Nowadays, couples therapy isn’t just for long-term partners—more people in new relationships are seeking professional help.
Is it a waste of time or time well spent?
Jennifer and Henry’s* first date was right out of a rom-com. “We went kayaking and then
stayed up all night telling each other our life stories,” says Jennifer, who is 24, the same age as Henry. “After that we were just together.”
But the happy ending never materialized. “All of a sudden we couldn’t pick a movie without screaming at each other,” admits Jennifer, of Santa Cruz, California.
But they didn’t want to just give up, feeling like if they did, the time they’d spent together would have been wasted. So they went to therapy— right around the three-month mark.
Hope and Alex, both in their early thirties, together nine months, are the kind of blissfully happy couple who probably call each other “Boo” in private. Still, they spend Thursday nights in therapy. “Everything’s perfect now,” says Hope, of Sacramento, California. “But we want
to make sure it stays that way.” It used to be that couples therapy was only for unhappy
They went because a certain issue wouldn’t stop rearing its ugly head or because it had become clear that without the intervention of a third party, objects would be thrown. Or, maybe, they were forcing themselves to stay together for the kids. It would have been unheard of for a noncommitted new couple who were already fighting to get professional help rather
than just change their Facebook status back to single. Or for a couple who still has sex five
times a week to seek out a shrink. (Isn’t that like going on OkCupid when you’re
already dating Bradley Cooper?) Not these days.
“I’m seeing more and more people who are just dating, not necessarily looking to get married,” says Mary Kay Cocharo, a Los Angeles–based therapist, “and they are coming in earlier, sometimes when they’ve been together for less than six months.” And she’s not
alone: Therapists across the country are reporting an uptick in barely committed pairs who are sitting down with shrinks. “Given the increasing number of couples living together before
engagement or marriage, it would make sense that a higher percentage of couples seeking counseling would be unmarried,” says Brian Doss, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami.
“Research shows that therapy increases satisfaction for all types of couples.”
The trend is, in part, a reflection of the modern-day must-have-it-all expectations for a relationship. “We have set the bar so high for what we want from a partner,” says Susan Brown, Ph.D., a sociologist at Bowling Green State University. “We want a confidant, a lover, and a companion, all rolled up into one person. While we’re aware we’re asking a lot, we still want to be the person, that exception, who gets that perfect, idealized relationship
that we know intellectually may be impossible. There’s that bridge between fantasy
and reality. The patients hope therapy can provide that bridge, so it’s no wonder people are going earlyon in relationships.”
Nonmarrieds have gone to couples counseling for quite some time, but they’ve usually done it right before they’re about to walk down the aisle.
What’s different now is that the people who are finding themselves therapists (typically in their twenties or early thirties) aren’t necessarily getting hitched.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 51 percent of all adults in the United States
are currently married—a new record low. The number of new marriages dropped by
5 percent between 2009 and 2010, and just 20 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are
married today (compared with nearly half in 1980).
“I am completely not in that [getting married] head space right now,” says Sequoia, 27,
of Boston, who has been in therapy with her boyfriend for six of the nine months they’ve
been dating. “What I’m doing right now with Josh is learning how to communicate better
in general, which is useful for any relationship, whether we stay together or not.”
Just because people may not be eager to put a ring on it doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in being crazy in love. “You have this whole generation of kids of divorce who want love and
companionship,” says Brown. “They aren’t under the illusion those things are necessarily
forever. But they still want their relationships to be as good as they can be.”
Smart or Self- Indulgent?
Not everyone is cheering on these proactive partners. “A lot of my single friends think
I’m crazy for going to therapy with someone I haven’t been with for long,” says Jennifer.
Hope says she gets baffled reactions too. “My friends tell me, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t
fix it.’ The meaner ones just call us narcissists.”
And not all therapists have the patience for it. “Most people, over the past few generations, have become increasingly immature and self-absorbed,” says Julie Nise, a relationship trainer and therapist based near Houston. “Going to counseling when you’ve been together only six
months seem premature to me. They’re looking for an audience to bitch and complain to.” Having a therapist, she feels, is akin to having your own personal trainer or fashion stylist. “It’s a chichi thing to do,” she says. Cocharo is skeptical of that idea. “Yes, I do get a lot of
people who come in because another couple told them it was great,” she says, but she doubts people would make themselves that vulnerable just because it’s popular.
(Plus, it can be pricey!) Whatever the motivation, this generation of therapy seekers might be well served by being forced to sit and speak to each other. Texters and Tweeters are often less adept at communicating one-on one, says Licia Ginne, a psychotherapist and licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “They often need help learning how to relate in a more emotional way,” she says. (Here’s her tip: Don’t text each other a play-by-play of your entire day.
“Save some of the news for when you see each other.”) In the end, Jennifer doesn’t mind being mocked by her single friends and is keeping her weekly talk sessions with her beau. “Just about every married person I know thinks we’re smart for doing this,” she says. “And even though we started out not thinking about commitment, I feel that going to therapy has made it more likely that we will commit.”
All Fitness __ Love Bugged
By Sarah Miller