Couples therapy in your twenties? Not as crazy as it sounds

This article was written by for The Telegraph in 2015.

Couples therapy no longer has a stigma. It’s perfectly normal for married couples, or long-term partners going through some difficulties to seek professional help. You just have to watch an American sitcom to see how mainstream it’s become.

But getting couples therapy in your late twenties, or early thirties? Before you’ve even put a ring on it? That’s something we’re definitely not used to hearing about. Typically couples therapy, or counselling, is the stuff of long-term relationships. It’s associated with couples who are having serious issues and want to resolve them – not those who’ve only been together for a matter of months. Or so I’d always thought. Until, that is, I read that Frozen actress Kristen Bell, 34, credited it as the secret to her happy marriage.

When she first started dating her now-husband, actor Dax Shepard, in 2007, they chose to have therapy relatively early on. He told Good Housekeeping magazine that when they met: “There were hurdles, things she didn’t trust about me, things I didn’t trust about her. I just kept going back to ‘this person has the thing I want, and I have to figure out how we can exist peacefully.’ So we started [seeing a therapist together] right away.”

Bell said it gave her “a much bigger toolbox” for when they had disagreements, explaining: “You do better in the gym with a trainer; you don’t figure out how to cook without reading a recipe. Therapy is not something to be embarrassed about.” And it looks like Britain’s young couples are wising-up to the benefits of early relationship therapy, too. Several couples counsellors and psychologists tell me that a number of their clients are relatively young, and come for ‘preventative therapy’.

With a growing awareness around the triggers for divorce, and more people having individual therapy, it’s becoming a popular option for those who want to make their relationship last.

“It’s happening more,” agrees relationships coach Jo Barnett.

“If two people like each other and want to give it a go, they’re just more open to getting help, whether it’s coaching or therapy. Especially if they’ve got an underlying issue like in-laws, money or thoughts about kids.”

The idea is that, instead of waiting for deep-rooted issues to surface, couples get help early on and make sure those issues never have time to even grow their roots. They might have sessions fortnightly, monthly or even yearly – but it helps them make sure they notice their problems early and tackle with them head-on. It might be a growing trend, but preventative therapy is still something I’m a little sceptical about.

Just how early-on are we talking here? It’s not exactly good date chat. And if you need professional help six months in to a relationship, isn’t that a bad sign for the future? “I used to think the exact same,” my friend Gina*, 25, tells me. “I’ve been with my boyfriend for about a year-and-a-half, but recently we decided to get therapy. He suggested it because we’d been fighting a bit and reached a point where we’d considered breaking up.

Kim Kardashian and ex Kris Humphries reportedly tried couples therapy. “We both really wanted to make it work – we were just struggling. When he first brought it up I thought it was really weird – I don’t know anyone my age who gets therapy. I felt like it was just for married people and even my mum thought it was strange when I told her. “But I looked into it and realised it might work for us. The first appointment was scary, but now I really like it. We only go about once a month, but it’s helping us talk about things.”

Gina isn’t even the only 20-something I know who has therapy. When I tentatively broach the topic with friends it turns out they have either thought about it, or know couples who do it regularly. Although most feel there is still a huge stigma attached to it for young couples and many don’t want to speak about it – even anonymously.

All admit they had serious reservations about it until they gave it a go. “I used to have individual therapy anyway,” says Laura*, 26. “So when my boyfriend and I had problems, it didn’t seem that strange to me to seek professional help. It’s the best way to notice the recurring issues you have in your relationship and work out how to deal with them early on.”

The professionals agree. Carole Nyman, a couples counsellor based in London, tells me: “Most clients when it’s too late but some of them do come early and it’s a really good idea. Every relationship has issues – nothing’s 100 per cent. But it’s not about the issues themselves, it’s about how you deal with it and what your patterns are.”

It makes sense. If you’re three months into a relationship and know that you keep clashing over the exact same problems, why wait for them to get worse? The only problem seems to be that we’ve made it taboo. “The stigma is that if you need help this early on, it’s wrong,” agrees Barnett. “But the truth is all couples need help because you have got two people coming together from two very different background. Even if you seem similar, there will always be issues.

“It’s really, really sensible and I’d love to see it happening more and more. It’s still new and not something people are always aware of as an option but it’s a better way to go than dismissing someone who could be good for if you could just iron out the issues.”

It’s clearly catching on as an idea. The organisation Marriage Care runs marriage preparation sessions for couples who are planning to commit to a long-term relationship. And the therapists I speak to tell me that it’s common for people who are thinking about marriage to come and see them before they take that next step.

Marina Fogle recently spoke about how she and husband Ben Fogle regularly have ‘marriage MOTs.’ They started seeing a counsellor early on in their marriage to talk about any challenges and differences. They now recommend other couples do the same. “[Our counsellor] has since helped us with our relationship, teaching us how to better understand each other and communicate,” wrote Fogle. “We see her individually and together, and we’ve realised that it’s as important as seeing a dentist regularly.

“We see doctors, hygienists, opticians and mechanics before there are problems, and I’d argue our emotional wellbeing is significantly more important than our cars, eyes or teeth. If you can learn how to be strong while the going is easy, you will be better equipped for the more challenging terrain when it comes.” Everyone I’ve spoken to seems adamant that early relationship counselling is an investment in your relationship – rather than a sign it’s doomed. It’s actually quite refreshing. Though I maintain it’s not first, second or third date material, Save it for your six month anniversary, ok?

*Names have been changed.

This article was by for The Telegraph.

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