The 7 Most Common Reasons Couples Seek Marriage Counseling

And what you and your partner can do to work through them — together.

In a recent study of 1,000 engaged, married, and divorced couples conducted by MidAmerica Nazarene University, nearly half of respondents (49 percent) stated that they had attended some form of counseling with their spouse. That's about twice as many people attending marriage counseling as their parents' generation (which averaged out to only 23 percent). Over time, marriage counseling has begun to lose its negative stigma, with more couples seeking out marriage counseling each new generation. 

To find out more, we recruited marriage counselor Shira Etzion of Andrea Cornell, Marriage and Family Therapy P.C., to explain the seven most common reasons couples seek marriage counseling, as well as some strategies couples can use to work through them. 

1. Communication

Communication may be the most common issue for which couples seek outside counsel because it's essential to the internal workings of their relationship, but not always easy to accomplish in a one-on-one conversation. "If one or both people are not feeling heard or are regularly feeling unacknowledged or misunderstood, there is probably an issue with communication," Shira Etzion tells A Plus. 

To work through this issue together, she encourages couples to "Slow the conversation down." To do that, she suggests paraphrasing and even mirroring back what your partner says so you can give and receive confirmation that you've understood what your partner is expressing — and vice versa — before you respond. Take as much time as you need to clarify not just what each person says, but what they mean.  

She also advises couples to take it slow because these conversations may bring up new information that conflicts with something a partner feels or knows and is therefore difficult for them to process. "Even something that is apparent to you about your relationship or a personal experience can literally be like processing something completely new for your partner," she explains. 

2. Affair

When a partner engages in an extramarital affair and the other partner finds out, a fundamental trust in their relationship is broken. To repair it, couples often need an objective third party to help facilitate the reckoning process and plan a path forward. "Couples usually come to therapy once they have decided they want to stay together and work through it," Etzion says. "The level of love and desperation inherent in the acceptance of the rock bottom of infidelity can be fertile soil for growth. It doesn't have to be a death sentence." 

The key ingredient to overcome infidelity, according to Etzion, is that both partners want to. "They want something different. They don't want a life where they are lying. They don't want to be in a life where they are saying one thing and being another," she explains. "They want a healthy home and they want the love that they felt when they first met their partner." 

That begins with "complete and total honesty and transparency," which goes back to the first point: communication. "Talk about it A LOT," Etzion stresses. She also encourages the cheating partner to go all in on the transparency front, giving their partner "every password to every email account, every social media account, bank account, every device, everything." The cheating partner will likely also need to answer every and any question from their partner about the affair, but if they're truly commited to saving the relationship, they'll be willing to go through that process.

"In sessions, we inevitably get to a point of love and openness where the couple will write a detailed list: What do you need to feel safe and start trusting this person? What do you need so your mind isn't racing and wondering?" Etzion says. "Usually the person who cheated is more than willing to do anything. We go over whatever the person needs so that there isn't a chance for their mind to not know what is happening in their partner's life ... to where they feel so safe because someone is taking every action to respond to their every fear. And that's healing no matter who you are." 

3. Money/Debt

For many married couples, money can become a heated issue in their relationship when "what's mine is yours" doesn't always translate into sharing financial responsibility equally. "I notice that when people come in for money reasons, they're not on the same page about where their actual realistic financial situation is at," Etzion explains. "One person may think they are in a worse situation than they are, while the other feels they are in a better situation than they are. So both people see something different." 

That's where the trouble can begin, so that's also where Etzion suggests couples start, by asking each other "Where are we?" That can be a series of long conversations, not just one. "Everyone has a different relationship to money, just like everyone has a different relationship with their mother," she adds. "A great exercise to help elucidate the differences in [each] partner's relationship to money is to write a letter to money as if it were a person you are in a relationship with." 

Etzion has done this herself several times and has seen firsthand how it helps people understand themselves and their inner reaction to money. It can also really help a couple understand not only themselves, but one another. The letter exercise shifts the focus away from "money" as an abstract concept or goal, but grounds it in how each individual is experiencing the money situation in real time. 

4. Children

While many couples know they want to have children early on in their relationship, when it finally happens, it changes the relationship — in a positive, but often exhausting, way. "The transition from being a couple to a family can be a tricky time where many rewrites are happening in the relationship and the roles each partner plays," Etzion says. "This can be an ongoing negotiation throughout childrearing." She encourages couples to keep touching base with one another about what each partner is experiencing as a parent and family member. 

Additionally, Etzion wants couples to know that the "getting to know each other" part of the relationship is far from over. Rather, it's evolving as you both go through the childrearing journey together. "Each person is going to have their own experience, and is going to have their own experience of their spouse as being a parent," she says. "The experience becomes part of the relationship, but the children are still separate from the relationship." 

To balance who you were as a couple with you are now, Etzion suggests, "Keep a relationship separate from your children. Keep nurturing your relationship as a couple. Keep revisiting the question: 'What are our values for ourselves, our children, our family?'" She emphasizes the importance of spending time alone with each other, even if that's just an hour or two after your children's bedtime. "Keep reinstating that bond that you have separate from the children," Etzion adds. "Even if conversation is about the kids, it needs to be built on the fact that you are a couple separate from your children." If you can, Etzion encourages couples to spend time overnight together, having a "24 hour date" of sorts (wink wink). 

