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Unlocking The Mystery – Couples Therapy London Vs. US – Why Do Brits Wait?

Written by: Shan Merchant, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Shan Merchant

In pursuit of salvaging their marriage, countless couples across the globe turn to couples therapy. What's fascinating to me – especially as an NZ-born couples therapist working worldwide via Zoom – is the difference in couples' readiness (or reluctance) to repair their relationship according to the country in which they live.

Young couple having session with psychologist at office.

Across the UK, which is where I'm based, couples therapy is often viewed as the 'last-chance saloon' for couples in crisis. Sadly, this rings true in my own therapy practice and those of my colleagues. For Brits, couples therapy is usually a desperate, eleventh-hour effort made before filing for divorce. The average British marriage lasts 12 years.

However, in the US the story is very different. Couples typically seek help much earlier, tending to wait an average of just 2.68 years before going to couples therapy to fix or strengthen their relationship.

Does this mean couples in the UK are prepared to stay 3-4 times longer in unhappy relationships and risk divorce or an affair? I'll report my findings in this article, but first, let's explore the reasons a couple might shy away from going to couples therapy...

Why do UK couples wait to go to couples therapy?

Research shows that couples therapy positively impacts 70% of couples receiving treatment. So why would a couple wait? Here are a couple of reasons:

1. Seeking therapy reflects weakness

The perception that couples therapy indicates "we're not strong or capable enough to work through things on our own" can stop couples from seeking help. They fear that acknowledging the need for therapy somehow reflects negatively on their ability to handle their relationship problems independently. There can also be fears about "airing their dirty laundry" in public, fear of being judged and relinquishing their privacy.

This misconception creates a shame game where couples avoid therapy to maintain the appearance of a perfect relationship. However, therapy isn't a sign of weakness; it's a sign of strength to take a proactive step towards improving something, especially when that 'something' is building a healthier, stronger relationship.

2. Not wanting to admit or confront problems

Pretending that relationship issues don't exist and avoiding confrontation is common, particularly when one partner is conflict-averse. Unresolved conflicts, emotional disconnection, or infidelity left unaddressed can lead to further damage in the relationship. Couples therapy provides a safe space to acknowledge and work through these issues constructively.

3. Normalising conflict

For many of us, we're taught from day one that a little drama in our love lives is all part of the package. You likely saw it first-hand in your parents' relationship growing up. We've all heard phrases like, "all couples fight; it's no biggie", or "rows are just blowing off a little steam".

This kind of chit-chat leads many of us to write off the real struggles in our relationship. We dismiss the hard times as just another standard relationship speed bump. Life goes on, careers progress, children arrive, financial pressures mount, and your relationship – whatever state it's in – starts to gasp and heave under all that weight.

At this point, many couples in the UK shrug and say to themselves: "This is just what being in a relationship is like," rather than missing the flashing neon sign that they've entered the Power Struggle stage of their relationship.

The Power Struggle is a pivotal stage of a love relationship that all couples go through, whether you're young, old, with or without children, straight, gay, or anything in-between. Whether you get stuck in the Power Struggle or pass through unscathed is all down to whether you possess the relationship and communication skills to navigate your way through it.

4. Blaming your partner 100%

"It's him you need to fix," is a common sentiment in couples therapy. Those types of partners are shocked when I tell them they have contributed just as much to their relationship unrest as their partner.

In fact, it's such a common misconception to believe that relationship problems are solely the fault of one partner that it can make couples super resistant towards going to therapy. Partners think, "Why should I go to therapy when they're the one causing the issues?"

In reality, both partners are constantly contributing to the quality of the relationship. That unique mix of energy and emotions between them, such as the positivity or negativity, love, empathy, tension, and anger, is a 50:50 deal, and I encourage each partner to ask themselves, "What’s my 50% contribution to our relationship dynamic?"

5. The myth of effortless love

Some individuals believe that true love should be effortless. "If a relationship requires work, it's not meant to be." This myth can lead to premature relationship endings or avoidance of therapy. Dr. John Gottman's insight is crucial here—every relationship faces challenges, and it's the effort invested in addressing those challenges that can lead to growth and a stronger bond.

Does couples therapy work?

