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Tending to the Garden of Your Relationship: The Crucial Role of Early Intervention in Couples Therapy

Close your eyes and imagine a beautiful garden. Neatly manicured. Full of beautiful flowers and undergrowth. Your garden isn’t perfect, but it’s yours and you love tending to it. Your garden is one you enjoy coming home to. It brings you joy.

Now imagine that garden as a metaphor for the early years of your relationship. Perhaps there were a few more weeds, but in all likelihood, your garden looked pretty darn good.

But what does that garden look like now? Are there more weeds than in those early years? More weeds than flowers? How about that undergrowth and the roots?

If you love to garden (or can imagine what it would be like if you did), how would you feel about letting your garden grow so full of weeds that you could no longer look at it? The weeds and overgrowth have become so rampant the idea of getting your garden back to the way it once looked seems impossible.

So you ignore your garden. You close your blinds and resolve to fix it in the spring.

Couples Therapy: The Danger of Inaction

The analogy of the garden is perfect in explaining how a partnership changes over a long period of time. People get busy, kids come along, careers are demanding—and the weeds set in. And if our garden hasn’t been tended to in a long time it can be overwhleming to even look at it.

The average duration couples endure relational challenges before seeking assistance is about six years. For some it’s far longer. This procrastination is multifaceted and the reasons for it can include any or several of the following:

  1. Prioritizing other Issues. Children, careers and health are three massive areas that compete with our partner for attention. it can often feel like we are being pulled in many different directions. So we make choices, and sometimes the easy choice is to do nothing and hope the problem goes away.
  2. Stigma and Misconceptions around Therapy: Therapy often carries a societal stigma, seen as a sign of failure or inability to manage personal issues. This perception creates a significant barrier, as admitting the need for help can be seen as a weakness, particularly in cultures that value self-reliance and stoicism. The fear of judgment from others can be a powerful deterrent, even when the relationship is in dire need of professional support.
  3. Optimism and Denial: Many couples maintain a belief that they can independently resolve their issues, leading to extended periods of unresolved conflict and emotional distress. This optimism, while commendable, often leads to a denial of the severity of their issues. It’s a common hope that problems will resolve themselves over time, or that they are just a normal part of a relationship. However, this can result in missing the signs of deepening relational rifts.
  4. Apprehension of the Unknown: Venturing into the realm of emotional issues in therapy can be daunting. There’s a prevalent fear that therapy might intensify problems or reveal deeper, more complex issues. Many couples are concerned about what therapy might uncover, including personal failures, deep-seated resentments, or unresolved issues from the past. This fear of facing uncomfortable truths can keep couples from taking the necessary steps toward healing.
  5. Recognition Gap: Couples may not completely acknowledge the gravity of their relationship problems or the impact of their behaviors on each other. It’s not uncommon for one or both partners to be unaware of the extent of the damage their interactions are causing. This lack of awareness can lead to a delay in seeking help until the relationship reaches a crisis point.
  6. Logistical Barriers: Factors like the cost of therapy, time commitments, and the challenge of finding a compatible therapist can also deter couples from seeking support. The practical aspects of arranging therapy sessions, aligning schedules, budgeting for sessions, and finding the right therapist, can be significant hurdles. In some areas, there might be a lack of available therapists, or the best-suited therapists might have long waiting lists.

When the Pain is Greater than the Denial

Typically people will wait until the relationship is in urgent need of care before they seek help. But for many, that may be too late. Couples typically resort to counseling when communication breakdowns become entrenched, evolving into persistent negative interaction cycles. Relationship experts and researchers John and Julie Gottman stress that it’s not the presence of conflict that forecasts the end of a relationship, but rather the manner in which conflict is navigated.

Couples entrenched in patterns of criticism and defensiveness, or those experiencing emotional disconnection, frequently perceive counselling as a final attempt, and by that time many have given up.

The Gottman’s site four predictors of divorce/separation and call them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These behaviours, which can be toxic to a relationship if continued over a long period of time, are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. All of these behaviours create attachment injuries and make it challenging to do the required repair work following a conflict.

Making it to Couples Therapy

When a therapist first meets with a couple they can typically tell right away how well the garden of their relationship has been maintained. How guarded is each partner’s body language? Do they look at each other when they talk? Are they invested in working on the relationship or here because they have to be? So much is evident between a couple before words are even spoken.

Many factors determine the health of a relationship, some of the more common ones being length of time together; caring for children and parents; full time and stressful jobs; financial stressors; past traumas. However, the biggest sign of whether a relationship is long overdue for care is whether the couple has been tending to their weeds. That is, when a conflict arises do they make attempts at repair by talking about it openly and with respect? Do they take time to nurture the relationship through alone time? Do they talk about their shared vision and goals?

A Therapeutic Approach to Healing

If both partners are ready to do the work on their relationship and really prioritize healing and connection couples therapy is extremely effective. Sadly, I see many couples who don’t make that commitment and wander into my office every six weeks or so, often after a big blow up.

If the commitment is there and couples do the work between sessions, they will move towards the following:

  1. De-escalation of Negative Cycles: Identify and understand the destructive patterns of interaction.
  2. A Secure Emotional Bond: Express deeper emotions and needs, develop a more profound emotional connection.
  3. Effective Communication: Develop the tools to communicate in a way where both feel heard and understood.
  4. Healing of attachment injuries: Repair wounds that have festered for years in the relationship and have been ‘swept under the rug.’

A Call to Action

How long has it been since you pulled some weeds out of the garden of your relationship? And how abundant are those healthy plants and flowers? Take an honest look at where you and your partner are with one another and decide together whether you need support to rekindle your connection.

If you are ready to do the work you can book a couples consult with any of our counsellors here.

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