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Are Our Relationship Issues Normal or Do We Need Couples Counseling?

Are Our Relationship Issues Normal or Do We Need Couples Counseling?

You and your partner are starting to wonder. You feel different from other couples. You've always fought, and it's only become more intense. At least once a week, major-level emotions erupt even if the cause is minor. What will it be this week? Did you accidentally shrink your partner's t-shirt because you forgot to wash it on cold? Did your partner fail to do the dishes even though you washed the sheets? Or did one of you do something truly hurtful, like lie about something important or target an insecurity with a cruel insult?


It's not just the fighting. It's how you feel so much of the time. Sometimes you don't feel seen by your partner. Your partner tells you they feel like it's impossible to get it right. You both wish it was easier than it is. You just don't seem happy, at least not like the other couples you see smiling back at you as you scroll through your social media feeds. Are you doomed, do you need professional help, or is your relationship actually normal? Read on for tips to help you figure out whether you might benefit from going to couples counseling.


Normal Relationships Versus Relationships in Distress


First, let's get one thing out of the way: no one's relationship is as good as they make it look on social media. Most couples fight, but most don't post their fights online. Even the rare few who don't fight might have other problems or a more distant relationship than the one you want for yourself. Think of it this way: we post our best moments on social media not just to look good, but to make ourselves feel good. Few people use their feeds to share a completely accurate picture of what life looks like for them most of the time.


The next thing: nearly anyone who lives together fights sometimes, and fights are more intense in a couple, because the emotions are higher and there's more at stake. It's hard enough to find inner harmony, and it's even harder to find harmony with another person. Compromise is the only way to make a relationship work, but you can't compromise on everything. There are some things you just can't walk away from or accept. And that's good—it's a sign that you have healthy boundaries. But it also means you're going to have conflicts. Part of "choosing your battles" is that you do sometimes choose to fight.


In general, whether your fights signal that your relationship is in distress depends on how you're fighting, how you resolve your fights, and how you feel afterwards. If you fight a lot, it might be a sign you need outside help. But it might not. It might just be a natural dynamic in a passionate, generally happy relationship. If you feel better after your fights, the fights are productive and show that your relationship is working. It's probably worse if you've stopped fighting altogether and have let yourselves drift apart. Yet in times of stress, a little bit of distancing is natural, too.


So how can you know whether you need to worry if the same thing can happen in healthy and in distressed couples? For more insight, let's meet two couples and learn from their stories.


Megan and Kelly vs. Sarah and Sam


Megan and Kelly love to go on adventures together. But they also usually fight in the course of planning their adventures. Megan tells Kelly there's too much pressure and Kelly feels like Megan is unnecessarily rigid.


"Why do you always have to ruin our trips by making us do too much?" Megan screams. "You make me so stressed out and I always go back to work tired! I need a real damn vacation!" Kelly replies, "Well, if you weren't such a boring, lazy ass, you'd have fun! If it was up to you, we'd just Netflix and chill for four days with kittens and blankets!" Megan looks puzzled. "What's wrong with that?"


Kelly glares at Megan for a moment—then breaks down laughing. Megan starts laughing, too. They spend more time talking and agree to go camping as planned, but also agree to spend their next long weekend at home—and to get a kitten.


Their fights are sometimes more intense. "Why won't you fucking listen to me?" Kelly yells. "You're so selfish!" In response, Megan says, "Why would I listen to you? You're such a child!" The fight escalates. Deep feelings come up, as well as memories of being invalidated as children and fears of never being successful or happy.


But when those powerful feelings come up, Megan and Kelly get to work. As soon as they've both cooled down a little, they talk about why things hurt and work to figure out the deeper reason they're actually fighting. They acknowledge that Megan isn't actually a selfish person and that Kelly isn't acting like a child. They end with a hug and feel even closer afterward.


Sarah and Sam fight for many of the same reasons as Kelly and Megan. They disagree about what kind of trips they want to go on. Each accuses the other of not listening. Sam calls Sarah immature and Sarah calls Sam rigid. But instead of staying and talking it out, Sam gets quiet and leaves. Sarah tries to resume the fight when Sam returns, but Sam refuses to talk, and can keep the silent treatment going for days.


