What does it take for a man to ask for help when his relationship needs support? A lot apparently.
When do you decide your relationship needs help? Good question. In my couples counseling practice, people see me when they have finally figured out they cannot make changes without support. That support might be a different perspective, brainstorming, or just a sympathetic ear – someone to witness what they have been through and validate their struggle.
Being in a relationship is not easy. Nowadays, the expectations are large, the demands high, and historical roles are in transition with no clear cut definition emerging to give direction. We live in a time of shifting values and The Good Men Project is a reflection of this paradigm shift.
Whether you are in a new or an old relationship, knowing when to admit that on your own you are not going to solve the problem is a huge leap for many men. Traditionally, we have been taught to be self-sufficient and being able to solve problems is an intrinsic and valued aspect of being a man.
Admitting defeat is not only acknowledging our inability to solve the problem, we also feel less of a man in the process. I think this is why men, as compared to women, are less likely to engage in therapy. Not only have we been raised to avoid looking weak, there is still a social stigma for men to be involved in a counseling process.
Many of my male clients in couple’s therapy have refused to come into counseling when asked by their partners, at least once, and sometimes twice. They have finally made it out of duress. Their partners have said the relationship is over unless he comes to counseling, and this time she means it and he believes her. Otherwise, he would not be there.
As you can imagine, this is not the best place to begin therapy – but it is a start. On the other side of the coin are young couples (under 30 years old) or older couples (over fifty) who have been together for a short time (less than three years) who see therapy as an opportunity to work out some challenges and get back to having a loving time together.
They are a joy to work with. By coming in sooner, rather than later, their bad habits are not so deeply embedded. Three to five sessions is often all I need with this kind of couple and the prognosis for a successful outcome is high.
Sometimes I have couples who have been together for ten, twenty or more years and they feel something has slipped away. They have come to therapy together, love each other, and want to re-kindle that spark they used to have. These couples are easy to work even though they have waited too long because they have the same goal and still care for each other.
Another subset of my client base are couples who have had an affair. In this case, they have waited too long before seeking advice. Recovering from the betrayal, loss of trust, and identifying the circumstances that set the stage for an affair is challenging in the extreme.
We all have fights. Strike that, most couples fight, some a little, some a lot, and some never. Those that never fight often wax eloquent about how they never fight – so why are they divorced? If you never fight something is dangerously wrong. Even Jesus lost it now and then.
Given that conflict is a natural part of life in a relationship, how do we decide when it is too much or has gone on for too long? When do we seek outside guidance?
Let me share with you a couple of real life vignettes of mine. In the first instance, I waited too long. I was young and the relationship was tempestuous. By the second year I had an ulcer and was an emotional and physical wreck. Did I seek help? No! It didn’t even occur to me.
Therapy was a vague concept I might have read about but took no notice that it might apply to me. So, I suffered and the relationship ended badly. Looking back in time, we both could have used support and, at the very least, have grown as individuals and maybe as a couple.
The next scenario was about ten years later. It was in a much shorter relationship, but again, tempestuous (I’m sensing a pattern here). This time, my partner suggested couples counselling. OK, I thought, why not. We certainly were not solving our difficulties on our own and I was feeling very low and full of self-doubt (funny how a bad relationship can do that). Best damn thing I ever did.
In the first session I came to realize that my perception of the relationship had some validity and I felt much better about myself. The relationship ended but I experienced healing and personal growth. Successful therapy does not always mean staying in the relationship.
But when do you know? When the pain of not going to therapy is bigger that the perceived pain of going – then you will go and not a moment before. Unless, you are really smart and can get over your ego and or cultural conditioning (talking about men here) and make a decision for early intervention.
I mean, how many times do you have to have the same horrible blow-ups before you realize nothing is changing? Maybe that is a warning flag. Repeated intense fighting over the same subject with no change in sight. Or, on the other end of the scale, a total withdrawal by one or both partners. In this case, feeling lonely, disconnected, or separate are strong clues that help is needed, especially if either one of you has tried to talk about the problem and made no head-way.
I don’t know about you, but I was never taught conflict management skills. I have had to learn the hard way how to fight fairly, and how to express my wants, needs, and emotions with respect and love.
Just knowing that the option of couples counseling exists opens me up to use this resource if needed. Being unwilling to suffer abuse helps (this came about through personal growth experiences and lots of relationships).
Trust in myself and my partner also helps. If I felt we needed help, or my partner came to me and said, “Steven, we need to go do some therapy.” I wouldn’t question her. Even if I didn’t see the problem as she did, I trust her to know that something is not right, or why would she even suggest counseling. Then, I would go.
Here are some telltale signs your relationship needs help:
- You keep having the same fights over and over
- You feel disconnected
- You are unhappy about how you and your partner treat each other
- You are feeling ill, physically or emotionally, when thinking about your partner
- You are avoiding your partner
- You are seriously looking to have an affair
- You are having an affair (try to avoid this. It’s a difficult recovery).
Couples counselling is great but not the only way to get support. You can go by yourself if your partner is unwilling. This can be enough because as you change it will cast the issue in a different light and your partner will notice the change. It will be hard for them not to change their responses to the new you. And if they don’t . . . that’s another conversation.