Fiona* and Jerald* were dating for about five years when they decided to get some help for what they felt was becoming a major source of tension the relationship. Fiona felt that whenever she opened up to Jerald* about her problems, he seemed to shut down, and tell her to quit complaining. With a couple therapist guiding the conversation, helping Jerald put into words what he wasn’t able to express, and reading his body cues, she was able to help Fiona understand that Jerald felt helpless about not being able to solve her problems. As such, he disguised his frustration by being dismissive instead. The therapist then taught Jerald how to moderate his tone and choose his words more carefully. Clearly it worked – the couple are still together today.
Fiona and Jerald aren’t the only ones – data from Reach Counselling Centre shows that over 20 per cent of couples that showed up for therapy in 2016 were not married. It seems rather than let a problem fester, they’re getting it sorted – the earlier, the better. “People are more accommodating when they’re still courting,” says Larry Lai, psychotherapist and principal counsellor at Focus on the Family Singapore. The difference with couples counselling before marriage is that the therapist is not bent on fixing a problem, as would be the case for a married couple who have more at stake, says Winny Lu, therapist and senior counsellor at Reach Counselling Centre. Basically, these couples want to get it right – before they take the next big leap into marriage.
Four reasons why you and your bae should give it a go
You fight a lot, and you don’t know why
Constant bickering probably means there’s a deep-seated issue you’re not dealing with. For example, constant fights about money could indicate trust issues. Larry cites the common example of one partner wanting to set up a joint account, even though the other person sees no need for it. “That partner sees a joint account as proof of a trusting relationship, and separate accounts as having no trust,” adds Larry. Couples therapy creates a safe space for you to spill on what’s really bothering you, be less dismissive of your partner’s feelings, and find a way to meet halfway.
Your partner cheated. Or maybe, you did
It’s easy to get caught up in your emotions – so much so you can't even look your partner in the eye and talk about what happened, without having a complete meltdown. If you think the relationship’s worth saving, a therapist can help get the dialogue going so you can decide whether to patch things up or give yourself closure and move on.
You suspect you aren’t a good match
A couples therapist can help assess your compatibility as a couple. “We look at things like your style of communication, family background, personality, attitudes towards money, how you handle stress, and how close you are as a couple,” says Winny. You’re either what therapists call a ‘vitalised’ couple (one that’s totally in sync), or the exact opposite – ‘conflicted’ couple. “The conflicted couple is the worst. I would be worried if this type of couple wanted to get married,” she adds. Their relationship isn’t doomed per se, but it needs more work.
Being aware of your differences is a good place to start, and that’s where the therapist comes in. He or she will help identify issues you need to work through individually – which may require one-on-one counseling after the joint session. “During an argument, your reaction towards your partner may be born out of your own fears and anxieties. Or, it could be related to your own upbringing,” says Larry. Most of the time, we don’t realise we’re bringing our own emotional baggage into the relationship.
You can’t tell your partner how you really feel
Talking is a big part of couples therapy, and it’s especially helpful for those who find it difficult to articulate their emotions.
How to get your unwilling guy into the therapist’s chair
1. He thinks the issue is too private to involve a stranger.
Say: Wouldn’t it be better involve a professional who’s neutral and trained to help resolve the conflict, instead of hearing input from friends and family?
2. He thinks therapy is too extreme.
Say: You may not think this is an issue now, but if we ever get married, we’ll have to live with it every day. Then, it might be much more problematic.
3. He doesn’t think therapy will work.
Say: I know you value this relationship. This is important to me, even if you don’t believe in it, I would like to invite you to come along and hear what the therapist has to say. Will you do it for me?
How to pick the right therapist
It’s not a one size fits all when it comes to couples therapy. You find what works for you. If your partner isn’t very tuned in to his emotions, emotionally-focused therapy (EFT) – which is more fluid and helps couples understand and express their feelings – might be more beneficial. If you’re into something more structured, look for a therapist who practises the Gottman Method. This method takes a systematic look at various aspects of your relationship, like conflict, intimacy and whether things between both of you have stagnated.
Tell the counselling centre what kind of therapist you’re looking for, and they’re likely to point you in the right direction. Most sessions last an hour, and a couple typically will go through between four to five sessions, which can also include individual counseling. Cost-wise, it depends on the centre you select. Rates for sessions at Focus on the Family for example, start at $90 an hour.
Heads up, most couples therapists do not handle addiction and mental health conditions. In these situations, you might be asked to approach the Institute of Mental Health, which also runs an addictions clinic. If you’re being physically abused by your partner, you should reach out to the Centre for Promoting Alternatives to Violence (PAVE) instead.
*Names have been changed
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Her World magazine.