Relationship problems can be scary. I've always loved the Creedence Clearwater lyrics "Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself." At the same time, talking together about difficulties is usually an essential step in fixing them. Yet when a disgruntled partner tries to discuss concerns, the other is always at risk for feeling frightened and retreating. The spouse may react defensively, insisting that he or she does not merit the criticism. "You do it too!" is another angry retort that indicates fearful unwillingness to take the partner's concerns to heart. For either individuals or partners who genuinely want to look for solutions however, the good news is that many inexpensive and easily accessible new help options are opening up, especially on the internet.
Dr. Google can be remarkably helpful. Googling specifics can give you especially useful information. For instance, google how to live with a narcissist to find new ideas if you want to keep a relationship with a partner who tends to be "all about me." My posts on narcissism may help as well. Googling narcissism Heitler will get you several.
Blog posts on relationship communication skills also offer lots of relationship advice. I've gathered a list of most of my PT blog posts on communication skills here. I've batched the marriage posts here and some on relationships here. Googling relationship communication skills yielded next to nothing when I tried it, but marriage skills and relationship skills should get you more.
YouTube may be an even better place to search than Google. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video can be exponentially more helpful.
One big advantage to web-based resources as opposed to the traditional route of finding a therapist is their availability. They are available 24/7, and from anywhere in the world.
This accessibility is especially helpful for couples in which one or both partners travels, or in which one or both will have trouble scheduling time away from work or home for treatment.
Because computer-based help options are available right away, they also can sometimes give immediate relief without your having to wait for a scheduled appointment. Web resources are ideal for the "I woke up at 2:00 a.m. and suddenly felt desperate for help" phenomenon.
Web options also tend to be either free or very low-priced, so the price is right if finances is one of your concerns.
Self-Help Books Be careful with relationship help books. Some give excellent advice. Others can mislead you into thinking that your relationship problems mean that regaining a loving relationship is hopeless.
One of the books on ending bickering and fighting that I quite like is Tongue Fu! by Sam Horn. In my own book, Power Of Two, I especially like the sections on how to resolve conflicts with win-win outcomes, a topic that is not covered with enough specificity in other communication skills books.
One further caution: If you are not married, do not be scared away by books with the word marriage in the title. A loving relationship with or without a ring generally takes the same tools to keep it in good order.
One more word of advice on reading marriage help books. Remember Creedence Clearwater's words above. As you read, be sure to read for what YOU can do differently to make the relationship better. Reading for what you want your partner to change will make you all the more prone to criticism and blame, habits which are almost guaranteed to make your relationship worse. Keep your focus on what you can learn about yourself and about new skills that YOU can use to work your way through your relationship problems and back into loving times.
Relationship Education. The last decade's SmartMarriages movement has spawned many relationship and marriage education courses, which can be in-person or online. These courses are based on the principle that, just as you can love a sport but still need skills to be good at it, you can love your partner but still need specific skills for relationship success. These courses teach, for instance, how to express your concerns tactfullly instead of inviting defensiveness and bickering, and how to listen instead of responding with but to butt away what your partner has said.
The best relationship ed courses include both 1) skills for finding win-win solutions to your differences and 2) techniques for looking back on your family of origin to understand where you learned the mistaken ways of being a love-partner that are currently getting you in trouble.
Some courses are available as audios and videos. You might want to check out my free podcast called Conflict Resolution for Couples here. It's in the right-hand column (note: not available via I-pad). The Win-Win Waltz is a hour-or-so-long video condensation of a Power of Two marriage ed course.
Couples counseling or therapy (they are essentially the same) depends on the effectiveness of the therapist, so be picky if you take this route. If you don't have 100 percent confidence in the first therapist you try, find another.
Like relationship ed courses, the best couples counselors help you look both ahead and behind. Looking ahead, they prepare you for success with the skills you'll need for anger management (including quick exits if either of you are overheating), collaborative dialogue so you can talk more comfortably about your differences, and conflict resolution. They'll help you look in your rear view mirror to understand how your experiences growing up, including watching your parents' relationship, are impacting you now.
A good therapist can serve as mediator to help you resolve current areas of disagreement, those pesky his-way, her-way disputes that can prompt bickering if couples do not on their own know how to create new our-way solutions.
Equally importantly, a therapist can help you with negative feelings and habits such as if you have been feeling significantly depressed, anxious, quick to anger, or resentful, or if you have deveoped an affair, an addiction, or habits of being controlling.
When is adding this more expensive resource, couples therapy, important to consider?
A therapist does cost more than most internet and book resources and also than group marriage ed courses. At the same time, adding an in-person couples counselor may be essential, especially in these situations:
a) If your relationship feels like it is in a state of emergency, with a current crisis (e.g., one of you has had an affair, etc.)
d) If you want to do a full court press. Fastest-growing couples typically combine self-help from books, audios, videos, and the internet with work with a therapist. That's probably the most potent way to go.
Seeing a therapist on your own is generally less effective than going together to a couples therapist, Still, if your partner won't join you in counseling, sometimes something is better than nothing. So if your partner says, "No Way Jose!" to therapy, there's still the individual therapy option.
The risk is that an individual therapist only knows what you tell him or her. There may be many positives about your partner that you have not been focusing on and therefore haven't mentioned. There also may be a lot about what you are doing that is problematic, yet if you're not aware of your parts in the problem it's hard to tell the therapist about them. The result of these blindspots is that going to an individual therapist can tend to point you down the road of separation.
The other downside of individual therapy for a couples problem is that relationships get "unbalanced" when one person grows and the other, who is not in therapy, stays the same.
The worst is for both of you each to have separate therapists. That's likely to end up with a dead end in terms of saving a relationship. Each therapist is likely to sympathize with their own client and miss the extent of their client's contributions to the relationship difficulties. The result is that two therapists inadvertently tend to pull partners in opposite directions, widening the gulf of resentment and distrust between them, instead of being able to re-stitch them and their relationship together in an improved version of their prior relationship.
The bottom line.
Remember: No one is born knowing how to be a strong partner. If you had parents who modeled good partnership skills, that can help. So can having had parents who were consistently there for you in a loving way. If either of those was missing, or if even with both in your past, you find yourself now in a relationship morass, get help!
Denver psychologist and marriage therapist Susan Heitler, PhD, treats couples, writes books and this blog, has published free audio and inexpensive video self-help resources for couples, and has authored a fun interactive online marriage ed program.