Divorce is often the end of the road, the result of a long and difficult struggle to save a marriage. Many of my clients have tried couples counseling, individual therapy, coaching, and other ways of working on themselves or their marriage. And I often find myself wondering, Is there anything that could have been done earlier to prevent the heartache? What can couples learn from others who have struggled in their marriage?
So, I turned to an expert. Dr. Kristin Davin, Psy.D. who is a therapist and divorce coach who has worked with countless couples and individuals over the years to help them become the best versions of themselves. She describes herself as a solution-focused and strategic therapist. In essence, a problem solver. Her goal is to help couples and individuals move forward, not dwell on what’s wrong or what’s in the past.
Erin: Let’s start at the beginning. The move from couple to married couple is a big transition. How can couples ensure that they make that leap together on strong footing, to set a marriage up for success?
Dr. Davin: I always recommend that couples go to premarital counseling before they get married. I see many couples right before they get married, and it’s a great way to help prevent problems down the road. In a premarital counseling session, we talk through what typically are difficult and probably otherwise avoided conversations about each person’s goals, ambitions, beliefs and desires. To start, I typically have the couple complete a relationship assessment, which gives me a deep look into their relationship. Then, we use that assessment to have a conversation. My goal is to provide a safe, comfortable, open environment to help couples learn how to have better, deeper conversations.
Erin: When a marriage begins to break down and people start to seek help, what are the most common reasons couples seek therapy?
Dr. Davin: Communication, sex and money are by far the top three reasons couples come to me for help.
When it comes to communication, breakdowns happen because people have different communication styles; they don’t know what their style is or understand their partner’s style. They typically have landed in a place where they are talking at each other, not to each other. It’s like a gerbil on the wheel. Often both people have become defensive or argue and fight in the same way – every time. They are trying to solve their issues with no new information or effective and healthy communication. Thus, they are simply stuck.
Sex is another reason people find themselves in my office. So many couples don’t talk about sex, have never talked about sex. They don’t talk about whether their needs are being met, what they like or what they don’t like. I’m told that “he wants it all the time,” or that “she never wants it,” that “we’re too tired, we have kids, work is too demanding.” Some couples go weeks or even months without having sex. They don’t talk to each other, or they don’t know how to talk to each other about sex. And the longer they go without having sex, the more complicated it becomes and difficult to talk about. So they come to me for help.
And, the third reason I find people seek therapy is money. This is one of the leading causes of divorce. People typically don’t understand what their relationship is with money, or how to talk about money with their partner. It’s more complicated than being a “spender” or a “saver.” Our relationship with money is shaped over time, and especially by the way we grew up. And sometimes there’s shame involved, from debt or how people want to spend their disposable income. But the trouble comes from not talking about it. There are couples who come to see me who don’t even know how much money the other person makes.
Erin: So, how do couples get beyond these issues? How do you help them work through these very complicated, layered topics?
Dr. Davin: I help them by asking the questions that they should be asking each other.
When it comes to communication, it’s important for each person in the relationship to first understand their own communication style. Do you find it difficult to put your feelings into words? Or do you feel like you are clear and direct – yet you still don’t understand why your partner doesn’t “get” what you say? It’s really important to take that introspective first step. Maybe think about the last difficult conversation you began with your partner. How did you bring up the topic? How did your partner react? Now, step back and think about whether there’s a different way you might have started that conversation, in a way that might have felt less threatening or less critical. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. Too often in conversations, we don’t listen to understand, we listen to respond. Forcing yourself to break that habit, to truly listen to understand by putting yourself in your partner’s shoes can help you be a better communicator – and not just at home.
Sex can be a little more difficult to talk about. Every couple has a developmental history when it comes to sex. We have our own individual development, previous relationships, partners and experiences, and through the dating, engagement and marriage timeline, we also develop as couples. I find that at the beginning of a relationship, couples are often more comfortable talking about sex. But then something shifts. Maybe there are problems or other issues in the relationship, but it’s sex that’s taking the hit. Having a healthy sex life is an important part of relationships but when there are problems, it really takes a hit. And truth be told, by and large, when couples are struggling, sex is the first thing that takes a hit – meaning, couples are less likely to be in the mood or even feel connected with their partner or spouse, and so they don’t. Intimacy and sex are not part of the conversation and the tension in the air, is thick.
It’s often a symptom of larger problems in the marriage – but without talking about why you’re not having sex, you won’t get to the root of that problem.
Some therapists are not comfortable talking about sex, so if this is an issue that has surfaced in your marriage, you’ll want to make sure you ask your therapist at the outset (if they don’t bring it up first) whether they’re comfortable discussing this.
With money, I’d advise that each person in the relationship really think about their relationship with money. What is most important to them? Feeling secure and stable? Having the freedom to spend money when and where you choose without your spouse’s permission? Why are those things important? Do you know how your spouse would answer those questions? As with improving communication, improving your relationship with money as a couple starts with understanding your own relationship with money, and then working to understand your spouse’s relationship with money. Once you “get it” you can talk through spending, saving, and what rules you may (or may not) want to agree to when it comes to your finances to make sure each party feels comfortable, free, and trusted.
Erin: This has been so interesting, and helpful. Any final words of advice you’d like to share?
Dr. Davin: Whether it’s couples therapy, mediation or another form of counseling, when you know it’s time to take the next step and reach out for help working through issues challenging your marriage, make sure you and your spouse interview a few therapists before settling on one. It’s a bit time consuming, but it’s worth it. The biggest impact on successful therapy is the fit between therapist and client. I can have all the tools in my toolbox, but if it’s not a fit between us, it won’t work. You should look forward to therapy, to the investment you’re making in yourself and in your marriage. Plus, if you like your therapist, you’ll know that if they push you outside your comfort zone it’s because they have your best interests at heart.