4 most common issues addressed in couples counseling (and how to resolve them)
At any given moment, about half of the caseload in my counseling practice is comprised of couples seeking assistance in their marriages. It is no wonder this statistic may seem familiar, considering the divorce rate for first time marriages has hovered around the 50% mark over the past half century. As a matter of fact, by the end of the 20th century, 45% of marriages were predicted to end in divorce (Amato, 2010). Over the past 18 years of working with couples in therapy, I have discovered the marriage problems most couples struggle with have trended toward four common factors.
- Hearing to respond vs. listening to understand
This may appear to be simply concept, but one that I have observed rarely practiced among struggling couples. There have been times when I was able to see the difference with my own eyes. When one hears to respond, his or her eyes often drift away from the speaker, as if to begin formulating what next to say. On the other hand, when one listens to understand, eye contact is maintained, and sometimes, a response is unnecessary (other than validating what the speaker stated).
- Lack of empathy toward spouse
Empathy is simply the attempt to understand another’s point of view, from that other person’s life experience. Considering the possibility that couples experience life from differing statuses, i.e. gender, socioeconomic background, geography, etc., these differences are more likely than unlikely. The natural stance to take when engaging in a debate, is to insist on defending one’s own decisions from one’s own perspective. Healthy couples attempt to understand their partner’s argument from their partner’s perspective.
- Sweating the small stuff
The 1996 book “Don’t sweat the small stuff …. and it’s all small stuff” by author Richard Carlson provided insight into one of the areas of conflict that affects many couples. I respectfully disagree with the second half of the title of the book. There certainly are big, core issues that couples often debate over. These core issues are either very apparent early on in a relationship, or better yet, couples actually discuss their core priorities, i.e. faith, family, career, child rearing, finances, etc. When a couple argues vehemently over an issue that is not a core priority, then they are sweating the small stuff. As a simplified solution, overtly discuss the actual topic of argument early in the debate. If the topic does not fit in one of the core priority categories, the couple could decide to not allow a ‘small stuff’ topic becomes a big argument.
- Uncoordinated shift in priorities
Speaking of priorities, over a human’s lifespan, his or her priorities take several developmental paradigm shifts. For example, typically young children prioritize their need for parental support, then this transitions to peer support when we experience adolescence. This social priority takes on another typical shift to a significant other, when we enter young adulthood. Individuals within a marriage experience similar personal shifts in priorities throughout their adult lives. A couple’s core priorities may be similarly aligned in the beginning stages of their marriage. Then, later in life, one individual may push a particular priority further down the list, while the other spouse increases that priority’s position. For example, both parties within a romantic relationship may place a premium on physical intimacy early on in the relationship. Often times, one individual either maintains or increases this area of priority, while the other decreases. There is not an easy solution to this uncoordinated shift, other than having open communication about these shifting needs.
This is not an exhaustive list, but instead, a synthesis of themes observed by this author. Some may be able to apply these suggestions and experience immediate improvement in their marriages. For others whose conflicts require more intense intervention, there is still good news. Couples therapy appears to render positive results. According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, over 98% of couple’s surveyed reported receiving good family therapy, 97% reported receiving the help they needed, and 93% reported having received more effective strategies for dealing with their marital problems. A qualified mental health professional is often able to effectively conceptualize a couple’s needs and offer suggestions for better relations.
Written by Michael J. Maxwell, Ph.D., LPC-S, NCC, CSC | Associate Professor | Argosy University, Dallas
Amato, P. R. (2010), Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 650–666.
American Association of Marriage and Family Therapist (2017). Retrieved from https://www.aamft.org/iMIS15/AAMFT/
Carlson, R. (1996). Don’t sweat the small stuff …. And it’s all small stuff. New York: Hachette Books