THE BLOG
06/23/2010 01:47 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Couple's Counseling: How to Know When to Call It Off

Last week I posted a piece called "Three Ring Circus: The Thrill of Couples Counseling." Using the circus as a metaphor, I described my work as a couples' counselor. In response, a number of people commented that couples counseling had not worked for them and/or that it was not affordable. I felt that a second post on couples counseling was in order.

Affordability: Some counselors (like me) offer a sliding scale, one end of which is quite modest. In my county, mental health services also offer a sliding scale based on income. They do not list couples counseling among the available services, but when an individual seeks counseling, the partner or the whole family can be brought into the process. Couples' counseling often progresses more quickly than individual counseling. Even a few sessions can bring clarity. It can be a wise investment that may save a lot of money and heartache in the long run.

Purpose: Last week I described a particular outcome: (metaphorically flying happily ever after on the trapeze). I later regretted that conclusion, because in couples counseling it is only one possibility. The purpose of counseling isn't to preserve a partnership no matter what, but to explore how it is working, where it is stuck or breaking down, if it can be healed, and whether or not both people want to remain in the relationship -- or should. Counseling can include reaching a decision to separate and how to go about separating in a way that respects and protects each person.

When I told my 97-year-old mother-in-law today's blog topic, she said. "Not every relationship should be a marriage. People should have affairs! It is a perfectly acceptable." (She had both a thirty-five year marriage and many affairs, starting in her teens when she was engaged to three men at once.) I said I would quote her.

A few topics to consider when deciding whether or not to fold the tent:

Children: My own parents were married unhappily till death parted them. Divorce is undeniably a trauma for children, but so is a miserable marriage. Waiting until the kids are eighteen does not make it easier for them. There is no ideal time for a divorce, but sometimes it is has to happen. Neither marriage nor divorce insures the quality of a parent's relationship to a child. Parents can be present or absent, responsive or abusive in either scenario. Some divorced couples parent well together and some married couples parent disastrously.

Abuse: When a relationship is abusive emotionally, verbally, psychologically, financially or physically, get help right away, even if your partner will not go to counseling with you. At the heart of abuse is the overriding need of one person to control the other, to disable, belittle and isolate the partner. Abuse is often not physical. If you feel you are being abused, get help. If you do not have time to look for counseling, call a domestic abuse hotline.

Addiction: If you are addicted to any substance or activity, get help. 12-step programs are listed in the phone book and they are free. If that model doesn't work for you, find another form of treatment. If you are living with someone who is addicted, get help. Start with Al-Anon and go from there.

Mental Illness: A relationship with someone who is suffering from bi-polar disorder, depression or other clinical conditions can be extremely challenging but it can work if both people get appropriate treatment and/or support.

Infidelity: This is a tough and messy situation. I have seen relationships instantly exploded, and I have seen them healed and transformed. It's make it or break it time. Get help!

A few general questions to ask yourself: Do I love and respect this person? Does s/he love and respect me? Am I able to be fully myself in this relationship? Are both my feet in this relationship or is one out the door? Are the stresses on the relationship primarily external (small or adolescent children, finances, job issues) or internal (the way we relate to each other)?

I'll close with an observation about my own marriage. It went through adolescence. When we grow up, adolescence is the beginning of our separation from our parents. It seemed natural (in an odd way) to want to leave home again after about the same length of time. We got couples counseling instead. My children grew up and left home. I stayed. It's strange to live with someone so much longer than I lived with parents or children but also rich.

If your relationship is adolescent or going through some other awkward phase, get help!

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