Sarah responds to the frustration by mocking Sam. "You're lucky I put up with you. I don't know anyone else who'd want to be with someone who was born with no emotions. I just hope you're one of those quiet sociopaths and that you aren't out there serial killing someone." Sarah's never sure if the harsh insults have any effect, except for the times when Sam brings it back up weeks later. "Why are you even trying to talk to me since you think I'm a sociopath?"


Neither Sam nor Sarah can ever accept any criticism the other gives them. Instead, they lash back with personal attacks of their own. Both blame their fights on some unshakable aspect of their partner's character. They don't ever apologize to each other or say they were wrong.


Sometimes, even when they're not fighting, Sarah and Sam can't stand to be in the same room with each other. After their latest fight, they chose to spend a weekend apart instead of going on a planned day trip. Both were relieved to not have to deal with the other person.


The Four Horsemen and Other Warning Signs


Sarah and Sam exhibit what psychologist and couples counseling expert John Gottman calls the "Four Horsemen" of relationship apocalypse:


  • Criticism: Blaming conflict on your partner's negative character traits.
  • Contempt: Feeling superior to your partner, mocking them, and being mean.
  • Defensiveness: Refusing to accept criticism and attacking back instead of listening.
  • Stonewalling: Shutting down, withdrawing, and refusing to communicate altogether.


Gottman doesn't believe it's bad to share critical feedback. It's natural, healthy, and necessary to communicate with one another about what isn't working. The relationship-destroying kind of criticism is the kind that focuses on the other person instead of on specific issues or behaviors. For example, it's more destructive to tell your partner, "You are a selfish person," than to say, "I wish you would let me pick the movie more often."


Focusing criticisms on behaviors makes it easier to come up with solutions. It's a lot easier to figure out how to fix "You pick the movie we watch most of the time" than it is to figure out how to fix "You're selfish" (or to even figure out if it's true). Telling your partner that something is wrong with them is not only hurtful, it can make it seem like there is no solution or way to change things for the better. This can lead to defensiveness and contempt.


It's natural to feel and act defensive if you feel like you've been unfairly criticized. But if your first instinct every time your partner gives you critical feedback is to say they're wrong and tell them they're the one causing the problem, it makes it difficult to resolve the conflict. Escalating insults are damaging. It's easy to start resenting someone who makes you feel like a bad person, and it's hard to work with someone who refuses to change something they do that hurts you.


Stonewalling, or giving someone the silent treatment and refusing to even discuss an issue, has the same effect. When you can't acknowledge or address fixable issues, the outcome is increasing hostility, resentment, and alienation. If you're regularly exchanging hurtful personal insults, never resolving arguments, and letting fights end in stale, frustrated silence, your relationship is in trouble and you may need to see a counselor. Other red flags are if you both seem to have lost your sense of humor and if you never sincerely apologize to one another.


What Do We Do If Our Relationship Is in Trouble?


About 70 percent of couples break up within the first year of being together. Of those couples who become married, half of them divorce. Given that couples break up as or more often than they stay together, and that many couples wait until they've been having problems for six years to seek couples counseling, it's not surprising that counseling doesn't always save the relationship. Sometimes, it just helps to confirm what a couple has already decided: that they need to split up.


That said, couples counseling can and does work. In fact, research indicates that it works about 70 percent of the time. You can read our article, "Does Marriage Counseling Work?" for more details about when couples counseling works and whether it might work for you. Some important questions to ask when you're deciding whether to see a counselor include:


  • How long have you been having problems?
  • Do both of you want to save the relationship?
  • Have your fights ever turned violent? Is there abuse?
  • Do both of you feel hopeful that you can save the relationship?
  • Do one or both of you entirely blame the other person for your problems?
  • Do either of you have individual behavioral health issues you need to address?


You'll have to decide whether to go to counseling, to break up, or to try to fix your issues on your own. For more insight on when do-it-yourself couples counseling techniques might work, you can read our article, "DIY Marriage Counseling: Exercises and Techniques You Can Try at Home."


In general, it's not a good idea to try to fix things on your own if your fights are scary, violent, or abusive; if you've been trying and failing to fix your problems for a long time; or if one or both of you has a mental health or substance use issue you're not addressing. (Couples counseling can work when one or both of you have behavioral health issues, but only if you're actively addressing and treating those issues individually in addition to getting couples counseling.)


