This one was bad, probably the worst. Anamika* took a few deep breaths and knew it was time. She unlocked her phone and stared at the number she’d saved weeks ago. When she finally clicked on the call button, every ring brought a new question, “What would I tell my parents?”, “Would he even agree?”, “How can my marriage fail in two years?” Five minutes later, she had booked an appointment with a couple's counsellor.
We tend to view relationships in convenient dichotomies; success versus failure, good versus bad and since recently, healthy versus toxic. What we lack is the definition of a healthy relationship tailored for ourselves and our partners.
While the pandemic has relatively normalised individual therapy, the guilt, awareness and the perception of failing among couples goes deeper. For them, couples counselling is a sparkling mirror that reflects their relationship, their partner and themselves.
However, the choice of seeking it comes with baggage; right from judgements to unsolicited advice. Yet some take the leap, to acknowledge, accept, and improve their relationship. Thus begins a journey of revelations.
A means to awareness
29-year old Meera’s* husband was one of many prospects she had met for an arranged marriage. The couple’s courtship was a blissful honeymoon period full of conversations and the occasional flowers. But things took a 180-degree turn, right after their wedding.
“My husband stopped communicating. There was no affection, no love and hardly any intimacy, physical or emotional. He was unrecognisable.”, says the psychologist from Mumbai. She relentlessly tried to understand this sudden switch and work on it, given her profession. “I knew it was time to seek help when I broke down in my workplace,'' she adds. Her husband was reluctant, but after an ultimatum of separation or therapy, he caved.
“The biggest realisation was that he carried his personal trauma into our relationship, which compromised his ability to receive and show affection. On the other hand, I required immense affection and care. Once we understood this, we found a middle ground and set expectations accordingly. Our communication pattern improved and we took efforts to be present and make things work,” she recalls.
Shalini Rao, a queer-affirmative psychotherapist, states, “We tend to follow a script in the society-education, job, marriage, kids, and so on. The problem occurs when one’s reality is different from this “one script for all” phenomenon. When you realise your life doesn’t fit into that box, there is a disconnect that can affect your relationships.”
As she defines couples therapy, the Bengaluru-based psychotherapist explains, “This script that we’re “supposed” to follow is like dance choreography. When you’re performing together, it can get monotonous, painful and overwhelming. Couples therapy is a safe, nurturing space to explore what the person and their partner need from themselves and one another if they want to sustain this dance even when the rhythm changes.”
A tool to cope with change
For 30-year-old Raunak*, a communications professional at a multinational company, life seemed perfect in 2018. He had a promising career and a caring partner. But the narrative changed after they got engaged. “During our courtship, I faced financial losses and getting married right away didn’t seem practical. My partner, however, wanted the wedding soon and this started a range of disparities between us. From wedding logistics to finances, everything turned into arguments,” he recalls.
The couple mutually sought professional help to resolve their issues. “I understood my partner better and when we stated our expectations from each other, it was clear that our ideal lives were poles apart", says Raunak.
Therapy helped them address core problems that trivial conflicts masked. He adds, “Once we recognised these issues, our therapist helped us articulate them effectively.”
According to Nilambari Kulkarni, a senior therapist at Manah Center for Mental Well-being, Pune, “a major change or shift in lives can stimulate unexpected reactions. Since every relationship is based on certain expectations, it can be difficult to cope with unprecedented behaviour, let alone communicate about it.”
Therapy was a way for Raunak and his partner to know their level of compatibility and a tool to instil healthy communication. The couple eventually decided to part ways, with reflections and lifelong lessons. “I became a better communicator. I’m more conscious of how I express certain thoughts and try and listen to my current partner’s needs. The best part about the process was when I doubted myself as a partner, our therapist acknowledged it and assured me that there was nothing wrong with me,” he adds.
“Separation, despite therapy, isn’t the mark of a failed relationship or adults," says Kulkarni. "Therapy works on dissolving the anger, animosity and overall negativity that is a by-product of unresolved issues. It goes beyond right and wrong to show a realistic picture of a relationship to arrive at a healthy decision.”
Finding the “right” therapist for both partners requires conscious effort. We tend to feel safe, comfortable and heard by someone who we view as non-judgmental and un-biased. And everyone might not be able to do that because those concepts are subjective. What works for you, may or may not work for someone else. It’s okay if your first therapist doesn’t seem like a good fit. It doesn’t reflect an irreparable relationship, broken people or a dead-end. It just means that this therapist isn’t for you, and it’s your cue to find someone who offers you both the space you need.
An open, mindful and adaptive approach is an effective way to reap the benefits of the process. In fact, several individuals have found the process of finding the “right” therapist eye-opening and empowering. It paves the path towards what you need and want to be healthy.
Redefining (healthy) relationships
Five months into the relationship, 26-year-old Sonali* married a man she loved. But adjusting to her newly married life was challenging. The IP specialist from Bangalore and her husband constantly had fights and she could see her relationship wither away with every argument. Two years later, she was diagnosed with an adjustment disorder with anxiety and depression as a result of marital discord.
“I was in individual therapy and thought marital counselling might work for us. It was either divorce or this,” she recalls. Her partner normalised her mental health issues and relatives offered their (not-so-expert) advice. “I was asked to have a kid, quit my job, attend to my partner full-time and prioritise his needs over mine,” she continues.
Her partner accompanied her when she too, gave the ‘divorce or counselling’ ultimatum. Recalling her experience, she says, “When we reflected on our needs and well-being, we realised that we were unhappy. We clearly weren’t compatible enough to make it work. We filed for divorce as we preferred to be healthy and happy apart rather than unhealthy and unhappy together.”
“Underlying physiological issues and mental health issues can dictate behaviour,” says Parul Khona, a psychotherapist and counsellor based in Pune. “Couples usually come in to change each other because that is easier than looking within. It’s important to understand the ‘why’ behind certain behaviours and communication is essential for that,” Khona adds.
The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists reports that 98% of couples consider their relationship counselling process a success. Therapy has been effective and insightful for individuals irrespective of the stigma attached to it.
To understand what works for us and our partners in turbulent times, it’s necessary to seek an objective, unbiased view in a safe, supportive space. Couples therapy offers this anchor. While the motive can be to improve relationships, the goal is to develop healthier well-being together, or apart.
*names changed to maintain privacy
Kanishka N. is a freelance writer based in Pune.