At the risk of revealing my true, terribly impatient colours, I've often wished there was some sort of Afterpay service for hindsight. Glean useful information before the event, pay later. While I proselytise to anyone who will listen about my therapist and the wonderful work she’s doing to help reframe my anxious haphazard thought patterns, it simply didn’t occur to me to see a couples therapist at any point during my latest long-term relationship. We didn’t fit the stereotypical mould in that we hadn’t been married for thirty odd years, didn’t share a mortgage, and were devoid of any dependants. We were just two 20-something-year-olds, free as the breeze, who were appalling at talking about our feelings, needs and desires, but unwilling to put in the work to fix our increasingly threadbare lines of communication. Unsurprisingly, the relationship ended.
The failed, tumultuous on-off “relationship” that followed that only served to reinforce how terrible I was/am at communicating with partners. Whereas the first relationship was defined by a firm resistance to engage in difficult conversations, the next one was all about public verbal sparrings (which still send a mortified shiver down my spine) and a masterful ability to push each other's buttons. We were a case study in the perils of confirmation bias: I was as immune to his efforts to persuade me to see his point of view as he was to mine.
These are the things I now know that I wish I knew earlier: Owning up to and taking accountability for our own shortcomings and being able to see and respect differing points of view is tough but necessary work. We all have our own manuals for how we expect our partners to behave, but confusingly, we don't always communicate what they are. I hate confrontation in all its forms—especially when it comes to people I like and love—and have bucketloads to learn when it comes to healthy self-expression. Despite the lingering stigma attached to it, couples therapy is not just for older, married couples. It's for everyone.
Buy-now-pay-later hindsight is yet to take off, so I sniffed out the next best thing: chatting to three couples who sought the help of a therapist in their twenties. Their experiences vary—every relationship is unique, after all—but the results are all overwhelmingly positive and relationship-enhancing. Below, three compelling cases for seeing a couples therapist in your twenties. (Or at any age for that matter).
Olivia (28) and Seb (29)
Olivia: "We made the decision to go when we’d been together for around three-and-a-half years. I asked Seb and he was (almost!) immediately open to the idea, which I admired. Our therapist said on average it takes couples seven years to get to a session after someone in the couple has first suggested it… that shocked me. We decided to go because we had both realised the way we communicated in conflict and stress wasn’t effective, and to have a successful relationship long term we definitely needed to change that. [We were hoping to resolve] an ineffective and unkind way of communicating with each other in stressful situations and anxiety, anxiety in general, differing expectations around the house, a perceived lack of consideration and kindness, tone of voice, and anger.
Gosh, [people are reluctant to go for] so many reasons. Social expectations, how we’re brought up to think about love and happiness, our personal anxieties, the social narrative around sex and (the lack of narrative for) female sexuality, perceptions of masculinity and what it means to be a man, the suppression of emotions (often called ‘dealing with them’) as a sign of strength, money… how long have we got?
I’ve learnt a lot about how my experiences earlier in life have created mountains of feeling that Seb often only sees the tips of… and because of that it’s hard for him to grasp the complexity and fullness of why I feel a certain way in any given moment (and vice versa for him). There are valid reasons behind our responses in communication, and we need to listen to them and realise they are pointers to something deeper that we may need to unravel and understand together. I’ve also realised that when I’m anxious I’m impatient, and I need to manage that and remind myself to be kind in conflict.
For me, the most challenging part is uncovering the vulnerable parts of yourself, and hearing the effect they have on the people you love. The most rewarding bit is learning how you can change that, to love people in the best way you’re able. It’s hard to unlearn your response to stress and conflict, so it has taken time and we’re still working on it. I’m sure we’ll never stop working on it, and that’s perfectly natural. The main improvement is that now we’re more aware of ourselves and our reactions; we’re aware of the situations that escalate our anxieties and what lifestyle factors improve the way we are able to love each other.
The three main takeaways for me have been: 1) That lifestyle contributes hugely to the way we’re able to love, 2) That humans are all so different. Our experiences shape our actions, opinions and expectations, and so we need to be aware of our differences when in relationship, and be kind in their consideration, and 3) Patience really is a virtue, and we need to work hard to cultivate it.
Finding out about—or facing up to—the sticky bits of your own character is hard. I ‘spose in life we're generally only criticised (to our faces at least) by those who love us and know us very well. Because of that closeness we know them deeply, too, which creates a counterbalance in your understanding of whatever difficult thing you're hearing about yourself. You have the room to deflect something based on your knowledge of their perspective. You can hurl something back rather than dealing with the lacklustre aspects of your character in isolation. When you hear something about yourself from an unbiased professional though, you can't tell them, "WellYOU never take the food scraps out of the sink.” In fact, you can't do much more than accept it, and that is pretty tough to take.