One of the most important factors that determines whether couples counseling will be successful is the attitude you have about each other and the relationship. Many people make the mistake of hoping a counselor will choose sides and try to fix the "wrong" partner, but that's not how it works. Couples counseling only works when both of you are open to changing your behavior.


How Do Therapists Analyze Relationships?


Attachment theory is one of the frameworks that modern marriage and family therapists use to assess relationships. Developed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s and 1960s and expanded by his colleague Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s, attachment theory connects patterns in adult relationships to whether a person's childhood bond with their parent was:


  • Secure;
  • Anxious (Preoccupied);
  • Avoidant (Dismissive); or
  • Disorganized (Fearful-Avoidant).


When you have a secure attachment style, you trust your partner. You can ask for or give them space as needed and don't fear what your partner will do when they are out of your sight. You trust that they will be there when you come back and that they will be there for you even if you make a mistake. You are comfortable with intimacy and with being vulnerable. You communicate openly and are confident that you deserve love. You feel safe in your relationship and in general.


If you have an anxious or preoccupied attachment style, you feel dependent on your partner. You fear being abandoned and can't tolerate being apart. You defer to your partner and believe that you won't be able to make good decisions without their input. You are drawn to controlling or domineering partners. You may try to appease your partner by negating your own needs and desires, or you may become demanding, constantly asking for proof of their love and fidelity. You need frequent reassurance. You feel safest when you're with your partner.


If you have a dismissive or avoidant attachment style, you deal with the anxiety intimacy causes you by avoiding it. You may opt out of having relationships altogether, or you may seek only brief flings that don't get emotionally deep. You are independent to a fault. You enjoy solitude, but you also feel like something is missing. You have a hard time trusting others and letting yourself get close to another person. When a relationship does start to get deeper, you pattern is to avoid conflict or emotional conversations until your repressed emotions boil over into a rage. You're quick to walk away from relationships. You feel safest when you're alone.


If you have a disorganized attachment style, you waver between extremes. You pull your partner toward you, wanting to be close, but when they get closer, you push them away. You may have experienced trauma or abuse as a child, and you tend to be drawn to abusive or dysfunctional partners or relationships. You respond to emotional triggers by lashing out to protect yourself or by dissociating. You may know how to disconnect from your emotions mentally or you might use substances or other tools to help you disconnect. You have a hard time feeling safe at all.


How Do Counselors Treat Relationship Issues?


Couples counselors analyze and treat relationships, not individuals. This means their job is not to issue judgments for or against one partner, but to determine what patterns or dynamics in a relationship are unhealthy and what both partners can do to change those patterns. In nearly every case, both people contribute to the problems in a relationship and both people must be fully engaged in the therapy process in order to heal it. (Exceptions include relationships in which one partner is physically or sexually abusive.)


During your first sessions, your counselor will become familiar with your attachment styles and the general patterns of your relationship. After getting to know you, they will address general gaps in your communication skills and the specific ways communication breaks down in your relationship. They will explore your attachment styles to help you overcome fears of being close and other barriers to intimacy. With a counselor's help, you can change destructive relationship patterns, allow yourself to be more vulnerable, learn how to communicate more openly, and get closer to your partner.


Even when your issues are deeper, counseling can help. Usually, an acutely insecure attachment style causes a relationship to fail before the benefits can accumulate and develop into a more secure attachment style. But sometimes, with intensive individual and couples therapy and a long-term partner who's as committed to the work as you, an insecure attachment style can become an EARNED secure attachment style. Making the change is far more likely in the context of long-term therapy than it is in the context of a romantic relationship without therapy—even if the relationship is a good one.


We recommend setting up an appointment with a therapist if you and your partner don't know how to get past frequent conflicts or if you feel distant and don't know how to bridge the gap. While relationship problems can end relationships, they can also be healed. So, reach out—the help you need may be only a call or click away.

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Stephanie Hairston, MSW
Posted on 09/22/2020 by Stephanie Hairston, MSW

Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a masters-level clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments. She has also worked as a technical writer for a medical software company and as an editor for a company that appeals denials of insurance coverage for behavioral health treatment. As a writer, she is motivated by the same desire to help others that brought her into the field of social work and believes that knowledge is one of the most essential recovery tools. She strongly believes in the mission of OpenCounseling and in making therapy accessible for everyone.