Sex & Relationships

Couples Counseling: 5 Lessons I Learned in Marriage Therapy


My husband and I are coming up on 10 years since our first date at a small tapas bar in North Idaho. For the first two years of our relationship, we were separated by thousands of miles – and at one point, a 16-hour time difference. After that we, perhaps somewhat naively, jumped right into living together; needless to say, there were some growing pains.

My husband lovingly brings up the “Spoon-tastrophe of 2011” when we reminisce about those days – a quarrel which began with my critique of his spoon choice while he kindly prepared me a bowl of soup and ended with him angrily building a desk from Officemax downstairs alone.

We have come a long way since then, as I imagine most couples do after almost a decade together. Nowadays, we often receive compliments from friends and family about how well we complement each other, communicate, and work together. I don’t bring this up to brag, but rather to point out that this does not come easy. My husband and I work on our relationship every single day — something that has required even more intention since becoming parents. We are firm believers that marriage requires effort, sacrifice, attention, and a willingness to evolve, day in and day out.

And for us, the greatest teacher in establishing our marriage goals and rules of engagement was therapy.

Yes, I just admitted “out loud” that my husband and I spent a good year in therapy prior to getting married. No, we didn’t start going because our relationship was on the cusp of dissolution. Nor were we having knock out, drag out fights or decibel-defying arguments. Having experienced sexual abuse as a child, I was very aware that I had issues requiring professional assistance. Though I had spent my fair share of time in therapy as a child and young adult, never had I navigated this path with a partner by my side.

For both my husband and I, this was our first relationship that we seriously saw developing into a marriage. We were eager to protect it, and more importantly, grow it together in our mutually dreamed upon direction. We very much viewed therapy as a proactive approach to marital bliss and the happy family we longed to create. We understood that the very best thing we could do for our future children was build their lives on a rock solid foundation – a healthy marriage.

The single most profound thing I took away from therapy is this: it is much easier to build a marriage that you want from a place of joy and excitement, than to rebuild a marriage that you hate from a place of resentment and desperation.

This upfront investment in our marriage has proven essential to the harmony in our home and within our growing family. Therapy has continued to pay dividends year after year for us, and here’s why:

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1. We learned how to communicate

Two years of a very long distance relationship meant we couldn’t spend hours making out on the couch — our relationship was built on 8-hour video chats. We knew how to communicate, but communicating effectively in the heat of the moment, that was another story. Therapy taught us how to truly listen to one another, how to take a deep breath when we pissed each other off, and how to read each other to know if it was not the time to hash this out.

We also had to talk about really difficult and uncomfortable things, like being honest with my husband about my potential triggers related to my previous experiences. In order to clear away the weeds, we had to get into them.

Learning how to do this in a respectful and open manner has empowered us to be able to talk about absolutely anything and everything in our relationship –  from menial to major.

2. We learned how to be intimate

In my teenage and young adult years, I thought that intimacy equaled sex. I was intimacy-illiterate, basically.

Therapy taught both of us that intimacy can be a deep conversation over a bottle of wine, a bubble bath on a chilly evening, a candlelit massage, or even simply cuddling on the couch. We received homework from our therapist which involved exercises that allowed us to build and strengthen our intimate relationship in a low-pressure way.

We refer back to this aspect of therapy often, especially post-baby. What we continue to learn as the years pass is that not only is intimacy multi-faceted, but it evolves as we do. Therapy taught us how to work with these changes in our lives and relationship through communication and action.

3. We learned how to be a team

When I think about the time when our son was a newborn, what I remember very clearly is that my husband was by my side every step of the way. He woke up for every midnight feeding, changed hundreds of diapers without pause, and kept my water bottle full 24 hours a day. I’ll admit that I am biased, but I am almost certain that there is no other man on the face of the Earth who could have conquered those tough newborn days with me like he did.

Because of our time in therapy, my husband and I knew to game plan before our son’s arrival. We discussed each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and non-negotiables (for him it was food, for me it was sleep.)

So, when the time came to learn how to parent, we were able to read each other and know when one of us needed alone time or an ice cold beer. Our time in therapy enabled us to reflect on the challenges we had conquered before and how far we had come since then — together. No matter how hard, we knew we could do this too.

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4. We learned how to resolve conflicts

This is probably the second most profound thing I learned in therapy.

When we fight (which we all know is a part of every relationship), we have ground rules: we do not yell, we do not curse, we do not name-call. I grew up in a house of violence and anger, which unsurprisingly culminated in divorce — this was something I never wanted for my family. And yet, that cycle is admittedly hard to break – for many of us, that’s the only example we had.

With the help of our therapist, my husband and I learned how to disagree respectfully and resolve problems effectively. When it comes to contention, a therapist can provide an unbiased perspective that can oftentimes point out a resolution in the blink of an eye. Early in our relationship, we had an ongoing disagreement about a financial matter. Our therapist looked me in the eye one day and told me, “You have no right to be upset about that.” Mic drop.

I very quickly learned that sometimes the best conflict resolution is to acknowledge that something really isn’t a conflict, but rather an irritation that simply needs to be let go.

5. We learned about personal growth

I firmly believe you cannot give your best until you are your best, and both are a constant, no-shame, work in progress.

Therapy is an incredibly effective way to learn about yourself – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Again, the unbiased perspective of our therapist offered both of us insight into specifically what we needed to work on, like anger management, emotional regulation, communication, offering support, etc. The simple lesson in being able to listen to and act upon those insights is immensely powerful in aiding personal growth. Being able to acknowledge my own flaws and attributes allows me to continue to bend and grow as I get older.

The work is never done, but it’s important to keep on doing it. After all, a plant either grows or it dies, right?

While I think the tides are shifting in regards to individual therapy, I think many couples still feel a stigma around marriage therapy. I think many couples either think it couldn’t possibly help in their situation or they don’t need it because their marriage is good enough.

All along the marriage spectrum, I’d like you to think of therapy as plant food for your relationship. It offers amazing benefits and it might just help your relationship blossom in completely unexpected ways.