“Once considered something that people only did when their marriage was on the rocks, younger couples are now attending therapy at increasingly early stages of their relationships.”
It was a couple of months into seeing a relationship therapist when PR executive Emily, 33, from London lost control. “I just shouted at my boyfriend for about 50 minutes,” she tells me. “He tried to speak and I remember saying, ‘I need you to hear me. I just need you to listen.’ I think that was our penultimate therapy session. We’d been building up to that. I needed to have space where I could be angry at him without him being angry and defensive back.”
The reason Emily was so angry? Her boyfriend had cheated on her, three months into their relationship. You might think this would mark the end of such a new partnership. There was a time when it almost certainly would have. But instead of breaking up, Emily and her boyfriend went to couples therapy. “I wouldn’t countenance getting back together without that, and he was very amenable,” she says.
Suddenly, it seems as though couples therapy is everywhere. Once considered something that people only did when their marriage was on the rocks, younger couples are now attending therapy at increasingly early stages of their relationships. Counselling charity Relate has reported a 30% increase in clients in their 20s and 30s since 2014 in the UK.
With podcasts such as Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin?, which allows us to eavesdrop on the counselling sessions of couples, to TV shows including real-life Couples Therapy in the US, State Of The Union starring Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd, and Big Little Lies, whose couples therapist, Dr Reisman, was widely celebrated for her realism. Even celebrities are revealing that they have sought help – actor Kristen Bell has spoken about going into couples therapy at the start of her relationship with her husband, Dax Shepard.
“I’ve seen couples in their early 20s who want to resolve issues in their relationship early on,” says Relate relationship counsellor Simone Bose. “When you meet couples in their 40s and 50s, it takes them a long time to come to therapy. Maybe they’ve been together for a while and they can’t deal with it any more. It’s this last resort, because they’ve lived through decades where it wasn’t as easy to talk about, whereas younger generations seem to already have it in their vocabulary: mental health, communication, knowing yourself better and being the best that you can be in a relationship.”
This was true for Emily. “We went into therapy determined to stay together and very much in love,” she says. “For us it was to help us get back on track rather than a last ditch effort.
“What our therapist helped us to do was to actually listen, and understand what the other person was saying and how that made them feel, and taking responsibility for our part in that,” she says. “A question about forgiveness came up. We both realised that we couldn’t move forward if I couldn’t forgive him. I thought I had. Then we would have a conversation where it would be quite clear that I hadn’t.”
One reason behind the increased interest could be that therapy is much more readily available these days, and charities such as Relate make it financially accessible for younger couples. Bose says that often the couples she counsels will already have individual therapists, who have recommended couples therapy on top. She notes a number of mental health awareness campaigns including Prince William and Kate’s Heads Together charity. These, as well as exposure to therapy through film and television, have helped to lessen the stigma. People might not shout it from the rooftops that they are in therapy after, say, a year of marriage, but they’re a lot more comfortable telling their friends.
In the end, Emily and her boyfriend were in therapy for two months. Now together for over a year, they are thinking of getting married and are considering some more sessions before they do. “It seems nuts that you would pledge your entire life to somebody without even having one conversation about, like, how you would raise your children,” she says. Bose tells me she has seen couples for pre-marriage and post-marriage counselling. “Maybe they’re engaged and they want to rectify some things that worry them about their partner,” she says.
It might be that one part of the couple really wants to get married and the other doesn’t. “Or it might be a couple who have been married and they didn’t really realise the ‘unconscious couple contract’ you make. You have expectations of the other person and you never discussed it, then you did and you feel disappointed by it.”
Then there’s sex. A US study has found that millennials are less likely to be having sex than young adults were 30 years ago. “Younger people don’t have as much sex as they did. Maybe one partner wants more,” says Bose. “Often you’ve had that romantic time and then daily life intervenes and people get quite shocked by how that can change.”
Social media, Bose says, has also created a lot of technology-specific problems, such as anxieties about whether a partner might be using their phone to be unfaithful. After all, it is now possible to have a completely separate life and identity on the little computer in your pocket. “There’s a lot of checking on phones or wondering what’s going on with the other person’s life on their phone,” says Bose. “If you’ve got trust issues, you may imagine they have this other life and you want to check their device.”
According to Bose, the fact that dating has become transactional and driven by technology is another reason couples are increasingly turning to therapy. “It means you feel very lucky when you do connect with somebody more than usual,” she says. “People get disregarded too quickly through apps, so when you do connect, when you meet somebody it means so much more in a way to really click. People don’t want to take that for granted. They treasure that and then they want to work on that.”
It’s not unusual for a couple to come to therapy looking to address a specific problem. Take Christine, a 34-year-old lecturer and her wife, also in her 30s, who attended a session last summer to talk about fertility. They had been married a year, and together for three. “We had been having a lot of circular conversations about having kids,” she says. “It was really low-conflict – it wasn’t that we were arguing, but obviously with a couple made up of two women there were a lot of options: ‘Whose eggs?’, ‘Who’s carrying?’, ‘Who’s doing what?’”
During the session they both cried, and they also reached a resolution. Sometimes, all you need is a third party’s input in order to gain clarity. “We went once and it completely cleared it up for us. Really, it was kind of shocking to me how illuminating it was to have a conversation in front of somebody else. I was quite keen to carry a baby and my wife was really keen not to. I had interpreted her not wanting to carry as potentially not being so up for it. And the therapist saying, ‘That doesn’t sound like what she was saying at all’, was literally all I needed to hear.”
Things, of course, don’t always work out so well. Marie, 35, from Bristol, works in fundraising. Five years ago she split up with her partner of seven years following couples therapy. “I’d been unhappy for a while. And both my ex and I were really conflict- avoidant. We never talked about anything.” Counselling was make or break; her ex’s suggestion when she tried to leave. But, despite having suggested it, he soon started making excuses not to go. “After about six months, he just stopped going so I carried on and then I broke up with him,” she says.
As Bose notes, both parties have to be committed to therapy or it just doesn’t work. And even if both parties do turn up every week, if they are not willing to listen, learn and develop, then therapy may be of limited use. “It’s so easy to come from that place of ‘Well, I am who I am. If you don’t like it, tough,’” says Emily. Change is harder, and the majority of couples who seek therapy ultimately won’t make it, even if it keeps them together for a while.
Nevertheless, Marie is glad she went. “The breakthrough moment for me was realising, OK, I don’t want to be in this relationship any more. And it’s OK to say that and to leave. I think people see couples therapy as this magic wand to fix the relationship and stay together forever. But actually, it can be the thing that forces you to recognise it’s not working.”
For millennials and generation Z, relationship therapy seems part of a larger self-care ethos, and a desire to not make the same mistakes as older generations. All the people I spoke to saw couples therapy as a positive experience, even if the outcome wasn’t. “Everyone wants to avoid becoming their parents to some degree,” says Christine. “Having watched the generation above have a lot of really difficult marriages, you just hope that you can avoid it by communicating.”
As Emily’s experience demonstrates, when you communicate well, a relationship that looks to be in peril can be saved. “It gave me the space and time to let go of all my anger. In a way, it sounds so pretentious, but I didn’t need to shout at my boyfriend, I needed him to witness my pain,” she explains. “I just needed him to understand.”
Images: Getty, HBO