sex and relationships

Couples Therapy Isn't Just for Mum and Dad Anymore

There's been a 30 percent rise in young couples entering therapy together in the UK since 2014. What exactly are they looking to fix?

by Annie Lord; illustrated by Ella Strickland de Souza
18 July 2019, 9:59am

For teaching assistant Anna, 24, couples therapy was a sign that she and her boyfriend Ted, 26, were meant to be together. After weeks of texting, Ted took her to San Carlo, her favourite restaurant, where the data analyst made her belly laugh over a bowl of spaghetti vongole. They got on so well that the next morning they met up again and took his spaniel for a walk in the park. But one night, under the sheets of his mum’s bed, Anna realised there was a problem. Ted couldn’t maintain an erection.

The relationship continued as though neither had noticed – they spoke on the phone late into the night, met parents, spent evenings eating chicken tacos in front of the TV. Sometimes, Anna would try to talk to him about it, only to find the words wouldn’t come out. He would often shut down when she touched him, and a wall began to veer up between them. Since she was already seeing a counsellor for body image issues, Anna suggested they go see someone together. When Ted agreed, Anna was touched that he was willing to confront the issue – not just for himself, but for them both.

Anna’s story isn’t what normally comes to mind when you imagine couples therapy. But couples therapy isn’t always for geriatrics – in fact, a spokesperson for Relate, the UK’s leading relationship charity, informed me of a 30 percent rise in young couples entering therapy together since 2014. Perhaps we are moving beyond the pervasive stigma surrounding couples therapy – that it’s a last-ditch effort. That if it’s so hard, you should just break up. That if you’re not bound by kids, a mortgage, or a 20-plus year investment in something that used to be fun, there’s no point in sticking around.

It seems that couples are beginning to see relationship counselling as less about patching over deep-seated problems, and more as a way of addressing issues before they become unmanageable. But what problems are young couples looking to repair? Why do they feel more comfortable going now more than ever? And what actually happens when you go to couples therapy?

A couple, a genderqueer person and transgender woman, sitting on a therapist's couch and talking
Photo: The Gender Spectrum Collection

Relate relationship counsellor Simone Bose believes more young couples are seeking therapy as part of a general lessening of judgement around getting counselling for mental health issues. “People are becoming a lot more aware of the help that’s available to them and they’re much more open with their emotions,” she tells me. Yet, compared with other forms of therapy, Simone believes there’s still far more embarrassment attached when you’re a couple. “Often my clients don’t tell those close to them that they’re seeking help as they want to appear to be doing better than they are. Friends and family will normally question the relationship, making them think ‘should I even bother trying?’”

But what is broken can often be fixed. The issues young couples come to therapy for are often present in all relationships, even good ones. “Most of the time couples come to work on communication,” Simone explains. “They struggle to resolve arguments, they want to ensure everything is right before taking the next step in their relationship. Others have problems with different values, goals for the future; one person might have a higher sex drive than the other or maybe there are trust issues.”

Initially, Anna only joined in on Ted’s therapy because the counsellor said it would be good to hear her perspective, especially since entering into a relationship with someone who has erectile dysfunction can be difficult. But after a few sessions, Anna was shocked by how much the therapy centred on her inability to communicate as much as it did their shared sex life. “It can be difficult for a woman to be lying there naked and not feel exposed. And when he didn’t get an erection, my first worry was that he wasn’t attracted to me,” she explains. Meanwhile, Ted’s default was to revert to oral sex as a way of avoiding the pressure of attempting penetration. “As soon as I went near him, he would be terrified,” Anna explained. “I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable.”

Counsellors often set homework to continue the work from talking therapy into the relationship itself. “Sometimes I get [couples] to spend time listening to each other," Simone says. "A lot of the time people don’t listen as the other person talks, they’re just building up a defence to what the other is saying. I also get some couples to track emotions because people can become detached from them – when do you feel low? When do you feel high? What triggered that? Then we can talk about the reasons for these feelings to understand what’s going on.”

To form a dialogue about each others’ pleasure, Anna and Ted were asked to go home and take turns giving each other a back massage, explaining exactly where they wanted it and what felt good, but Anna found this difficult. “It was embarrassing for me. As a woman, I was not used to being that directional, explaining exactly what I wanted. I’m used to being in the opposite position in relationships – in a submissive, quite traditional role – so guiding him was hard.”

