It’s impossible to hear stories of celebrities in marriage counseling without thinking of my own relationship counseling journey.
Earlier today, I asked my husband how he felt about going to marriage counseling. I didn’t know what to expect exactly, but I sure didn’t expect him to have a ton of positive things to say. We’ve gone to counselors for everything from “I’m considering leaving you in the middle of the night and want to give you one more chance” to the more mundane “You need to help me with the kids’ stuff.” We both have our individual struggles, and we have challenges as a couple, so we continue with therapy despite the less-than-enthusiastic ideas my husband had (or still has) about it.
I’d be willing to bet there are plenty of people who share his perspective on mental health counseling — and every other type out there. And men aren’t the only ones who are reluctant to go to counseling. There were times our relationship has felt so pointless that one or both of us didn’t see the point of trying anymore.
I’ve had women friends say they don’t want to go to counseling because they were afraid of the things it would bring to the surface. It’s not surprising considering so many women – and menfolk too – think hiding from their problems will make them disappear. They worry that bringing them to a therapy session will make them bigger than they are. You know, the proverbial “mountain out of a mole hill” fear. But they’re not realizing that avoiding issues gives them to chance to take root and lead to anxiety and resentment.
I wish people felt more comfortable going to marriage counseling. Mainly because I believe counseling is the reason my husband and I are still together. Throughout our relationship, marriage counseling has been a low-dose adrenaline shot to get us from one obstacle to the next. Although it hasn’t always been great, our experiences with it remind me that it’s important to speak openly about counseling — otherwise, the stigma will thrive.
Why do these negative associations with counseling exist? Where is the origin of the stigma? And most importantly, how can we work to eradicate that stigma to access the benefits counseling of all sorts has to offer us?
I’m unable to pinpoint the exact moment that mental health counseling became a bad thing, but I can’t help but feel like counseling still carries stigma and shame because it shows that someone has deviated from the social scripts we’ve all been given.
Personally, I’ve never seen counseling of any sort as a bad thing. I was a psychology major in college, so that’s probably not too shocking to many people. But my husband’s relationship with counseling was quite different. He said that some people worried that seeing a counselor could make people see them as “weak” or “unstable” to family, friends, or co-workers. And no one wants the world to see them that way.
From birth forward, many of us – and some more than others – are told that life sucks and so do people, but there’s nothing you can do about it but develop a tougher skin. Mental health counseling lets folks who are struggling know that the world feels unfair because it often is. And while it gives those who are struggling a chance to talk about the things that make life hard for them, there are other goals. It gives those suffering the tools to take control of their lives and find joy in becoming their authentic selves.
Marriage counseling offers those tools for the relationship. It reminds us that interpersonal relationships are hard and filled with hurdles. It gives us the opportunity to do the work to make things better. But counseling also provides an additional non-biased (hopefully) individual who can tell us what our relationship looks like from a distance. It’s easy to get so caught up in dysfunction that we learn how to function in the way things are instead of working to remove that dysfunction.
Stigma about individual counseling bleeds into our perceptions of marriage counseling. Needing help means our relationship, and we as individuals, aren’t strong enough to deal with our problems alone. Individuals and Western customs suggest we need to be able to fix all of our issues on our own. It’s an extension of the bootstrap myth. If you can’t pick yourself up from your problems, you deserve the resulting consequences.
Picking my husband’s brain revealed that the culture of individualism interacted with how hard it is to trust others with helping us. He pointed out that we feel like we know ourselves better than someone who sits with us for an hour or two a week. He’s right in one respect — counselors only see the parts of ourselves that we give them. But I think an objective perspective could still be beneficial.
We already know that marriage counseling can help relationships that are struggling to get on a better path. But in our own relationship, we’ve also seen the damage that can be done by a counselor who is a bad fit. Being someone’s counselor is a very intimate experience. It takes more than credentials to be a good fit.
One of the keys to destigmatizing counseling is making it clear that you care more for your relationship than your pride. It also means being willing to reject cultural norms to pursue things that align with your needs instead of the constant influx of messages we’re sent daily.
I don’t share my husband’s negative perspectives about counseling, but I can understand why he, as a Black man, could’ve been socialized to feel those things. And I want him to know that I’m open to listening to him in a world that doesn’t give him the space to be vulnerable.
I don’t “like” counseling. But I do enjoy putting in the work that it takes to make us better. My husband hates counseling but is clearly dedicated to doing the same. We’ll never be perfect, but counseling offers all of us a chance to overcome the dysfunctions that set many of us up for failure.