In my psychotherapy practice and many others, it’s become very normal to receive calls from couples who want to work out the issues in their relationship before they get married. They want to better understand themselves and their partners before they hit the kinds of big road blocks that are inevitable in any long term relationship. I always applaud and encourage those couples because I think they have insight into something that is at the heart of relationships: the true measure of a good relationship isn’t about how good it is at any moment, it’s about how flexible it is. Couples' counseling cultivates that flexibility by creating more intimacy and knowledge about yourself and your partner. But, if I had to suggest one time when preventive couples' counseling could really be needed, it's when you're about to grow from a couple into a family. It’s no coincidence that studies show that many couples become dissatisfied with their relationships when they become parents. Not much really changes when you get married, but for many couples, everything changes when you have kids. Every parent wants to give their child everything in the world. I would encourage every expectant parent to consider the advice of renowned couples expert John Gottman: "The greatest gift you can give your baby is a happy and strong relationship between the two of you."
Transitioning from a couple to a family strains a relationship for a number of reasons:
1. Both mothers and fathers are incorporating a new identity and that shift can be rocky. Parenthood is not always intuitive and the process of learning requires a lot of trial and error, which can feel stressful. Sometimes, we expect are ourselves or our partners to step into that role more gracefully and it’s deeply disappointing when they don’t. It can also be disorienting. The early months are particularly destabilizing as change and milestones come quickly. Your baby is changing, your body is changing, the way you spend your time changes. It’s a lot to process!
2. You will have less time for yourself and for your partner. A new baby demands a lot of time and energy from parents. It can be harder to make time to take care of yourself and do the things you enjoy, let alone make time for the things you enjoy doing with your partner. It’s easy to feel depleted and disconnected if you don’t tend to yourself and new parents often feel guilty stepping away from a new baby to give themselves what they need.
3. Taking care of a new baby is hard even under the best of circumstances. Hey, here’s a fun thing: get five interrupted hours of sleep and handle every bodily fluid under the sun generated by a creature that might cry or scream inconsolably at any given moment. Then try and make it to work looking and functioning like a normal human being. Or spend your entire day with that creature. Sometimes it can seem like babies were developed as a form of psychological torture rather than as a source of joy and love for you and your partner. Some days, being a parent seems totally unforgiving and it can be very hard to make it through a day without feeling incompetent or bored or just totally frustrated and depleted.
Given the variety of challenges thrown their way, it makes sense for relationships to suffer. When people are stressed and pulled in a variety of ways, they often turn against each other either in anger or by disengaging. Suddenly, tending to your relationship becomes a conscious act rather than something that you could just rely on intuitively. That’s where working with a couples therapist can be invaluable. A good couples therapist can help you and your partner more deeply understand each other, your needs and feel better prepared to share what is happening inside rather than resorting to behaviors that just worsen things like criticism or tuning the other person out.
A few common questions people ask about couples counseling:
How can I tell if it’s a good time to go?
There is no bad time to go, but don't make the mistake of waiting until it's unbearable. It's much easier to work on your problems when you can still appreciate and enjoy your partner. Some couples seek therapy as a last ditch effort before divorce, which is obviously much harder to fix since months or years of hostility and hurt feelings need to be dealt with first. For soon-to-be parents, it's also worthwhile to work on these issues when you the have time and energy (i.e. before your baby arrives).
What’s the difference between a problem we can work on by ourselves vs something we’d need help with?
In my experience, couples come to me when a problem just won’t go away. If it’s something that keeps coming up without resolution (or the resolution doesn’t actually work), then it’s useful to discuss it with the help of a therapist. I would also check in with your own level of distress about the problem. How upset does this make you or your partner? How long does it take to make up or resolve things? If it’s only a big deal to one of you, I would still take that as a sign that it’s important to talk about.
Does couples counseling mean we have a bad relationship? Is it normal to go to couples counseling?
Going to couple counseling means you love your partner and value your relationship. You're spending time and money to make it better for you and your kids. That's something to be proud of. The truth is, everyone knows that relationships take work and effort. It's more efficient to do that work with an expert. Is your relationship something you really want to improve through trial and error? Couples' counseling does not mean you have a mental health problem. It means you are a normal human being with challenges in your relationship that you’d rather work on constructively instead of letting them grow and worsen.
What if my partner doesn’t want to go?
In about 75% of the couples I see, couples therapy is initiated by one partner, not mutually agreed on. It’s normal for someone not to want to go to couples therapy. They might think that it means their relationship is worse than they thought or that their partner is saving couples therapy to surprise them with a list of complaints. Two helpful things to try when your partner is on the fence: 1. Reassure them that this is to make things even better, not that things are in a bad way. 2. Suggest that you go once or just speak to the therapist on the phone together for a brief consultation - giving it a test drive is a good way to get over any apprehension. 3. If your partner is on the fence, it’s worthwhile to find a therapist that you think they’ll get along with.
The best part of a relationship is the feeling of being connected with someone - of sharing important moments, having new perspectives and being exposed to new things with someone you deeply care about. But the worst part? It's when those different perspectives don't easily align with yours, when new interests or attitudes not only don't feel supportive, they feel invalidating or leave you feeling neglected. One of the times of greatest strain on a couple is that transition into parenthood and it’s easy for many new experiences to pull you apart. If you’re worried that this could happen to you, talk to your partner about discussing these worries together with a therapist. Those conversations will bring you closer and more connected at exactly the time when you and your new family need it most.
Avi Klein is a psychotherapist, father of two and native New Yorker practicing in Union Square. Avi has been working with individuals and couples since 2009. He is trained in AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy) and EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), two forms of therapy that emphasize the power of emotion, healing & transformation in relationships. He has a special interest in supporting new families and is developing a course for new and expectant parents to strengthen their relationship. Inquiries can be directed at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his website. You can also follow him on Instagram @thecompassproject where he posts regularly about relationships for new and expectant parents.