Ultimately, she tells parents, "Feel all the feelings you have about your experience and be vulnerable with each other. It doesn't mean those feelings will last forever, but keep talking through it. Don't stop the conversation just because it's scary."

5. Parenting Style

As you and your partner go through your childrearing journey, you may have different approaches to parenting, which can become a source of tension in your relationship. To work through this, Etzion suggests, "Talk about what it was like growing up in your own family. Do an investigation of your own life. Where did these ideas come from that seem so obvious as a preferred parenting style? Most probably something different is so obvious to your partner." 

Many people may not realize that their parenting style is often an unconscious reaction to their own upbringing. "[Talking about] it can help you see what's motivating you and where you may not be able to take in your partner because you are triggered by your own childhood," she says. "Parenting runs so deep, and you may not know that you're triggered. Most parents genuinely want to be an amazing parent and often it's really ingrained programming from your family of origin ... Let each other in more about your own upbringing, and understand the deep motivators that are underneath because they are often familial." 

At the end of the day, she says couples can come together to "custom create" a parenting style that works for both of them and their child. "It's also important to remember what you love about your partner because something about their ideas about parenting may be connected to aspects of them and their character that you love," Etzion adds. It's also important for couples to take the time to ask each other some tough, but worthwhile questions, such as: What are you each afraid of? How do you each envision your children being shaped? What do you want for your children? You both might want the same thing, but just have different ways to get there. You can totally try each person's way — together — and see what actually works in execution. 

6. In-Laws

Ah yes, the in-laws. Every married couple has them, and even the best in-law relationships can come with some amount of emotional baggage. "Oftentimes, core issues in a couple's relationship can really stand out through the dynamic the couple have with their families," Etzion says. "When a person doesn't set boundaries with their own family of origin, then they almost automatically become complicit in how their family is treating their partner." No matter what relationship individual partners have with their families, she encourages couples to work as a unit in setting boundaries between their couplehood and each family.

Again, as with childrearing, she also encourages exploring your relationship to your family. "What partners don't often realize is how their family may be using that opportunity [of integrating their family member's partner] to feel more connected to the child — more tribal and less accepting of... a person that is new and different." Though this behavior may be unconscious, it can be understandably detrimental to the couple's relationship. Etzion advises couples to "discuss before you go to family events what you each need for support, how you might get triggered, what feels good, and what doesn't feel good regardless of whose family it is." When you get home, she adds that couples should talk about their experience together to look back at what happened and what you can learn from it.

"Sometimes people don't realize what they are marrying into," Etzion explains. "... It can take several years to realize what that actually means for the partner not in that family, because they may not know how unique and unlike their partner's family their partner actually is, especially if that has always been their certain 'normal.'  "On top of that, a partner coming into a culturally different family, like a first-generation American family with allegiance to another culture, for example, can bring with it a "very tough context" to understand. "Taking time to address expectations and what is realistic can be sobering, but ultimately [can] lead to a more accepting and cohesive stance for the couple," she says. 

7. Work

Like your in-laws, work is another outside force that can wreak unexpected havoc on the internal workings of a couple's relationship. When it becomes stressful, it can override everything else in your life and make you compromise your other priorities. "Work can be something one partner feels the other is overly committed to, like they are married to their job — not their partner," Etzion explains. "... There are lot of social cultures in work that you may feel you need to be a part of to fit in and excel that may be taking up a lot of time, have different values than your partner, or than you originally had as a couple." 

Even when work is going well, it can still wear on you as a couple. For example, if one partner is asked to work crazy long hours for a temporary amount of time, but then that timeframe keeps getting extended with no end in sight, that burnout will begin to affect the relationship. On the flipside, if one partner gets a promotion, there may be initial positive results and financial gains, but that can eventually lead to conflict over how this new job impacts the relationship now and in the long-term. 

Additionally, Etzion says, "Traveling for work, work placements and getting transferred to another state or country can be big stressors for a couple." Sometimes though it's not distance, but close quarters that create conflict in relationships. "Couples who work together can sometimes feel confused about how to arrange the different parts of their relationship to stay balanced," she adds.  

When work isn't going well, that can also "be devastating for a couple," according to Etzion. "It can seep into how they are in their relationship, as well as the interpretation one person has about the other not doing well," she explains. "There is the meaning couples place on the individual's career instead of just the individual." To work through these nuanced issues, she encourages couples to ask themselves: "How does this job experience affect us as a system? What do we want? Individually, is it aligned with my value system? Is it aligned with our value system as a couple? As a family?" There are no easy yes or no, right or wrong answers to these questions. The key is starting to explore the answers together.

Ultimately, Etzion says, "Couples therapy can be fun! It's not as dreadful as people may think — even if they are having trouble." if you're experiencing any of these issues, take the time to talk with your partner to figure out the best plan forward for both of you. 

Cover image via Felipe P. Lima Rizo on Unsplash

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