Couples therapy can be intense and uncomfortable at first: Inevitably, there are awkward pauses. There are revelations that are hurtful to hear and bursts of anger. And all of this while a third party listens.
But eventually you and your partner get into the swing of things at your therapist’s office ― or the Zoom square you’re sharing, if it’s teletherapy.
Even better, you start to learn fundamental things about your relationship and the way you and your partner engage with one another: Maybe you learn about attachment styles and realize that you’re anxiously attached while your partner is avoidant, which has caused a lot of misunderstanding and strife in your relationship. Or perhaps you learn to ask “Do you want comfort or solutions?” when discussing something that bothers one of you.
“Aha” moments and lessons like that can be game changers in relationships. Below, married couples who’ve attended marriage therapy share their “aha moment” and talk about how it changed their relationship for the better. (Their responses have been edited lightly for clarity and length.)
“We learned how to fight without tearing each other down.”
“My husband and I have been married for seven years and became first-time parents during the thick of the pandemic. No visitors were permitted in the hospital, and family couldn’t visit as they sought vaccinations. So when couples with new babies usually have their village to support them, it was just the two of us. Becoming new parents is one of the most stressful events in the best relationship. The isolation of parenting during COVID magnified the stress. As I fell more in love with my baby, my marriage was slowly crumbling. Our sweet baby wasn’t the only one crying and screaming; we joined her voice in our home, fighting each other. Our conflict resolution differences under stress and sleep deprivation became magnified. We were wired to address conflict in very different ways in our lives.
“We sought help in facing this crisis. The biggest thing we learned in therapy, and continue to work on daily, is how we fight. Learning how to communicate in ways that are not tearing each other down is essential. Even more critical, we learned the consequences to our relationship of continuing to fight. ‘Pause before we react’ is a tool our therapist taught us, and we continually work on it. We are more mindful of the results of attacking back. Of course, that doesn’t help our relationship or daughter. Pausing helps us remember that by responding when we are triggered, we are almost guaranteeing an end to our relationship.” ― Vanessa Watson-Hill, a psychotherapist in New Jersey
“We learned that no matter how much we think we know about one another, there is always more to discover.”
“Monotony used to be a challenge for my husband, Daniel, and I. We’ve been together for 14 years. We’d get into emotional routines, and the boredom would make us shut each other out of our internal worlds. Therapy helped us understand that no matter how much we think we know about one another, there is always more to discover. Always. We’re comrades, but we’re also beautiful strangers. At any given moment, there are things going on in my husband’s head that I can’t see, which I find endlessly thrilling. And whenever I try to mine those things, I discover things about myself I haven’t conceptualized before. It’s an exhilarating give-and-take that not only saves us from boredom but also makes both of us feel seen.
“Since we learned that, even arguments have become more fulfilling. It’s allowed us to let go of expectations about how a relationship should work, which makes us more accepting of our shortcomings. We are gentler with each other and more invested. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to feel that my partner cares enough to look for the mysteries in me. It makes me feel desired. It creates a beautiful reciprocity.” ― Micah Unice, a medical administrator in Salt Lake City, Utah
“We learned the importance of a 30-minute weekly marriage meeting and asking, ‘What do you need?’
“My husband and I have been married for 15 years and have been going to marriage counseling for over six years. We started attending not because there was a crisis but because we ― well, I ― wanted us to be able to communicate in a way that reduced the tension I felt in the relationship and made everything feel easier.
“One of the most helpful pieces of structure that we’ve introduced into our lives because of therapy is a Saturday morning, 30-minute conversation in which we review the last week and look forward to the next week. We have two small children and a house and lives of our own, so life can get busy.
“Figuring it out ahead of time has made our lives easier. And especially because I tend to be the planner (which I literally am by profession) and my husband the ‘go along to get along’ type (a wonderful type to have, by the way, during the COVID quarantine), this structure really lowers my stress about keeping the household running without me needing to maintain an iron grip on it.
“The single most important question we’ve learned to ask is, ‘What do you need?’ Let’s say my husband is angry ― about what is less important. He’s venting. I instinctively start to spin all sorts of (usually totally wrong) tales in my own head about how he’s feeling or what he’s thinking. It creates an uncomfortable atmosphere that I really wish would go away.