Still, therapy has helped Anna and Ted understand each other. “It’s sped up the maturity of the relationship to the point where it feels like we’ve been going out for three years as opposed to 16 months,” Anna says. Now, she knows how to articulate what feels good and Ted is able to discuss his feelings more openly. “He’s learning that it’s okay to be vulnerable. I won’t ever shut him off or put him down for sharing his insecurities.”

At Relate, the therapy offered is integrative and combines systemic and psychodynamic aspects. “Systemic is about the outside world: the culture you live in, work, family, and leisure time,” Simone explains. “Psychodynamic is the internal dynamic, how you attach to your partner emotionally.” Couples will talk through examples of their problems, helping each to break down negative patterns that are operating in the unconscious mind. Simone gives me an example of a couple with difficulties communicating: “Why do you feel more comfortable with arguing whereas the other person doesn’t? Looking back into their past we find that it’s because in one of their families everyone would argue a lot but makeup quickly, so it was never a big deal to fall out. Whereas in the other person’s family if you argued you would be sent to your room, which leads to a fear of conflict or inability to express emotion.”

“Usually the argument is about housework, but it never is actually about housework – it’s about different beliefs,” Simone tells me. “One person might feel neglected or as if they aren’t working as a team. The other will think, ‘it’s just a bit of washing up, why are you placing so much importance on this?’”

A couple holding hands on a couch
Photo: The Gender Spectrum Colection

James, 26, and his girlfriend Sarah, 28, met in the back of their friend Simon’s car. He usually struggles to hold eye contact, but when he dared to glance up he could see that her green irises had beautiful brown speckles in them. He didn’t initially realise that Simon was setting them up, but he was glad of it once he clocked what was happening.

After five years together things started to unravel. James has high-functioning autism, which gives him social anxiety and makes it difficult for him to express himself. Sometimes he would say things to Sarah that would come across as insensitive; other times, he would want time on his own. For Sarah, this felt like rejection. When he would shut himself away, things would quickly escalate into arguments. “Sometimes I can’t be close to her,” James explains to me. “I don’t cope well being around people for extended periods of time, she doesn’t really understand what it’s like for me feeling permanently trapped.”

The situation between them got worse after James’ mother passed away and he was made redundant from a job in the oil industry. Stressed, tired and bored of scrolling through applications on Indeed asking for two years’ experience for badly paid work, James and Sarah started shouting at each other. Neither can remember what it was about now – someone hadn’t wiped down the kitchen sides, left the milk out of the fridge, didn’t hang up the washing – but they remember what came next. “I told her that I didn’t know if I loved her. It seems stupid now, but I was so confused over my feelings and everything going on in my own mind that I just blurted it out. I hurt her, but I didn’t mean it. Sometimes I don’t have a clue what my feelings are simply because I don’t understand them.”

They decided they would try anything to make it work, and the following Monday found themselves talking to a therapist about what was going wrong. At first, the sessions were chaotic. “Both of our thoughts and feelings drained out of us,” James says. “After that, we picked apart issues to find the root causes and addressed them individually. The counsellor did tell my wife that when I need to be alone she shouldn’t follow me as it exacerbates the situation.”

Months later, things aren’t perfect between them but they are learning about each other’s needs. “I want to be with her and I need her there,” James explains. “We’re a bit odd, yes, but we love each other, and we’ll be damned if we let this get in our way.”

For James, being willing to try couples therapy is a positive thing as people can be quick to flee something good for fear of hurting themselves further. He blames the transience of modern society – messaging strangers on social media sites, drifting through different cities, jobs and friends – for creating distance between people. “We hide from the problem, pretending it was never there or blaming others. But in fact, all we do is create a smokescreen to protect ourselves and our insecurities.”

Meanwhile, Anna hasn’t told anyone but her mum and best friend that she’s in couples therapy. She blames this on the need to make everything to appear perfect all the time, especially when everything you see of other relationships is so sugar-coated. Think Instagram posts of a full English in bed with the caption “boy done good”; a picture of one partner grinning on a canal bridge, the other kicking a ball around with their nephew at a wedding. Anna fears the judgemental gaze of friends who might call each other on the way home to ask: “Did you hear about Anna and Ted?”

On face value, couples therapy seems like a path for people simply unwilling to give up – like an afterparty zombie heading to an off-licence in the blue light of morning, attempting to cajole the last of the serotonin from their brains. But, for some, couples therapy is about fixing something that is just too good to lose. How often will you meet someone who likes Simon Schama documentaries as much as you do? Will an algorithm ever knit your path together with someone who listens as he does? Or makes you that chilli you like? Love seems as good a reason as any to ask for help.

@annielord8