According to relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before getting help. I have found that in my private practice, this if often true.
When couples finally do seek help, there is often so much built up anger and resentment that it can be difficult, if not impossible, for them to heal the relationship.
I have frequently wondered why any couple would wait so long if they are struggling in their marriage. After working with many couples over the years, I have some theories about why couples wait so long to seek counseling.
A Belief That Things Aren’t That Bad
Quite often, couples explain to me that they didn’t realize things were so bad in their marriage. Frequently, one partner has repeatedly asked for couples counseling to commence, but the other partner resisted, so they didn’t come.
Usually, after a number of years of not being satisfied or happy, the partner who wanted counseling will either offer an ultimatum or simply threaten to leave the marriage. Sometimes, this is what it takes for the resistant partner to accept that things are actually that bad, and if they want to try to save their marriage, they will need to agree to attend counseling.
The Idea That You Are Strong Enough
Many people have this idea that they are strong enough to fix things on their own. To agree to seek counseling would be an admission of weakness or defeat. So, they “try” on their own to fix their marriages.
They try by purchasing lavish gifts for their partners or taking trips together. Rather than getting help figuring out what is lacking and what needs improvement in the marriage, they just guess or try a quick fix type of solution.
I have literally never heard of this type of fix actually working to save a marriage. Often, it even builds more resentment, as one partner wants so badly just to feel heard and understood, and to find ways solve actual problems through more appropriate and effective communication.
The Idea That Therapy Is Only For Crazy People
It’s hard to understand that, even in this day and age, many people still hold on to the idea that going to therapy means you are a crazy person. This idea couldn’t be further from the truth.
Millions and millions of Americans seek counseling every year. It is so common, that it has become a covered health benefit in many states on insurance plans. For example, in California, mental health treatment must be covered with the same benefits as other types of medical treatment.
It is actually crazy to not seek treatment for problems.
This is actually true regardless of the problem, whether it is related to your marriage or something you are struggling with on a personal level. If you had diabetes or cancer, you would seek treatment to save your life. Getting counseling when needed can save marriages, and sometimes even save lives.
One of the most common reasons I hear for the delay in seeking couple’s counseling is the notion that all the problems are your partner’s fault. Frequently, when I meet a couple for the first time, they present in such a way that one partner is describing all the things that are wrong with their partner that he or she needs to change.
They often go so far as to actually state that if their partner fixes all of these things, that is how they will save their marriage. With this mindset, it seems obvious why the couple would have waited too long to seek counseling.
If you don’t believe you are part of the problem, then it is impossible to believe that you can be part of the solution.
Secrets Might Come Out
When a marriage is in trouble, resentment builds and couples might stop having sex. As more resentment builds, feelings of being unloved prevail, and needs are not being satisfied. This is a dangerous setup for one or both partners to seek sex outside of the marriage.
Infidelity occurs in many couples that are “trying to work things out” or “working on our marriage.” Unfortunately, keeping this kind of secret makes it impossible to really have a loving and trusting marriage.
Many people refuse to attend counseling because they fear their secret infidelity might come out. Too many people would rather protect this secret, than admit to the problematic behavior and make efforts to heal the relationship.
You Don’t Want To Change
Under even the best of circumstances, and even when you’re highly motivated, change is difficult and change is uncomfortable. Most of us would much prefer to keep on doing the same things we have always done, in the same ways we have always done them. It feels familiar, and it makes sense to us.
Anyone who doesn’t like the way we do things must have a problem of their own. So, then why on earth would we voluntarily sign up for therapy, when we know that therapy involves change? Many simply don’t.
The problem with this is that if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always gotten. In this case, it isn’t working, so something must change.
You’ve Become Complacent
After years of being unhappy in your marriage, you’ve just decided that this is what marriage looks like. You believe that it is as good as it gets, and you have chosen to tolerate and accept your marriage as it is.
I’ve had clients tell me that they have decided to stay for the kids, or that they have come to believe that nobody else has it any better. Basically, they’ve given up on the idea that things could be any better, so they’re not even willing to try. This is like accepting defeat.
You Feel Like a Failure
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard clients, most often men, talk about how they feel like a failure when their marriage is failing. Even after a divorce, I frequently hear this from people. So, couples actually avoid getting the help they need to save their marriages, in order to not feel like failures, thereby allowing the marriage to fail.
When you think about it, this literally makes no sense at all. The only failure here is the couple standing by and watching their marriage collapse rather than seeking the help they need.
All of these reasons are so unfortunate, because as mentioned above, it is often too late to save the marriage after years of unhappiness, arguing and resentment. I’m always so happy for couples that are willing to come in as soon as things start getting stressful or as soon as they begin to see signs of trouble.
When they come in early, they can learn to articulate what they want and need, learn to show compassion and empathy for one another, and learn new ways to communicate and effectively resolve problems.