Can Cohabiting Couples Benefit from Marital Therapy?
Last weekend I taught a 3-hour workshop on my Thriving Couples Model at a sexual education class at a nearby college. One of the students asked if she and her cohabiting boyfriend would benefit from seeing a marriage counselor as she had previously thought there was no help available to them from traditional marriage therapists. I assured her I would be happy to see them. I’m sure most of colleagues would agree.
I empathize with many cohabiting couples as the most common factor driving them is they often grew up in broken families and don’t want to end up like their parents. They think by checking out the other person first hand while living together gives them a heads-up on whether this is the right person or not. I understand that fear, but the method doesn’t work, because cohabiting couples are much more likely to have more hurt than married couples. By moving in together without marriage they are increasing the possibility they will break up in the future, because cohabiting relationships, by definition, are insecure and insecurity causes people to act in insecure ways (lashing out, freaking out, shutting down, withdrawing, feeling controlled, feeling ignored), none of which encourages people to relax and enjoy the roses.
Some couples may be reluctant to see a marital therapist, fearing the therapist will guilt trip the couple into doing something they don’t want to do or aren’t ready to do. This was even the argument from one of my colleagues when I taught my Thriving Couples Model at a marriage and family conference. He or she said my model was based on people who agreed with me, because only people who agreed with me would come to see me. I based my model on years of marital therapy for thousands of couples, who came to see me long before I ever started blogging about marriage and cohabitation. All people had before the blog (I started the blog in 2009) was my yellow page ad, which said that I was a marriage therapist and helped couples deal with various issues. Actually, the blog has helped couples who totally disagree with me come to see me, married or not. They like the fact I have an opinion and will tell it too them straight, that I’m not just going to sit there and say, “You poor thing.” They also like I may give them a different point of view than they had considered before, which can be very beneficial.
I had one cohabiting couple who asked me to talk with them about sexuality, because of their problems in that area. This had come up after several sessions on other topics. I said, “You know I have a different point of view than both of you on that topic, right?” “No, no,” he assured me, “that’s why we came to see you in the first place. We wanted a different perspective.” Good for them.
Cohabiting couples have the same issues as married couples, only worse! For example, married people can have commitment issues, even though they are married, because one or the other or both make threats (sometime repeated threats!) to divorce. It’ll be very hard for either of them to give their hearts to the other if they fear one or the other will be leaving! In cohabiting couples, the fear of leaving is compounded, not only because there’s a threats of breaking up (a very common problem of cohabiting couples), but also because there’s no vow of staying! It’s the same problem, but from an added whole different angle. The cohabiting partners saying to each other they will be committed is not enough. Saying marriage is just a piece of paper and our commitment and love will endure is not enough. You can tell each other these kinds of things till you are blue in the face, and even have children with each other, but this doesn’t make you married until you willfully and publicly declare your vows to each other on your wedding day and a new family is born. Otherwise you are just playing house and when it’s nap time your friend will have to go home for his nap. It’s not your car till you pay for it and you sign on the dotted line. It’s just a piece of paper, but now it’s your car. To take the car without the piece of paper is stealing. It’s not your car. Cohabiting is stealing. It’s not marriage till you sacrifice your very life, the rest of your life, for both of your sakes.
This lack of a wedding date creates all kinds of problems and makes normal, everyday problems, critical and nearly anything can escalate into a fight or misunderstaning. Cohabiting couples are much more insecure and impatient and testy and short with each other. It’s one thing to test drive a car. It’s another thing altogether to drive the car off the lot without paying for it and never come back!
Here’s another example: You know how many times I’ve worried in 38 years of marriage that my wife is going to leave me? Zero. That’s right. Zero. You know how often cohabiting couple worry about that? Most of them worry about it all the time. How come you won’t marry me? I’m not pretty enough or skinny enough or rich enough or good enough or whatever enough? What’s the matter with me? What’s the matter with you? Why won’t you commit to me? What’s holding you back? Why are there all these issues? Everything is an issue. And you say you aren’t worried about it? What’s the deal with that? Are you just using me? You too good for me? You judging me? You see? On either side of this problem there’s worries. Worry, worry, worry.
One of the main reasons cohabiting couples have issues is because the commitment problem stares them in the face every day. It’s pretty hard to do wise couple things, when insecurity is constantly unsettled. So the couples fight or withdraw or one fights and the other withdraws or they both fight and they both withdraw. Now they don’t want to marry because they fight or withdraw too much! But the reason they are fighting and withdrawing is because they feel insecure about the future and on and on we go. Nevertheless I’ve found many of these kinds of couples can benefit from learning how to handle their differences and to communicate in kinder ways. And when we’ve gone through that material it often gives them the courage and confidence they need to get married.
That’s actually a pretty nice thing for me….when I get a wedding invitation from former clients who were cohabiting. I take that as the most extreme form of thank you note! Thank you, Dr. Wall, for helping us reach the confidence where we can give ourselves wholeheartedly to each other til death us do part.
By the way…I don’t go to those weddings! I’m thrilled for them, but I figure it’d be weird to have them introduce me as their therapist.
Still…it’s a very nice thing.
Give us a call. Let us help you figure out how to overcome these very common pitfalls. We know what the terrain looks like. We can give you a different perspective.