Common Reasons Couples Seek Counseling and How They May Be Avoided
Most couples seek out marriage counseling to get help to resolve their differences. Whether it is differences in sexual desire, differences in parenting styles, spending habits, or differences in their basic approach to life, couples come to marriage counselors to get help to manage and negotiate their differences.
Having differences is something that couples can’t avoid. No two people on this earth are going to agree on everything. The fact that we are all individuals with different backgrounds, different biological chemistry, and different life experiences sets us up to be at odds with each other. Many couples that were easily attracted because of their mutual feelings become concerned when they run up against their differences. Some idealistically believe that compatibility means that they should always feel the same. This, of course, isn’t true.
The truth is that partners are attracted to each other because of (1) the things they have in common, but also because of (2) their differences. Whether in love, or any other area of life, opposites attract. It’s good to partner up with someone that brings qualities to the relationship that we don’t have because it makes for a broader, more complete couple unit. But while initially we were attracted because we were different, later those admired differences may grate on us.
There is no way of avoiding differences, but the way couples manage their differences will determine the quality of their relationship. To paraphrase marriage researcher, John Gottman: Every couple, even those with the best marriages, has at least one irresolvable problem. The challenge for all of us in relationships is to figure out how to maintain an atmosphere of love while tolerating and supporting each other’s differences.
Couples that are skilled in keeping their love intact while managing their differences focus more on their love than their differences. As they interact with each other they emphasize the love they feel. In their conversations the emphasis on love looks like this:
“I don’t see it the same way you do, but I LOVE YOU!
While it is important that couples accept their differences, that doesn’t mean they should ignore them. Every couple needs to be equipped with skills to address and resolve their differences. Specifically they need to be adept in (1) communication, (2) attentive listening, and (3) win/win problem solving.
It is essential that couples have these skills if they are going to be successful in maintaining their love for each other. These are skills we should have all learned from our parents. For those of us that didn’t learn them from our parents, we should have learned them in our schools. But the reality is that most of us didn’t learn these skills in our families or in our schools. (Somehow I think learning communication would have equipped me more for life than learning how to diagram sentences.)
Many floundering couples damage their relationships because of their lack of skills.
Most couples seek out marriage counseling long after the outset of their problems. Often couples struggling with chronic unresolved issues present with sexual intimacy complaints as well, a symptom reflecting the toll of inadequate negotiating tools.
Recognizing Times of Stress in a Marriage
Most parents will refer to their children as their greatest source of joy, while also admitting that life became a lot easier after their children were raised. While parenting children can be one of the most rewarding experiences of life, it can also be one of the most stressful – especially on a marriage.
When a baby enters into the equation, a couple’s relationship, especially the romantic relationship, often takes a back seat as the needs of the child become the main priority. Mothers sometimes grieve the loss of their identity as they sacrifice their needs for those of their children. Fathers lament the passing of what was once a great love-life, as they witness their children getting the attention that was once theirs. It’s not uncommon to hear a young father say, “After the birth of our first baby, I lost my wife. Now the children take all her time. She’s always tired, and never in the mood for intimacy.”
While the advent of children may bring stress into a couple’s life, that stress is considered positive stress. The more negative stressors that may befall a couple are financial hardship, serious chronic illness, the suffering or death of a loved one, the demands of establishing a career, and taking on the caregiver role for a parent(s).
What these stressors all have in common is that they take from the well-being of the couple. They take time, energy, attention, and nourishment that could have been invested into the couple’s relationship.
When a couple’s relationship is under great stress, often one of the first things to go is interest is sexual closeness. The luster of sex pales in comparison to the urgency of the crises. While before the stress, partners may have associated each other with pleasure and kindness, now they may be associating each other with grouchiness, irritability, and misunderstandings. Instead of drawing together for comfort and support, they may find themselves withdrawing from one another.
Besides wreaking havoc on a couple’s emotional association to each other, stress can profoundly undermine a couple’s physical capacity for intimate connection. Let’s take a brief look at how the hormones supporting sexual functioning are affected by chronic stress.
Under normal circumstances, the adrenal glands secrete cortisol to respond to temporary stress. Under chronic stress the adrenal glands work longer and harder to meet the demands of the extenuating stressors. In cases where the stress doesn’t relent, eventually the adrenals become exhausted, depleted, and unable to sustain cortisol production. This depleted condition is called adrenal fatigue. In addition to severe exhaustion and decreased enjoyment of life, common complaints from people suffering from adrenal fatigue are decreased sex drive, and lowered sexual functioning (Wilson, 2001). There are several reasons for this:
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) a hormone which provides the raw building materials for testosterone and estrogen is manufactured in the adrenal glands. When the adrenals are chronically overworked and exhausted, they lose their capacity to produce DHEA in sufficient amounts, which reduces the production of testosterone and estrogen.
Inadequate levels of testosterone result in decreased sex drive, including sexual thoughts and fantasies, in both men and women. In women, low estrogen levels can dampen nerve impulses reducing sensitivity to sexual touch. Low estrogen can also decrease blood flow to sexual areas. This reduction in nerve sensation and blood volume can slow and inhibit a woman’s sexual response, and make orgasm less likely. A reduction in estrogen can also reduce vaginal lubrication and thin vaginal tissue, making intercourse painful (Northrup, 2006).
When sexual functioning starts going downhill, non-sexual touch and affection often plummet as well. Partners may avoid kissing, hugging, and holding each other for fear that it will lead to more sexual expressions that they would be unable to follow through with.
Couples that don’t touch miss out on the benefits of oxytocin, a hormone that acts as “a crucial bonding agent for relationships”. The late Dr. Theresa Crenshaw referred to oxytocin as hormonal superglue. Oxytocin bonds and attaches us to those we love through the act of physical touch (Crenshaw, 1996). While stress can have a negative affect on sexual intimacy, couples can reduce the impact of stress and keep their emotional closeness intact by continuing to hold and touch each other in non-sexual, loving ways.
Although sexual desire may be one of the first things to go when a couple is under extreme stress, paradoxically sex itself can be a natural stress reducer. Research has shown that sexual activity and orgasm actually reduce stress (Charnetski & Brennan, 2001). This may be partly due to the rise in oxytocin that accompanies orgasm. Low levels of oxytocin are correlated with higher occurrence of anxiety disorders. Higher levels of oxytocin have been shown to reduce stress and improve an individual’s response to stress. (Weeks, 2002).
About Colette Malan:
Colette Malan is an individual, marital, and family psychotherapist and an