Couples therapy isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when we think of love’s young dream. Weddings and first kisses get plenty of air time but the work that goes into successful relationships over months and years is rarely the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters.
But the expectation of the “fairytale ending” in relationships is finally starting to be challenged – especially by younger generations, who are entering what is being dubbed “pre-commitment therapy” earlier on in their relationships than ever before, therapists say.
“In the past, couples therapy has been seen as reserved for people who have been married for decades, then those marriages have broken down and they need to bring in the big guns,” says Natasha Silverman, counselor for relationships charity Relate. “I’m now seeing a rise in the number of young people coming to therapy who consider it a vital part of self-care. Just like you take care of your body at the gym, you take care of your mind and your relationship at therapy.”
For Nikki, who started therapy with her partner at the age of 32, it’s been revolutionary. “It was the start of 2016 and we’d only known each other for about six months,” she says. “We’d been exclusively dating for two months when we had this massive, devastating fight.”
In previous relationships, she might have ended it, but something told her that this was worth resolving. “I felt really drawn to him and knew he was special,” she says. “I was inspired by him and didn’t want to throw that away.” And so, when her sister introduced them to the therapist she’d been working with herself, Nikki decided to give it a go.
“[My sister’s] in a polyamorous relationship with two other people, which can get complicated, and so she recommended their therapist,” Nikki continues. “I was surprised that my partner was up for it but I think it shows he really felt we were worth fighting for.”
Once in therapy, they quickly began to discover the pitfalls that had been tripping up their relationship.
“Within the first five minutes she seemed to understand how we both felt,” Nikki says. “She told us we’d fallen into a common relationship dynamic. I am afraid of conflict and he really leans into it. We were both triggering each other’s anxiety in different ways and that had led to this devastating, explosive argument.”
Learning about the ways they were creating bad relationship habits was illuminating for both of them. “[I now believe] the way you relate to your romantic partner has a lot to do with your childhood,” Nikki says. “Small things that hurt you when you were younger can be carried on into your relationships. I learned that certain things were not him judging me or putting me down, and the therapy gave us both the insight we needed to understand each other.”
In the early days, the couple had weekly sessions, but over time most of their communication issues were resolved. “We still go back individually and together when we feel we need it,” Nikki says. “For example, when something big happens, such as a family tragedy that we need to navigate. I’d say we have maintenance sessions a couple of times a year.”
Silverman says the most common reason that young couples seek therapy is to break the cycles that have prevented them from having successful intimate relationships in the past.
“Some people know that the way they behave in relationships is undermining long-term happiness,” Silverman explains. “Or sometimes they see themselves repeating mistakes of their parents. We do tend to repeat what we know and what feels familiar.” She adds that insecure attachment styles, which can make people feel the need to avoid intimacy or feel anxious when they don’t get it, also play a role.
“I often see people who have done a relationship quiz or an attachment style quiz and realize that something about their patterns isn’t quite right,” she adds. “Older couples were not offered that information and it was normal to not be overwhelmingly happy in a relationship.”
Silverman believes it is empowering that younger people have these choices and the opportunity to take responsibility for their relationships. “I see couples who are excited about therapy and motivated by building something long-term together,” she notes.
For example, Emma, 36, was in her 20s when she went to couples therapy with her now-husband, one year after they met. Both she and her partner had experienced challenges in childhood that led to difficulties in their relationship.
“We were having some issues around communication, but both really wanted it to work out,” she says. “Our therapist helped us to develop code words that we could use when we felt the other person was triggering us and it helped us to better understand our pressure points.”
Emma had grown up in an emotionally abusive household while her partner had lost his father at a young age. “He became the ‘man of the household,’” Emma says. “These were big shoes to fill for a young teenager and he ended up bringing a lot of his emotional baggage to the table… As a result of my childhood I had very low-self esteem and anxiety and I found it really difficult to cope when he pulled away from me, which was his coping mechanism.”
Emma’s therapist helped them to see how their upbringings were impacting their behavior towards each other and how these cycles could be broken. “We’re now happily married with children and our communication is really good,” she says. “But occasionally we go back to our code words when we need to.”
Haifa Barbari, founder of coaching app Be What Matters, says that pre-commitment therapy is increasingly popular among young people. Like Silverman, she says that a lot of her clients have insecure attachment styles but that all couples can benefit from therapy.
“I have one client who came to me as an individual before she met her partner, then started coaching with him,” Barbari says. “They both really cared about each other but didn’t want to break down because they had different love languages. We put a plan in place to help them plan how they could meet each other’s needs.”
Barbari calls the process “conscious coupling” whereby two people work together to build their vision of the relationship. “We pinpoint any differences and compromises and work out how they can show up daily to make this shared vision a reality… It’s like a relationship roadmap.”
She adds that there are five love languages: physical touch, words of affirmation, gift giving, quality time and acts of service. “People can have different love languages so part of a good relationship is learning what these are and how to meet another person’s needs, especially if they are different to your own,” she notes. Other tools, such as a monthly check-in, can also be useful for couples.
Modern dating culture often encourages a more throwaway attitude to relationships, but for Barbari, setting the right foundations is key to overcoming these challenges. “I recommend people start this as soon as they have committed to be together. You don’t just wake up one day knowing how to be brilliant at relationships. There’s education and support out there to help.”
Although working on a relationship is a positive step forward, Silverman says that it’s also important to know when to leave. For some people, spotting the signs of abusive behavior can be difficult, especially for those who have witnessed the same behaviors during childhood.
“Organizations like Women’s Aid can help women to decipher if a relationship has the potential to be healthy or whether there are overwhelming signs of abuse,” she explains.
In relationships where a healthy partnership can be achieved, Silverman says it’s down to both individuals to make it happen. “The most encouraging sign that a relationship can be made into something is the willingness of both partners to actually work at it,” she continues. “If you have a partner who isn’t willing to work on the relationship and accept some responsibility for their own actions then you can forget about it because, under these circumstances, it’s not likely to work out.”
Silverman adds that one of the most difficult aspects of couples therapy is when only one partner wants to be there. “Relationships don’t just work out because people have chosen the right partner, they’re successful because people work together on their partnership,” she notes.
After several happy years together, Nikki is grateful for the work she and her partner put into their relationship from the beginning. “I wanted to fix things because it felt worth it,” she explains. “Plus you could just run into the same problems with someone else. We learned so much from therapy about our patterns in relationships, it also informed the other relationships in my life, such as work, and helped me to understand and manage my responses.”
Ultimately, Nikki believes that we’re never alone in the world, whether single or in a relationship. “It’s always helpful to work on yourself, identify feelings, and change negative behaviors,” she says. “A good relationship helps you pull each other forcefully towards better mental health. Of course we still argue, but we never blame each other — it’s always, Let’s sit down and look at how we’re feeling. Those practices will stay with us for life.”
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