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT) is now roughly 75 percent. effective. This is true according to the American Psychological Association and is based on over 25 years of research. Outcome studies have included couples therapy for high-stress clients such as military couples, veterans with PTSD, parents of chronically ill children, and infertile couples. Results are also positive and substantial across different cultural groups.Psychology Today
Stages of a relationship: dating vs. relationship vs. serious relationship
While nearly all therapists who work with couples welcome those who are married and those who are not, it typically makes sense to seek professional guidance only when you are in a relationship — opposed to with someone you are dating.
What does ‘in a relationship' mean?
Whether you are straight, LGBTQ, monogamous, polyamorous or identify as another non-traditional identity, being in a relationship with someone — opposed to dating — can be deemed someone to whom you are committed to a future together. This is a partnering that you both hope and plan to last a long time—even for the rest of your lives.
What's a serious relationship?
Typically, a serious relationship means not only that you are committed to a long future together, but that future includes investment in other parts of your lives: Introductions to, and integration with friends and family, possibly living together, combining households or finances, having children together, adopting pets, and being each other's emergency contact or next of kin.
The extent of integration of lives depends on each couple, and can be an issue to discuss in therapy!
There are as many ways a relationship can have troubles as there are relationships. Relationship and marriage therapists report that couples seek counseling for these types of frequent relationship conflicts:
- Lack of sex—or disagreements about frequency or type of sex
- Money struggles [Related: 17 steps to financial success as a single mom]
- Kids—how to discipline, inequity of parents' care for them
- Blended families and co-parenting
- Household chores
- Quality of time together / romance
- Jealousy—of other men/women, as well as time and energy spent on work, friends, family, kids
Should you go to a couple's counselor?
While there are plenty of grey areas in which you may chose to better your relationship through therapy, here are some serious issues for which you should get outside, professional mental health care for the sake of your own wellbeing, as well as any children involved:
- Addiction— alcohol, prescription or illegal drugs, pornography, sex, technology, gambling, food, video games are common
- Mental health issue— depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia, dementia don't just torment the sufferer—they affect all those who love them, including romantic partners and caregivers
- Severe special needs children
- Unemployment, insurmountable debt, living beyond your means, or other serious financial problems
- Abuse and relationship violence—physical, mental, financial, emotional or sexual
Other reasons why to seek professional relationship help:
- Your relationship partner gives you an ultimatum (“Change, or we're breaking up.”)
- The relationship is toxic. This means that you bring out the worse in each other, and you spend more negative energy on the relationship than get positive energy out of it.
- You keep having the same petty fights over and over.
- Secrets. There are secrets and suspicion.
- You and/or your partner need help establishing boundaries, and expectations for the relationship.
For example, do you expect your partner to be your everything, while your boyfriend or husband enjoys connection and time with friends, colleagues and family—in addition to what the two of you share?
What are realistic expectations for what you and your partner should to do around the house, help with the kids, or contribute financially to the household?
A skilled relationship therapist can help with communication and set healthy expectations and boundaries. There are plenty of reasons to seek out couples' therapy even if the relationship is not in crisis.
When not to go to couples therapy
There are times relationship counseling is not the answer. These include:
- Abuse. In the case of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, file a police report and restraining order.
- Addiction. Couples counseling may be part of the family's recovery, but the addiction needs to be addressed on its own first.
- Mental health issues. Again, this affects everyone around the sufferer, but the illness also needs to treated on its own.
- One partner has committed to leaving the relationship. Therapy may be part of the separation process, or as part of a co-parenting relationship, but show's over.
How to a find couples therapist
One of the challenges of therapy is finding a qualified counselor who is also a good fit for your challenges — and is accessible to you, and affordable.
This is especially true for a relationship therapist. Not only do you have to coordinate with both partners' schedules and preferences, there is simply a shortage of competent and effective couples' counselors who are specifically trained to heal suffering relationships.
Online therapy can be a great solution for all kinds of therapy. Compared to traditional face-to-face counseling, online therapy benefits include:
- Convenient. Because sessions are done by video, text, phone or email (your preference), there is no travel time, and you and your boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband or partner can join in the session from different locations if your schedules require it (or you can't stand to be in the same room!). This is also a great option for military families, or couples that are long-distance or travel frequently.
- More selection. Just like in dating, it can take some trial, error, fits and starts to find a therapist who is a good fit. This is time consuming, and especially if you live in a small community with few therapists, there may not be a big selection. With online therapy sites like BetterHelp, you literally have access to thousands of certified and licensed counselors to choose from.
- Flexibility. If you feel the need to switch, it is just a matter of visiting the website and finding another relationship therapist.
- Anonymous. Nothing worse than seeking out counseling during a dark time, and bumping into the bitchy soccer mom outside the office—especially if your partner is with you. Online therapy is 100% private.
- Affordable. While in-person therapy may be a better fit for some couples, expect to pay $100 to $200 per hour or more—and fewer and fewer insurance companies cover therapy. Online therapy like BetterHelp start at $40 per week for unlimited contact.
- Vetted. Each therapist on reputable sites are licensed in their states, include psychiatrists who can prescribe medication.
Check out our ranking of the Top 9 best online therapy sites for all the details and costs for online counseling for couples—married and unmarried.
Other things to consider:
- Licensure. Is your counselor a licensed psychologist— or just someone who received an undergraduate degree in psychology? Or are they a clergy-person?
- Does this professional have specialized training in working with couples?
- What is their strategy? Do they simply offer remedies like going on weekly date nights and divvying up household chores? Or is there a commitment to Emotionally-Focused Therapy, or ETF, which focuses on learning better ways to communicate, connect and bond.
Ready to start improving your relationship? Check out BetterHelp online therapy for individuals and couples now >>
Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.