“If I simply ask him, ‘What do you need right now?’ then it usually leads quickly to him stating out loud what he needs and what, if anything, I can do for him. No more catastrophizing or guessing on my part. He feels cared for. And sometimes (!!) there’s even something I can do to make his life better.” ― Meg Bartelt, a financial planner in Bellingham, Washington
“We learned how much our families of origin affect how we behave in our marriage.”
“My husband, Josh, and I have been married for 13 years. We began going to therapy when our oldest was 3 and our twins were under a year old. My parents actually saw some signs of fracture in our relationship. Having gone through a rocky season with infant twins and a toddler early in their marriage (I have twin brothers three years younger than me), they offered to pay for therapy and watch our kids.
“The biggest revelation for us was when our therapist began to really integrate some family systems theory into our sessions. I don’t think either of us realized how much our families of origin affected how we handle conflict and decisions. My family is loud and debates and fights and lays it all out on the table, and then quickly repairs and moves on from the situation. That can be good but also bad ― sometimes problems need time to simmer and feelings can get steamrolled in the effort of getting back to ‘normal.’ Josh’s family is much quieter about conflict, more likely to hold things inside and quietly stew or be introspective. Again, good and bad. Time to think is good, but stuffing feelings down is damaging.
“These family systems totally shaped how we viewed our relationship. For Josh, a giant blow-up was devastating, whereas for me, it was a release of pressure so that things could return to homeostasis. For me, when Josh holds things in or is introspective, it feels tense and awful. We haven’t entirely unlearned these patterns and probably never will. We have, however, learned to recognize how our partner is dealing with a situation and see it through a different lens.”― Meg St-Esprit, a part-time staff writer at Romper and freelance journalist and content writer who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
“After our sons’ autism diagnoses, our counselor suggested we discuss how we truly felt to each other.”
“My wife and I have been together for five years, and we have four children in total and two sons together. Recently we discovered both of our sons have autism. Because of our busy day-to-day lives, we rarely discussed in detail how we really felt on the inside or how our lives would be drastically changed through our sons’ diagnosis. I wasn’t knowledgeable about autism and was fearful of the unknown, so I began to withdraw when it came to figuring out autism-related things, like behavioral therapy and speech therapy. Instead, I focused more on what I knew I could do, which was housework and taking care of the boys. I didn’t realize my lack of interest in their autism was an issue until my wife and I got into a heated argument about how she needed me to be more involved in that part of their lives.
“While in couples counseling, our counselor suggested we discuss how we truly felt to each other, and afterwards we entered into a new realm of intimacy with one another. The discussions strengthened our bond and were integral in helping us face our new reality together with love, communication and understanding. I realized my family needed me to be present in every aspect of their lives, not just the parts I wasn’t afraid of. The discussions helped me face my fears and extinguish them as I became more available and hands-on with their autism, and it helped me become a better husband and father.” ― Shon Hyneman, a content creator who lives in the Austin, Texas, area
“We learned to use ‘I’ language instead of accusatory ‘you’ language.”
“My fiancé and I recently got engaged and had our first child together, but as we were planning our wedding, it suddenly dawned on us that we had some unhealthy communication styles that we wanted to address in premarital couples counseling prior to walking down the aisle.
“Prior to counseling, I always avoided the difficult conversations with him because one of us would either get too defensive or too prideful to accept criticism about ourselves, and the conversation would go left and nothing would be resolved.
“Thankfully, in couples therapy I learned how to be a reflective listener, which taught me how to actively listen and give my fiancé the opportunity to speak freely. In our conversations, we learned to use the ‘I’ instead of ‘you’ technique that taught me to say, ‘I feel hurt when you do X,Y, Z,’ instead of saying, ‘You hurt my feelings.’ By simply learning how to redirect the emphasis on trying to understand each other rather than focusing on winning the conversation or counter-arguing, we learned how to communicate on a deeper level.” ― Brittney, a stay-at-home mom in Missouri
“We learned the four biggest predictors of divorce.”
“My husband and I have one of those meet-cute stories that people ‘aww’ over, and it really set the tone for our early relationship. It was fast-paced, exciting and full of promise. Of course, the honeymoon phase eventually ended, and we were left with no tools to get us through the rest of our lives together.
“Couples therapy has provided numerous long-lasting benefits for my husband and me, but the most powerful takeaway has been learning psychologist John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the key indicators of divorce he discovered through his research of couples: They are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Being able to identify these as they occur has helped us immediately take a step back, regroup and then re-approach each other and the situation.
