The beginning of a relationship with someone you're seriously into is the best. It's all butterflies, long walks in the sand holding hands, and staring into the eyes of the most special person you've ever met. It's hard not to imagine a long life together surrounded by adopted dogs, and 2.5 children, and growing old together in a cottage by the sea.
But slowly, as the infatuation fades, real life starts to creep back in. You start to notice that the other person isn't an actual unicorn sent from heaven to fulfill your every desire. Rather, they're a real person who sometimes chews too loudly, and forgets to bring milk home, and doesn't put the seat down, and a million other little things. And sometimes bigger things too.
This happened with me and my husband, Jonas. Before we were married, when we were dating and emerging from the infatuation phase, we had some minor concerns. Mine centered on my annoyance with him rarely being the person to clean the bathroom, and he had some issues with me being kinda messy and leaving stuff around the house. There were rising tensions and small miscommunications, and although we were happy 90 percent of the time, there were some underlying weirdnesses.
At the time, Jonas had a friend who mentioned to him that he and his long-term girlfriend decided to go to couples therapy before they had anything "big" going on, like marriage or kids. They wanted to learn about each other's communication styles, and how they could talk openly about the small stuff before it became the giant stuff. Jonas mentioned this to me and I wanted to try it too. I suggested it, and he was game, so we contacted a therapist through the clinic where I went for my individual therapy and signed up.
Going in, I was a little worried we were being dramatic. After all, we got along so well most of the time; would I be introducing problems into the relationship that didn't exist? In the past when we didn't get along, I always thought: Isn't it a sign of a healthy relationship to be able to fight, speak your mind, and disagree? But still, my hope that we would be able to talk through things and understand each other better won out over my fears.
This is a relationship I wanted to last, so I figured I'd rather deal with the inevitable stuff now than later.
And it turns out I was on to something. Vanessa Marin, a psychotherapist specializing in sex therapy, agrees that sooner is better than later when it comes to couples counseling.
"The vast majority of couples wait far too long to go to therapy," she told me. "Unfortunately, therapy is often seen as a last-ditch resort. It's what you do if you're one step away from breaking up. But it's really hard for even the most skillful therapist to help a couple save their relationship from the brink of a break-up."
Marin also stressed that regular couples therapy should be thought of as something to strengthen a relationship, not save it. "The earlier on in your relationship you can learn how to successfully resolve issues, the less likely they'll be to turn into huge, relationship-ending problems."
My husband and I met once a week with our therapist, and I'm not going to lie, it took us both a few sessions to feel comfortable talking openly about our issues — mainly about the hurt and wounds we brought with us from our childhoods and past relationships. Our therapist listened, asked questions, and encouraged us see things from each other's perspectives.
She also taught us various tools for how best to communicate with each other. For example, I'm a lot more verbal than Jonas is and always want to talk about things until we pass out, and that just exhausts him, which in turn annoys me, and it's a frustrating process during which neither person gets what they need. In therapy, I learned to journal about what I wanted to talk about so I could get to the heart of it, then approach Jonas during a non-heated time to talk about it. In turn, Jonas learned that it was important for him to verbalize his feelings with me, and so, with practice, he's gotten a lot better with that.
We also learned how to prioritize the things that mattered, even if they seem small.
For example, I live my life by keeping my clothes in various piles. I know it's not the best, but it has served me well-ish for 30 years. And although Jonas sometimes made comments about how he didn't necessarily love the piles, I didn't really hear him, because I thought it wasn't a big deal. I learned in therapy that in fact, it really bothered him. His remarks were casual and offhand, and so I thought it was just one of those things like, "It's nuts that you do this but you're so damn lovable, I don't care!" I didn't take it seriously because we have different ways of communicating. Jonas had to learn to state plainly and clearly when something bothered him, and I had to learn to take it seriously. There were lessons all the way around.
To be honest, I wasn't sure if the therapy was working at first—I mean, our relationship wasn't magically without any and all troubles immediately, so WTF?! But a month in, I started to see some results. I didn't realize it, because I'm always talking, but I cut Jonas off at a party when he was telling a story, and it hurt his feelings. Instead of burying it and letting it fester, he calmly approached me about it the next day, and I was able to listen and hear him and try to do better next time.
I also saw changes in my own behavior—little things that I would normally complain about got a second thought before bringing them up—did I really care about what cleaner Jonas used on the stove, when he was cleaning the stove to begin with? We both learned what we could let go and what were important things to bring up.
Not only that, the simple act of meeting once a week and talking kept our relationship itself in the forefront. Just knowing we had that time carved out allowed us to shrug off the little stuff during the week, because we knew we could talk about it in a chill space with a mediator we trusted. It felt really good.
As the months passed and we learned new skills, we both decided that we didn't necessarily need a mediator anymore.
Although we no longer go to couples therapy, we keep the lessons with us—setting aside time for weekly check-ins, communicating with each other in ways that make sense to both of us, and truly listening to each other. I feel more like part of a team than I ever have before, and I am so thankful to couples therapy for that gift.
Fast-forward to a couple years later and we decided to get married. Not only was I thrilled to marry this amazing guy, but I also knew the tools we acquired in therapy would be foundational to making sure our partnership lasted. One evening a couple of weeks ago, I took my laundry to our bedroom but I didn't feel like putting it away. The bed looked so comfy, and I was about to finish Misery, and all I wanted was to get under the covers and pass out with my good friend Steven King scaring the shit out of me. But also knowing the piles of laundry on our bed would drive Jonas crazy, I was motivated to put everything away first, and it felt good. And he noticed, and thanked me. And that part felt amazing.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.