Young couples are scrambling to get couples therapy after dating for mere days
Nina and Amy haven’t been together long — 48 days, but who’s counting? — yet already, they can tell they’re in it for the long haul. So, they’re doing what an increasing amount of new, young couples are doing, and high-tailing to the nearest relationship therapist for couples counseling.
Nina is 24. Amy is 28. And did you hear us say 48 days? Most couples wait an average of six years before seeking any sort of relationship counseling, but for the growing number of people who see therapy as a prophylactic rather than a Band-Aid for their romantic problems, 48 days can feel too long.
“We want to build a healthy foundation,” Amy tells Rooster. “I don’t think it’s ever too early to learn how to communicate with your partner as best as you can. Plus, things come out in therapy that don’t in regular conversation.”
Amy is referring to the vital, but often difficult questions new couples face: “What are we?” “Where are we heading?” “What are you looking to get out of this?”
Those questions are essential, but, in the context of a bouncing baby relationship less than three months old, asking them can feel rushed and awkward … unless someone else asks them for you.
Enter the relationship counselor.
In years past, couples might have sought a counselor after a deep rift in their marriage developed, but as divorce rates skyrocket and an increasingly higher value is put on one’s capacity for personal growth, younger couples like Nina and Amy are using them to sort out their issues of compatibility years before marriage is even on the table.
“I’ve seen more Millennials and young couples come to my practice recently than ever before,” Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT tells Rooster. “Twenty-five to 35-years old really is the audience.”
A certified Imago relationship therapist based in L.A., Cocharo specializes in something called premarital counseling, which is what Nina and Amy have chosen to try. In laymen’s terms, premarital counseling is couples therapy for people who want to solidify and grow their relationship before taking the plunge into marriage or long-term commitment. Despite the name, you don’t have to be engaged, or even touching marriage with a 10-foot pole to do this — premarital therapy is for anyone. Celebrity super-couple Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard even tried it — Bell told Good Housekeeping she and Shepard went to therapy “right away” as a preventative measure.
It can be effective, too. Some estimates have shown that couples who receive premarital counseling are up to 30 percent more satisfied than couples who don’t.
Why? Well, let's just say you learn some illuminating things in premarital therapy.
Cocharo says instructs her clients how to resolve small issues they don’t want to see snowball into larger problems, reconcile ideological or moral differences, and figure out what they need to improve upon before they take the next step (whatever that step may be).
“It helps couples lay out the foundation for healthy habits and communication,” she says. “I focus a lot of my work on helping people understand the different phases of a relationship so people don’t think it’s catastrophic when their relationship begins to change over time.”
Interestingly, a big thing she sees in her practice is communication problems stemming from the overuse of technology. “Only seven percent of communication is words,” she tells us. “That means when you’re talking to someone on a device, you’re missing the other 93 percent, which is made up of things like body language, vocal tone, cadence and eye contact. A lot of young people need help training themselves to speak and interact face-to-face because they’ve used texting, emailing and social media as a crutch.”
And while over-reliance on technology may seem like a sort of precious, "Help me, Mommy!" Millennial woe, it is, in fact, is one of the things Nina and Amy are looking to sort out. The two met on Tinder, and they want to make sure their real-life personas match up to their shinier, best-foot-forward internet reputations.
Cocharo believes there are several reason Millennials and other young folk are so interested in this kind of relationship work so early on. First, she says, many Millennials grew up seeing their parents navigate some sort of bone-crushingly awful divorce and understandably don’t want to end up like that. They feel premarital therapy can help them set up the sort of communication skills and conflict resolution tactics to take on issues in an adaptive way that leads to growth, not vitriol. “They’ve seen from experience that relationships take more than love,” she explains.
Second, because Millennials (and people in general) are increasingly choosing relationships of love, rather than convenience or status, they really care about staying together. People really like their partners, and they want to make sure they know how to support and care for them — after all, getting thrown back out into the shark pit that is Tinder, Grindr and Bumble is not the most savory of flavors.
Lastly, more Millennials than ever are navigating open and polyamorous relationships, and they like a good objective third party to help them sort out the rules and boundaries of that new frontier.
As for when she thinks couples should start therapy, Cocharo says there are two factors.
First, when they want to take the next step, whether that’s moving in together, opening up the relationship, getting married, or some heady concoction of all three. In that case, it’s good to “dot the i’s and cross the t’s,” as she says, as you’re transitioning into a new phase and could benefit from creating a joint vision of what that means.
The other, she suggests, is the hormone comedown that typically comes after about two years, where lust transitions to love and people start having to contend with the increasing seriousness of their relationship and what that means. At this point, couples usually find they’re unable to stay connected like they were in the beginning — but that’s precisely when invoking the magical strength of a relationship therapist can have the strongest effect.
In fact, Cocharo actually believes that before the whirlwind romance wears off is the best time to go to counseling — because our brains are swarming with warm-fuzzy-horny neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in the early stages of a relationship, we typically haven’t had to overcome serious problems or differences. However, if couples can learn to communicate and formulate healthy relationship habits before they encounter a serious issue, it can help them grapple with and overcome it much better.
Dr. Jenni Skyler, a Boulder-based sex therapist and the director of the Intimacy Institute, agrees. “I love when couples before they have problems,” she tells us. “When things are heated, they’re harder to work with. It’s a good tactic in terms of personal evolution — most people are looking to grow and learn how to be better, and it’s easier to do that when you’re in a better place emotionally and in your relationship.”
Skyler also says that couples come to her before they’re having major problems as a sort of courtesy to both themselves and her. “They want to give their therapist the lay of the land of who they are before they have problems so they’re more equipped to help in the moment if need be,” she explains.
Even singles can benefit from relationship therapy. Cocharo says she frequently works with people who aren’t in relationships, but are looking for the right one.
“A lot of my work with singles involves preparing them to know themselves and who they are,” she tells us. “ We go into what their childhood issues are, what they need to resolve, and how they can be more consciously aware of the kind of person they’re looking for.”
Yet, while there’s a growing interest in couples therapy for young, happy lovers, it’s not always easy to get your partner to go ... especially when there’s not a serious issue between you. Because of the negative stigma around therapy and the misunderstandings of who it’s for, many people’s partner’s resist the invitation.
“It’s not inexpensive, so a lot of people feel like if there’s no problem, why spend money to fix it,” explains Skyler. “There’s also a stigma against mental health in general — if you go to a therapist, you must be a ‘crazy person.’ Getting out of those narratives and reframing premarital therapy as proactive, preventative medicine is the challenge because it’s just not part of our cultural dialogue.”
“If someone is hesitant,” she continues, “I always say try it out. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come back. There’s no harm done in trying, but see how far you can get, because the more framework around your relationship that you have to support you before you commit for the long term, the better you’ll be.”
Not every single couple needs counseling, though. Skyler admits it depends on how well they know themselves and how well they work through an issues. "Generally, if you’re happy, you resolve differences well, and your needs are met, then I don’t think you necessarily need counseling," she says. "I’d treat going to see a therapist like you do a doctor — you go once a year for a medical check-up even if you’re not sick, and you can do the same with couple’s therapy."
Rooster caught up with Nina and Amy after their first therapy session and they were elated. Their therapist had brought up some important points about how to traverse the subject of their relationship moving too fast, and she gave them several tools to help them slow things down while maintaining their fiery connection.
"I don't know if we would have had that conversation on our own," Amy says. "If we would have, it might have been too late. I honestly can't wait to go back."