Every relationship has an ebb and flow to it: moments of giddy excitement and closeness to treasure, and then periods when you feel distant or frustrated with each other. When the rough patches hit, it's tempting to wait them out and assume they’ll pass without making a long-term dent in your relationship.
Therapists, though, advise against that strategy. “The best time to seek out couples counseling may be when you’re feeling happy in your relationship,” says Gail Saltz, MD, psychiatrist and the author of The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius. Wait too long to seek help after challenges crop up, and bad habits might cement in place, along with resentment and anger. “That’s a very toxic place that’s difficult to undo,” says Dr. Saltz.
“It’s easier to work with couples who decide to intervene before the damage is really great,” agrees Tracy K. Ross, LCSW, a NYC-based couples and family therapist. With a therapist's help, you can break negative cycles, discover what's causing conflicts and distance, and restore a connection that may feel frayed. “Perhaps most importantly, it helps [couples] identify and remember the strengths of the relationship,” says Ross.
How can you know if your problems amount to a few rough weeks or months—or are big enough to break you up? All relationships are unique, but experts say it generally boils down to certain issues. Here are six signs you might want to consider couples counseling.
You're not feeling much love
Extravagant date nights, weddings, and splashy grand gestures are lovely. But tight couples know that small intimacies are relationship superglue. Hugs, eye contact, listening to your partner’s stories, and tiny acts of kindness help couples feel connected, and connected couples express their love by continuing to do these things, says Ross.
But when your internal perception of your partner changes, often these intimate moves are the first to go. So consider if your thoughts about your significant other are positive overall—or a laundry list of irritants. There’s a halo effect around our loved ones, says Dr. Saltz, that lets what’s wonderful about your partner shine brighter than their faults. When that halo dims, you're less likely to invest in those little gestures...and spats and bickering might take their place. Therapy can help you want to do them again.
Sex has become so-so at best
If one person in a relationship is sexually unhappy, it's a problem for the couple. Dissatisfaction with sex is one of the most common reasons couples seek out therapy, says Ross. Most often, mismatched libidos play a role: The person who wants more sex feels rejected by their partner, who in turn can feel pressured.
Problems around physical intimacy can feel embarrassing, frustrating, or frightening to couples. “They avoid talking about it because the conversations go nowhere, but they recognize that it’s eroding their relationship,” Ross says. If a formerly satisfying sex life has turned into a source of tension, therapy can help you navigate the difficult, awkward conversation and discover solutions that work for both partners.
You're not communicating well
Ideally, couples would start therapy when talking to each other grows challenging, negative, or one-sided, says Dr. Saltz. “I wish people would come in more with communication issues," she explains. “In actuality, not many people do that." And yet communication is often at the root of couples' conflicts—often, one person just doesn’t feel heard, says Ross, who notes that this frequently occurs because one person tries to problem-solve instead of listen.
Ross explains some of the rules therapists share with couples: Avoid “you” statements, and speak from the “I” instead; stay away from the words “always” and “never”; don’t generalize. Try applying these guidelines on your own, but know that smooth communication is not easy, and sometimes, a neutral party can help. “Couples therapy helps people feel heard and express empathy. It provides tools for communicating and asking for what you need,” says Ross.
One partner had a physical or emotional affair
Texting daily with a coworker, chatting up that cute barista, or getting alerts for every post your ex makes on social media may seem like harmless behaviors. But it can be easy for these small flirtations to transform into inappropriate emotional intimacy—or become physical. And affairs, says Ross, are one of the big reasons patients seek out counseling. It’s not just cheating that put a strain on a relationship, she says. Those emotional betrayals—closeness with someone outside of your relationship, and an over-investment in their day-to-day life—can also be a red flag of a relationship problem.
You bicker endlessly
Does every conversation turn into a conflict? Many couples wait until the fighting escalates before seeking out therapy, says Ross. But you don’t need to wait until a blowout happens to seek out help. “Many couples I see have essentially strong relationships but they get caught in a volatility cycle that leaves them depleted and distraught,” says Ross. Think of the sniping and bickering as a symptom (like a hacking cough that won’t go away) and seek out help before it escalates into, for example, walking pneumonia.
One partner is thinking of breaking up
When relationships aren't functioning smoothly, breaking up becomes compelling—even if you've been together for years. You may even visualize the steps involved in calling it quits, from finding a new place to live to working out custody arrangements. Or it may be your partner who feels ready to move on. “There are couples who come to therapy because they want to split up and they want to do it in the best way possible,” says Ross.
Couples therapy at this point is a last ditch effort to salvage the relationship, says Dr. Saltz. “Certainly couples therapy can be used to have a healthier split or divorce,” she says. But it can also be used to prevent one. So if you’re in a situation where your partner wants to split, and you do not, consider counseling. “Just showing up for couples therapy is brave and risky and the act of turning towards the relationship and committing to couples therapy is in and of itself an intervention,” Ross points out.