“In our short seven-year relationship, we’ve had job transitions, deaths in the family, cross-state moves, financial difficulties, life-threatening pregnancies, sick children and many other major stressors. Having an open dialogue and recognizing the signs of a struggling relationship have helped us face these stressors head-on and come out the other side with our relationship not just intact but strengthened.” ― Jemma, a graduate student who works in marketing and lives in Washington state
“We see each other as teammates, we work together on housework and we ask, ‘Is this a listen or a fix it?’”
“Luis and I attended premarital counseling and have been in therapy ever since. We have had some months where we don’t actively go because our therapist says we are OK, but we try to go for maintenance and, honestly, we enjoy it ― both of us do. It’s like going on a date for us. When we leave, we feel rejuvenated and like we just learned something completely new about each other, even after 17 years and three children.
“I would say we have learned three key things in therapy that have greatly helped our relationship. One, we both understand that we are a team and teammates don’t try to hurt each other. We understand that if arguments or issues arise, it’s us against the issues, and not one against the other.
“The second lesson I learned was how to ask him to get certain things done around the house. As Africans from Cape Verde, we were both raised with the habit that the house has to be clean at all times and everything must be in order. I used to get upset when I asked him to do certain things and they wouldn’t get done. The conflict happened when I wouldn’t tell Luis when I needed them done. We are both full-time parents and full-time professionals, so it’s busy. Our therapist suggested I make a list of things I needed done and include deadlines as well. In this way, I could communicate what I needed and he would figure out a good time in his schedule to get them done. So, for example, I can write: ‘1. Change the bathroom light bulb (no later than tomorrow); 2. Fix my laptop (the end of the weekend).’ These were clear asks with deadlines. If the deadlines were unrealistic, we could discuss further.
“Lastly, we learned about ‘Is this a listen or a fix it?’ My husband loves finding solutions to anything his sees as a problem. However, sometimes I just need a listening ear and a shoulder. So in therapy he learned to say, ‘Is this a listen or a fix it?’ instead of telling me ‘You should do this’ or ‘You need that.’” ― Terza Lima-Neves, a professor of political science who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina
“We learned how to deal with our drastically different communications style.”
“When Mandi and I chose to engage in couples therapy recently, we had come to the realization that we were communicating in a way that had become unhealthy for us, our child, our sex life and just our relationship in general. Mandi has ADD, and I am a bit more Type A than I’d like to admit, so we were butting heads over simple things like cleaning the house, parenting… you know, all of the stuff that comes along with a relationship. Our disagreements had gotten hotter and hotter, and her defense mechanism of shutting down and threatening to leave was getting tiresome for us both. She didn’t want to leave, but knew it was a button to push to stop the conversation (I’ve been married twice before). So we decided to enter therapy and found a killer therapist, which was really hard to find.
“For me, the ‘aha’ moment came when I had to make some realizations about myself and how I communicate. I had to own a lot of my own stuff before I could get into how I reacted to her. First and foremost, I learned that I sit on a thing that is really heavy to me but might mean nothing to her. I let myself spin out about that, and once that particular problem is solved, I keep going and will find any and all things negative that pull me into a really nasty spiral. The ‘aha’ came when I realized how miserable my own behavior was making those around me. I had to work very hard, and still do, to catch myself when the spiral begins. I now have the tools to tell Mandi it’s starting, and she knows to let me just go work through it without pushing on the conversation. I also know to not try to enter the conversation in that state.” ― Brian Rickel, a dean of arts, media and entertainment at a community college in Sacramento, California
“We learned each other’s love languages.”
“Many people hear ‘couples counseling’ and they automatically assume something is wrong with the relationship. That was not the case in ours. I wanted to be in therapy as a way of keeping our relationship healthy.
“One of our main ‘aha’ moments in therapy was when our therapist had us identify our main love language. For years we were using how we identify love on one another, but we learned in therapy we should love each other the way the other views love. In our early 20s, the world was not talking about love languages, but we somehow made it work. Our therapist taught us how to prioritize how the other identifies love ― a sacrifice that is easy to make when you’re open to learning and growing. My husbands is ‘acts of service,’ and mine is ‘words of affirmation.’ So he started to give me the reassurance I needed and I started taking things off his to-do list. We are nine years strong, have been in therapy for five years and our daughter, Sunset, will be 1 in September!” ― Billi Sarafina Greenfield, a writer, mother and business owner in Southern California