Why Couples Therapy for Unmarried Couples
In an interview with New York Magazine this week, I was asked if most couples I see in my office are married or not. I didn’t really think about this much, but in preparation to this interview, I actually went through my case load and realized that although about 60% or so of my couples are married, about 40% are not. So why do unmarried couples come to therapy? As opposed to married ones?
Here are my thoughts on this. Married couples come to therapy because there has been an infidelity, there are problems with intimacy and sex and/or there is a reality that the relationship is in trouble in spite of repeated attempts to solve things on their own. There are usually children or a child involved as well as substantial history and entrenchment in each other’s lives and both parties want to save the marriage.
When an unmarried couple comes into my office, often the issue is that one is anxious to move the relationship to the next phase and the other is “not ready”. This is a complicated issue which can make or break a relationship. I have had an experience of this going both ways. In such a situation we explore what is going on with each partner. Usually the person driving the relationship forward is looking for a sense of security and certainty that the relationship is going to lead to marriage and that he or she is the one and that this part of life is all set. The issues with the one who is “not ready” are more complicated, ranging from serious phobia of commitment, uncertainty about the specific partner and compatibility of the partnership, unexpressed resentments that have grown and blossomed over time, secret feelings for another person and issues with sex and romance. Sometimes, actually, the “not ready” partner is planning a proposal and is shopping for a ring (if it is a male) and simply doesn’t want to be dictated to when and how to do the proposal. The more push there is to “get it done”, the more resistance. When the “not ready” person is a man, there is a strong sense of wanting to plan, orchestrate and own this event and not be controlled.
Sometimes there is also a misconception about why there is such an urgency for engagement and marriage and it is important that the underlying feelings are honestly communicated. This does not always push things forward, but it creates a sense of empathy and understanding of the other’s experience.
Another reason unmarried couples come to therapy is for pre-marital counseling. They are typically engaged or are about to get engaged and either want to address issues and conflicts that they are concerned about, which is typical couples therapy, or, in fact, do a structured, set amount of sessions to address specific issues that come up as people are contemplating married and family life, such as handling money, timing and number of children, dealing with families of origin, work and career goals, including work after baby, leisure time, sex and romance.
Another reason for counseling for unmarried couples is dealing with trust issues as well as on and off relationship and deciding whether to be on or off.
More on this in the next blog….