Based on the research of Dr. John Gottman and his famous Marriage Clinic, couples wait on average of 6 years from the time marital tensions began to the time they seek professional help. From personal experience, I can tell you that 6 years is on the low-end of average. I'll give you a moment to let it sink in.... 6 years!! Combine that with what I frequently hear others say, "Things aren't great, but we don't need to go to couples counseling. That's for when relationships are REALLY bad!" Yes, couples often come when things are have gotten tenuous or a grenade went off in the middle of their marrige, but if your relationship has become a "War of the Roses" 2.0, I can tell you that you're well past seeing a couples counselor. When you have tooth-ache, do you wait until all of your teeth are about to fall out of your mouth to see a dentist? My guess is, when it becomes just a little painful, you take the first appointment you can get.
So between our misconceptions of who and why couples seek therapy, along with our apparent ability to tolerate a least 6 years worth of marital disconnection, when is it actually a good time to seek couples therapy before it's too late? Here are a few pointers.
When you know it can be better:
There are couples full of potential that it's almost painful to tolerate not reaching the top of the mountain together. Couples therapy does not have to be months or years of weekly intensive sessions to hash out years of conflict. You will actually save yourself a lot of time, money, and most importantly emotional pain by seeing a couples counselor for a handful of sessions to make a good thing even better. Modern marriages aren't about "the tolerable", they are about individual and mutual growth. When you know, trust, and believe in your marriage and in your partner, you can leverage all of your shared strengths to make your partnership even better. Research confirms that when both partners invest in the relationship early and continuously, they report lasting martial satisfaction versus those who did nothing. When you know your marriage has potential, then it's time to get extra credit points by seeing a couples therapist.
When it's no longer a phase:
There is a life-cycle to relationships. We all know the honeymoon phase. Then comes having young-children phase, with its sleepless nights, and mundane routines and activities. Tensions arise, but they are very circumstantial. But once your kids become more independent, if you don't get a hold on your marriage, you're potentially setting yourself up for years of disconnection and unhappiness. Another version of a phase could be experience a loss, job changes, life-style changes... all of which are transitional. Once you can safely say you're on the other side of the so-called transition, but one (or both of you) is still not getting back on the dance floor, then it's time to see a couples therapist.
When daily bickering turns into full-blown arguments:
We all have bad days, bad weeks... Lack of sleep, stress at work, financial pressures, feeling bloated, whatever the reasons may be, we can all find ourselves on the grumpy-train. Everything others, and especially our partner is doing rubs us the wrong way. We bicker about who was supposed to pick up the kids, who was supposed to take out the trash, whose turn is it to get some time off. As long as you bicker respectfully and you're able to come back to a secure base in your marriage, then you're still on solid ground. However, if bickering is starting to turn into personal attacks and criticisms, to the point where you're beginning to lose respect for each other, then it's time to pick up that phone and call a therapist.
When you want to talk about a sensitive topic but you don't know how:
Marriage is about communication, the kind of communication that is open and honest, while also mindful of our partner's sensitivities. There are many secrets couples keep from each other. Some big, some small, some start out small and become big... It can be hard to navigate our own issues with let's say, sex or money, but it takes a certain type of skilled person to see 10 steps ahead on how and what our partner will need in order to navigate their own stuff around a sensitive issue. This is where you would need the help of a trained third party who can attune to both of you, while keeping a birds eye-view on your relationship. Once again, the sooner you shed light on the matter, the less likely it is to grow into a fungus that overtakes your relationship.
So when is it time to contemplate seeing a couples counselor or marriage therapist? In the famous words of John F. Kennedy, "The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining." (He was talking about the economy, but you get the point!).