From The Straits Times    |

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What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words “marriage counselling”? You might conjure up an image of a couple screaming angrily at each other. Or perhaps imagine a reticent couple sitting on the couch, too afraid to say much because, well, we’re Asian and we don’t wash our dirty laundry in public, do we?

Marriage counselling, however, is nothing to shy away from. Several famous people with seemingly-perfect marriages have admitted to giving marriage counselling a go. Examples include the Obamas, Pink and Carey Hart, as well as Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad Falchuk. Cristina Gonzalez, a psychologist at Alliance Counselling, explains that marriage counselling helps couples to be more empathic and understand each other better.

“That leads to an increased sense of closeness and emotional connection, which make couples tend to be able to deal with other issues such as decision making or compromise,” she adds.

For a couple (Alex* and Nina*) who tried marriage counselling in Singapore, it has tremendously changed their opinion of it. They initially felt there was a stigma to marriage counselling, that it was a sort of taboo and “last resort” – they were even skeptical of how it would help. But they recall how they had made a pact when they got together – that they wouldn’t give up on each other no matter how challenging things got. Therefore, when things got “pretty unstable” between them, they went back to this shared philosophy, which prompted them to seek help via couples counselling.

Seeking peace with each other’s history

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The couple, now aged 34 and 30 and who both work in the banking and finance industry, sought marriage counselling in Singapore with Cristina in October 2022, two months before they got married. They had gotten to know each other just months earlier, giving them little time to have dealt with issues such as past infidelity (on his part), and mild depression, anxiety and self-harm (on her part).

“Our relationship was quite young and we were going through difficulties navigating our histories,” the pair reveal in an email interview.

“When we started to realise some cracks that were disturbed by past baggage, we attempted to fix them on our own. But, regardless of how we tried to communicate patiently, it was hard to hear each other fully. Knowing that we are 100 per cent committed to this relationship and we both want to do better, we knew it was better early than late to seek professional help,” they add.

Sharing with a complete stranger

It might sound like a big ask, to bare your feelings, frustrations and inner workings of your relationship to a therapist – a complete stranger. However, be assured that your therapist is trained to listen, rather than judge, and provide a safe space for sharing. And the main goal of the therapist is to help couples dig deep and better understand the root problem. With better awareness, the couple can then improve and repair the relationship in areas that need work, whether it is to do with trust, commitment, closeness or intimacy.

“The couples therapist should focus on what is better for the unity and how both partners can contribute to the wellbeing of the unity,” Christina explains. “It is very important for us as therapists to maintain an objective stance, understanding each one’s needs, emotions and desires.”

For Alex and Nina, it wasn’t hard to get vulnerable in front of their therapist as “Cristina made us feel very comfortable and we felt at ease – in fact, relieved – to be able to share our emotions and thoughts with full transparency and without judgement”. 

Misconceptions of marriage counselling in Singapore 

Cristina shares that misconceptions are rife, such as the assumption that the therapist will take sides or that therapy itself is the solution without the couple incorporating any new skills in their daily life. And some others believe that counselling could worsen, instead of improve, a relationship because they will need to talk more about difficult issues.

“[Open communication] would be an improvement if the maladaptive pattern was one of avoidance and emotional suppression. Some people think that when they don’t talk about their issues they are keeping the peace but often that leads to dissatisfaction and frustration,” says Cristina.

With arguments being part and parcel of a long-term relationship, learning conflict management skills is an invaluable benefit of going for counselling – one that Alex and Nina attest to.

For example, they learnt through therapy to call for an agreed timeout during conflicts – giving each other space to calm down for at least two hours but to speak again no later than 48 hours. However, practising that in reality proved to be hard initially, when emotions are heated and the concept was still relatively new to them. Therefore, the new skills they learnt, which also included how to draw healthy boundaries and form rituals to show fondness and admiration, did take time and practice to hone. 

The couple estimates going through around 20 counselling sessions with Cristina and still see her once a month now. 

Taking the first step 

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If you’re not sure whether your relationship can be saved by therapy, Cristina lists the following instances where marriage counselling is recommended:

  • There is lack of understanding between you and your partner.
  • You feel lonely and isolated.
  • You and your partner can’t communicate effectively, and you often argue or withdraw from each other.
  • There is little emotional connection; you interact with your partner superficially or in a “logistical way”.
  • There are trust issues caused by infidelity, lies or betrayal.
  • You have problems transitioning to parenthood or are disunited in handling parenting challenges.
  • You have issues from grieving a common loss such as miscarriage or the death of a child.
  • You start to distance from each other.
  • There is a loss of physical intimacy and you don’t get to solve it.
  • There are unresolved past wounds or issues.

However, there are instances where marriage counselling is not recommended: “In cases of ongoing domestic violence, couples counselling is contraindicated as the sessions can be a trigger for the perpetrator to act violently. The therapist will need to assess the nature of the violence before proceeding. It may be more effective to refer the perpetrator to individual therapy and make sure that the victim is safe, or create a safety plan.”

Should we, or should we not?

If you’re hesitant to try marriage counselling, Cristina advises you to talk to each other about the sources of hesitation and try to see if the fears are rationally sustained. Also, try to find a therapist that both partners connect with. Often once they are with the right therapist, the hesitations vanish during the first session, she shares.

Cristina reveals that it’s a common situation where there is a difference in terms of readiness or interest in therapy. “If the one who is more convinced can explore the sources of hesitation or unwillingness with compassion, it can be an extremely helpful exercise,” she says. “The person who is a bit more hesitant can consider going to therapy as an act of flexibility and love towards their partner.”

Once you’ve decided marriage counselling is right for you, research together as finding the right therapist can be extremely helpful. Cristina recommends reading through the information about therapists on various practices’ websites, or asking family members or friends for their experience with different couple therapists. 

“Once the decision is made and they have an appointment, the couple can think about their common expectations and goals for couples counselling. Normally sessions last 90 mins and the number of sessions can vary depending on the issues but the average tends to be between five and 10 sessions,” she adds.

And, if you still need more convincing, take this advice from Alex and Nina: ” If you want your marriage to work, you have to put in the work. Sometimes you won’t know what problems lie beneath the cracks until you face them. It always pays to understand and solve the root cause.”

*Names have been changed for privacy.

This article was originally published in Singapore Women’s Weekly.