Striving for a healthy, thriving marriage–and simply trying to avoid divorce are two very different goals for therapy.

One is proactive and the other is reactive.

I’ve noticed that the proactive group is often quicker to get professional help for their marriage than the latter group.  The reactive group often finds themselves in the counseling office as a last resort.

Being proactive–being intentional about your marriage makes all the difference in the world.

I have been asked quite frequently recently, “When should a couple go to counseling?  What are some warning signs that we should seek professional help?”

As I have thought about this question I have come up with a few suggestions (some based on my own experience as a married person and on my experience as a therapist; and some based on other professional’s advice). Here are ten reasons when a couple should go seek professional counseling help. There are many more, but this is a start:

  1. Do premarital counseling.  If you are married and you didn’t do this, well, it’s water under the bridge.  But if you aren’t married at this point, I would highly recommend this as good premarital counseling can help couples bring issues to awareness that are often avoided, and can help equip couples to work through the conflict.
  2. Go to counseling when there aren’t any issues/As an opportunity for growth. In reality there are always issues that we can address in our marriages, but it’s better to seek help before issues gain a stronghold in your marriage.  See counseling as an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than a place to try and fix.
  3. When the Four Horsemen make an appearance (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, Stonewalling). Marriage researcher John Gottman talks about the Four Horsemen at length in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.  Gottman talks about these as being predictors of divorce in couples, and so it is best to get help before any of these become habitual in your marriage.
  4. When you notice resentment towards your partner. Resentment is one of those feelings that if not dealt with quickly can slowly, but surely creep into your relationship and become a cancer.
  5. When you are experiencing a major life transition. Life transitions such as marriage, birth of children, loss of loved one, beginning/loss of a vocation can bring about all kinds of emotions and challenges.  It can be helpful to have someone help you sort through these things.
  6. Barriers to communication. At various points in our relationships certain barriers arise that inhibit effective verbal communication.  I say verbal, because the reality is, we are always communicating to one another.  Having a professional help you work through the barriers to effectively communicating is a great reason to seek help.
  7. Lack of intimacy in the relationship. There are various kinds of intimacy in a relationship (see previous post), but if you notice a tapering off, or absence of intimacy in the relationship, it can be advantageous to have someone help you work through the problem.
  8. Focus is taken off of marriage and placed onto other things (i.e. vocation, children, friends, etc.). Anytime a couple moves their focus away from working on and having a strong and healthy marriage, other aspects of their lives suffer.  Lots of couples become so focused on other things that the marriage begins to deteriorate.
  9. When you become too busy. Lots of couples make the excuse of busyness as a reason to not be able to come into counseling.  When you become too busy to work on your marriage, then you know you have a problem.
  10. Whenever your partner suggests you do marriage counseling. Lots and lots of therapist’s offices are filled with couples where one suggested counseling 2-3 years ago, but the other partner resisted or thought it was not necessary.  Now they are in counseling because the partner who initiated it years ago has had enough and is ready to leave.  Don’t wait that long.

What reasons would you suggest for when a couple should seek professional counseling help?