Before the Storm: Starting Couples Therapy Before Things Get Bad

By Liz Delaney, MA, MFT-C

We don’t grow up going to classes about how to love and be loved. Sometimes, we just need some help establishing deeper bonds with our loved ones. Frequently, we enter relationships with a longing for connection and safety. However, these close relationships can evoke intense emotional responses, resulting in contrary feelings of disconnection and a loss of security. It’s perfectly normal to need preemptive support, but there is a stigma that implies there’s something wrong in your relationship when you consider couples therapy. According to research, on average, there is a 2.68-year gap between the onset of problems and the start of couples therapy (Doherty et al., 2021). Many of us haven’t had a healthy, loving relationship modeled to us, so it’s difficult to know how to navigate a romantic partnership without some outside support. Let’s work to break the stigma of seeking relationship therapy before things get bad! 

Reasons For Getting Couples Therapy Early on 

There are many reasons to consider couples therapy proactively, but here are three significant ones.

Fostering a Positive Perspective of Your Partner

In more troubled relationships, partners are prone to interpreting behaviors in a negative light. In other words, when a relationship is distressed, it’s much harder to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. The longer this persists, the deeper the rut you may get into. This is referred to as negative sentiment override (NSO), a term created by Psychologist Robert Weiss. For example, consider a scenario where a husband is running late for dinner with his family because he wants to pick up some flowers for his wife. Someone experiencing negative sentiment override might have thoughts like, “Of course, he’s running late. He doesn’t value my time or acknowledge the effort I put into making dinner.” On the other hand, someone with a more positive perspective might think, “He’s probably running late because of that work meeting he had at 4 pm!” 

The longer you are stuck in a negative perspective, the harder it will be to shift it. John Gottman and Nan Silver’s book What Makes Love Last, states, “On average, people who suffer from NSO fail to recognize their partner’s positive gestures 50 percent of the time.” Negative sentiment override can also pave the way for more detrimental behaviors in your relationship, such as Gottman’s Four Horsemen of Apocalypse (Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling). Couples therapy can help you learn skills to counteract negative sentiment override and the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse and foster a positive sentiment override so you don’t miss potential moments of connection. 

Quick Tip: Track how you think about your partner when you’re away from each other. If your thoughts are predominantly negative or critical, you could be experiencing a negative sentiment override.

Nurturing Connection Over Protection

Despite our want for connection in relationships, we frequently prioritize protecting ourselves over connecting with our partners. This tendency can hinder our ability to embrace our partner’s loving words or to become receptive when they make efforts to make up during a conflict. For instance, in a fight with my partner, he is often the one who tries to repair things first. He attempts to ease the tension by extending a hug or saying, “I love you.” Paradoxically, in those moments, I find myself instinctively raising my emotional defenses, pushing away, even though I genuinely desire the hug and wish to reciprocate with an “I love you.” A loving relationship can feel more vulnerable and risky than a volatile one because there is more to lose. 

Couples therapy can help create safety and help you feel ready to prioritize connection over protection. Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), founded by Sue Johnson, emphasizes the importance of creating secure attachment bonds in a relationship. When you feel secure, it is easier to have your walls down and more inclined to connect. EFT helps identify and interrupt negative patterns in relationships, and by recognizing these patterns, couples can begin to understand how these patterns impact their emotional safety. 

Quick Tip: Take a moment to connect with your body during conflicts with your partner. Are you experiencing a racing heart or a sensation of heat? These physical signs may indicate that you’re in fight or flight, which can make it difficult to manage your emotions and may lead to saying things you don’t truly mean. It’s beneficial to pause for a minute to center yourself before resuming the conversation.

Improving Communication 

One of the main reasons couples come to therapy is “communication”. Frequently, issues may originate with “bad” communication, only to be compounded by subsequent layers of resentment, contempt, and distrust. So, why not start working on communication improvements at an early stage, well before things escalate into volatility and contempt? One way couples therapy can help communication is by highlighting the importance of validating and hearing your partner’s feelings instead of rushing to find a solution. Even when the intention behind finding a solution is well-meaning, it frequently results in the other person feeling unheard. When your partner feels heard and validated, it nurtures a sense of safety. 

Quick Tip: John and Julie Gottman emphasize the importance of a “soft start up” when bringing up an issue with your partner. So, instead of attacking or blaming your partner when bringing up a problem, start with how you are feeling and describe the situation and what you need from them. For instance, “I feel hurt when I don’t hear from you all day, could you please send me a text midday just letting me know I’m on your mind,” instead of,  “You’re a horrible communicator, you can’t even send a simple text.” 

What if Things are Already Bad…? 

Not everyone is going to be able to go to couples therapy proactively. Couples therapy can provide valuable assistance to couples dealing with deeply rooted issues. Nevertheless, seeking therapy at an earlier stage makes the process more manageable and effective. Rocky Mountain Relational Therapy provides an extensive selection of couples therapy approaches, including the Gottman method, Emotionally Focused Therapy, and sex therapy. Schedule a free consultation today! 

References 

Doherty, W. J., Harris, S. M., Hall, E. L., & Hubbard, A. K. (2021). How long do people wait before seeking couples therapy? A research note. Journal of marital and family therapy, 47(4), 882–890. https://doi.org/10.1111/jmft.12479

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2012). What makes love last?: how to build trust and avoid betrayal. New York, Simon & Schuster.

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