Nothing in life is static, so as we change we'll have to figure those changes out along the way. I think the therapy gave us room to breathe in our relationship when we were finding it hard to keep ourselves afloat. Having a professional guide you through your communication gives you an overview perspective, rather than one that's at ground level.
[I’d recommend it] without hesitation. We are complex animals and it’s impossible to have a rational overview of a relationship you’re a part of. Speaking to someone else about it, a professional, is one of the best things we’ve done. Also, the stigma thing is literally bananas. Why wait until you’re 60 to go to therapy, when by then the knots will be so deep they’ll be impossible to untangle? It doesn’t make sense. Mental health is health just as much as physical health is health. We need to talk about it, understand it and nourish it—as individuals and as a species—and doing that in relationship is essential, because even if we’re not in a ‘couple’, we don’t live in isolation."
Jessica (30) and Nick (32)*
Jessica: "I had personally been seeing a therapist for about five years solo [before we went as a couple] a few years ago. My partner was battling to understand me at times and actually suggested it himself. We were planning to take a year off from our ‘normal’ lives and go travelling together, so I think we wanted to be prepared for that as much as possible. We weren’t in a dire situation per say but we just thought, “Why not?”. It was a safe space with a psychologist I trust and who knows me well. After our first ever visit we went and had a taco and a beer to celebrate.
Stigma [is the reason people are reluctant to go]. It’s the same with seeing a therapist, generally. It’s interesting the reaction when you tell people you see a therapist, let alone a couple’s therapist. Working on yourself and your relationships is hard work. People don’t like the idea of really looking at themselves and facing up to their own faults and the things they can improve on. And I get it—it’s a painful process.
I had been seeing the same therapist on my own prior to us going. I was surprised that she was so middle ground—ha, perhaps I was secretly hoping she would be on my side. But she’s a professional.
Communicating and generally understanding each other were the main issues we wanted to work on. We are very different people—different things drive us and motivate us. We just needed to be able to talk about things more clearly and effectively.
Acknowledging that I am not perfect has been the hardest part. Lol. But seriously, facing up to the behaviours that don’t serve you and working out ways to change them for the better. Listening to my partner tell the therapist about things I had done that had hurt him was difficult… Ugh, being a human can suck. The most rewarding part is knowing that you CAN change the person you are, even if you feel like a piece of sh*t—you can always work on yourself and become a better person. I am a big advocate of change and forgiveness.
I think it’s important to be consistent and to remind each other of the things you’ve learned in therapy, all the time. Two main lessons I’ve learned are: 1) It’s a choice to be in a relationship, and 2) You have to meet each other in the middle of the bridge—i.e. you both have to make an effort, because one person constantly crossing the bridge is not sustainable.
We weren’t in a BAD place to begin with… I don’t think you need to be in a bad place to seek therapy, I think you can just want to be better and happier. Everyone can be better."
Agnes (29) and Seth (28)*
Seth: "We saw a therapist once we had decided to separate. We had both benefited from free therapy sessions before as a result of working within the state health system (although it is also available to people with a mental health plan). I think people are reluctant to try therapy because of the taboo that is associated with it. Most people say reactively that they wouldn't go to therapy unless something was really wrong. The special thing about therapy, though, is that it’s not like talking to a friend who compares your experience to their own and gives advice from their vantage point. The therapist actively listens, asks targeted questions and facilitates the opportunity for you to better understand each other and formulate your own conclusions.
The relationship counselling or 'conscious uncoupling' was recommended by my partner’s therapist, not as a way of fixing the relationship but as a way of understanding each other’s needs and co-existing peacefully as we shared a house, friends, a dog and lots of financial responsibilities. The initial appointment was funny. I was nervous as the session was conducted but my partner’s therapist. She opened by saying, “Well, this is tough for you because I've already heard all the dirt from your partner." It was a nice way to break the ice and set the social tone of the session.
We worked a lot on respecting each other’s needs and allowing the discourse to occur, but when it would crescendo into what would normally become an argument, the therapist would ask us to step back and analyse how our partners words affected us. It was very illuminating and I think we both gained a lot of respect for each other’s definition of what is required for a relationship to flourish.
[Before therapy], I thought that for a relationship to succeed a large amount of sacrifice was necessary. I was not as assertive as I could have been and as a result we often pursued my partners passions in place of my own which in turn built resentment. It was not a matter of fault or blame but more a breakdown in communication.
I definitely have a much deeper understanding and respect for my partner now. Although we are no longer together I feel that our depth of communication and value for each other’s place in our lived experience has grown. I know more about my needs, how I communicate and how people are affected by my words and actions. I have learnt to identify the warning signs of when I may be doing something to benefit others which may not be positive for myself in the long term and how to be assertive in my decision making. I think having an external person to listen and provide feedback and a scaffold for self-education can only benefit people. It is however important to shop around for the right therapist as everyone has different methods that may suit each individual."
*Names have been changed.