Sticky Needles and Ultimatums

Two Things that Sabotage Therapy Before it Starts

Last week I asked a question on my Facebook page:

Time for a little "How Many Marbles in the Jar" guessing game:What percentage of couples in the U.S. end up divorced…

Posted by Neil Moore, MFT on Friday, November 20, 2015

The answer to that question surprised many of you. About 38% of these couples will end up divorcing within that time-frame. On the one hand, this tells us that couples therapy can be pretty effective. Lots of couples (more than half) go, help their relationship and make a change for the better. But on the other hand, a 38% failure rate is a lot by any standard. If I told you a set of tires you were interested in purchasing had about a 40% chance of failing, you probably wouldn’t buy them. Of course, relationships are a little more complicated than rubber, and marriage therapy isn’t exactly tire manufacturing, but you get the point.

So why is the failure rate so high?

I think there are two major reasons we see these sorts of general outcomes.

the therapist matters

First, a lot of it has to do with the therapist providing the therapy. In the United States today, based on general industry surveys, about 80% of mental health professionals in private practice offer marriage therapy as a part of their services, yet many of these therapists cannot point to specific training around couples therapy beyond what they received in their graduate level education. Now, if you’re seeing a Marriage and Family Therapist, this is less of an issue. They’re trained from day one to think systemically and relationally. This is not a knock on any particular therapist or their training, but the reality is marital therapy is an extremely specialized form of therapy. You can’t simply take the principles that work in individual therapy and use them with couples. If you’re having relationship problems, make sure you seek out a therapist who is really qualified to provide the therapy. Therapists with highly specialized training using proven methods often achieve success rates higher than 75%.

But of course, even in this case, you still have a 25% failure rate, and that brings us to the second reason.

Most couples who end up in therapy have been dealing with challenges for a long time. In fact, studies show that couples who seek therapy often wait an average of six years after they first experience serious troubles before they seek counseling. That’s six years of angry fights, hurtful words, painful experiences. And many couples wait much longer — sometimes decades. What happens during those intervening years?

the OK Meter

When you enter into a long-term committed relationship, you acquire an internal relationship gauge that I like to call your “OK Meter.” It’s like an imaginary scale inside of you that measures a range of “okayness” levels about the quality of your relationship from “A-Ok” on the far left side of the dial to “definitely not okay” on the far right side of the dial.

okay meter

As difficult experiences in your relationship begin to occur, these start to get piled onto the scale. Conversations where hurtful words were said, your partner failing to recognize and validate your feelings, you criticizing something about your partner one too many times, and so on. As the pile grows, the needle on your OK Meter begins to move from the “A-Ok” side toward the middle of the dial.

sticky needles

But there’s something you need to know about your OK Meter: it’s not very precise. In fact, it has a sticky needle. As the needle approaches the “not okay” zone, it actually gets stuck. Even though more and more stuff is getting piled on, the needle stays in the “okay-ish” area and keeps telling you that things are going to be okay.

Now, you may be asking, “Why the heck does my needle get stuck?” There’s actually a very good reason for this. You’re bound to go through really stressful, challenging times in your relationship. When these times come along, it can put a lot of strain and stress on the relationship. You need a sticky needle on that meter to ensure that you don’t overreact to temporary circumstances that are going to go away eventually. But when the heavy strain and stress ends up not being temporary and just continues to grow, your OK Meter stops giving you correct signals about your relationship. Consciously, you know things are not where you want them, but you still think that your relationship overall is still in the “okay” zone.

One day, though, the scale gets one too many things put on it, and the force of that final thing finally pushes the needle past its stuck point. It rapidly moves deep into the “not okay” zone. Suddenly your alarm bells are going of and you’re thinking, “I’m not okay with this relationship. I can’t keep doing this.” When you get to this point, an ultimatum starts to sound reasonable. You start thinking (and saying), “We either need to fix this, or we need to divorce, because I can’t take this any more.” And this is the point at which many couples decide to seek professional help — when at least one of them is already on the fence about continuing the relationship. It’s not uncommon for me to see couples who have already basically decided their relationship is beyond salvaging, and they are only doing counseling to appease their kids or other family members. This, incidentally, doesn’t bode well for a successful outcome.

There’s more bad news with your OK Meter: once you’re in the “not okay” zone, the needle is sticky going back the other way. You can’t just remove some of the negative stuff and have the needle bounce back to the other side. You have to reduce the negativity exponentially to get things back into the okay zone. This is a huge challenge for any couple and their therapist.

So, how do you avoid getting to this point? What can you do to supplement your OK Meter’s sticky needle? You have to take preventative steps that help you identify red flags long before your OK Meter has to do it.

That’s where a regular relationship check-up comes in. Now this may seem like a crazy idea, but I believe that the number one thing any couple can do to keep their relationship fresh and on-track for the long-term is to invest some time and money into activities that help you keep a pulse on the quality of your relationship. And I’m not talking about a couples retreat at a resort where you practice primal screaming, or trust fall exercises. Those aren’t necessarily bad things, but they take up a lot of time, they’re designed to cater to a wide audience, and they sometimes are unhelpful because they give couples the chance to mask or whitewash over problems for a while through what I call the “romance effect” of being away, reconnecting, and also having to perform as a couple in front of other couples.

Instead, I’m talking about you, your partner, and a relationship expert sitting down together to review your relationship, it’s strengths, it’s challenges, and it’s opportunities every year, every two years, even every five years. Over the past twenty years researchers have done amazing work in understanding the elements that go into successful long-term committed relationships. No, there isn’t a secret one-size-fits-all formula, but there are a set of general ingredients that when present tend to be highly predictive of a couple staying together for the long-term. We can evaluate those elements in your own relationship, identify the areas where you’re already doing really well, and highlight those places that could present problems over the long-term. Not only that, I can give you specific, highly actionable steps you can take immediately to help improve those areas so they don’t turn into serious problems in the future. This is a powerful experience for your relationship and can give you invaluable information about its long-term trajectory.

Stay tuned here and on Facebook for a video where I’ll discuss what the relationship checkup looks like and why I think it’s so powerful in helping you keep things on track.

In the meantime, I wish you and your family a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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