Research shows that couples therapy positively impacts 70% of couples receiving treatment. The study showed that 'the effectiveness rates of couple therapy are vastly superior to control groups not receiving treatment'. Another study showed that imago relationship therapy helped couples experience increased empathy and relationship satisfaction.

That's the hard scientific data.

Anecdotally, I can tell you from my own practice that, yes, couples who are prepared to take responsibility for their share of their relationship strife, and learn new skills to be more open, vulnerable, positive, and self-reflective, can completely transform their relationship into something 'more beautiful for having been broken'.

The top 3 skills you will learn in Imago Couples Therapy

Imago Couples Therapy – the branch of couples therapy I'm certified in – gives all couples a simple, predictable path to transforming their relationship. For couples on the brink of divorce, it's simple but not easy. For couples who just want to improve an already 'OK but not perfect' relationship, many of them find the process extremely enjoyable.

The top 3 skills you will learn are

1. How to listen

The first thing you will learn in Imago couples therapy is how to listen to your partner without butting in, shaking your head, or talking at all. You will learn to listen to them as if you were an objective observer, listening to a fellow human being with wants, needs, hurts, and hopes. You don't have to agree with what they're saying, you must just... listen.

Sounds easy?

It's not. In fact, it's nigh on impossible to do at first, when your relationship has been caught in a vortex of blame, criticism, withdrawing, nagging, and you feel wounded by your partner. Couples start off with their arms resolutely folded. The listener can't resist reacting in some way to what they are hearing. My partner and I were like this when we first started.

However, in a concerted effort to break the deadlock, we eventually laid down our weapons. We tried listening without reacting, without clinging on to our side of things. And slowly I started to hear that my partner was a separate person from me, with a separate truth to me, but a truth that was as equally valid as mine. She wasn't deliberately not giving me what I wanted, and she didn't have an agenda other than avoiding pain.

This is the kind of shift in thinking that I encourage couples to move towards. From reactive, to ready to listen (although not necessarily to agree). This is progress!

Jedi Listening Skills: You know you've mastered the listening skill when you can practice Peaceful, Empathic Listening, when you completely accept that your partner's behaviour makes sense within the context of their past and their childhood hurts.

2. How to talk

Can you speak to your partner without blame, criticism, or negativity? Can you control your tone of voice – staying calm and discussing why you're feeling anger without acting angry?

Again, this is extremely difficult when you're in the Power Struggle stage and you don't know how you got there. There are invisible relationship wounds that need to be repaired. We've built up ways of thinking about our partner that can't easily be forgotten or erased. Those engrained thoughts translate into an unforgiving or contemptuous tone of voice – or a complete lack of energy that our partner finds infuriating.

Then there's our non-verbal communication; it can pack a punch 10x as powerful as our words.

So, can you keep your facial expressions and body language free of eye rolls, shrugs, eyebrow raises and jaw clenching? Can you keep your body language positively neutral enough to convey empathy and understanding?

In relationships more than any other realm, actions speak louder than words. I sometimes hold a mirror up to my couples' faces so they can see the kind of expressions they're making to their partner. This can be revelatory!

In imago therapy, we learn how to talk calmly and as openly as possible about our emotions, our hurts. We learn to be vulnerable so that our partner can finally empathise. Through learning how to talk like this in couples therapy, you will be able to work through all the core issues in your relationship so you can repair what has happened, come back into connection, and get the love you really want.

Jedi Talking Skills: Can you speak to your partner about the most contentious topics – money, parenting, household responsibilities – without blame, criticism, or negativity? Can you do it calmly, knowing that you will reach some type of understanding that will lead to progress?

Do you look forward to discussing conflicts because you know you will both grow and benefit? Congratulations, this is advanced communication and is the sign of a highly evolved team of two – what I call a 'Power Couple'.

3. How to think objectively

I've talked about two external skills – listening and talking, which are the two essential actions of communication. But your thoughts and beliefs are your core inner truths that underpin the words you say and how you listen.

In Imago Couples Therapy there is a central theory underpinning the practical skills I teach in session. I explain it in detail in my book, From Power Struggle to Peaceful Couple. What you will learn in those pages gives you the fuel to think differently, about your partner, about yourself, and about life. And when you think differently, you act differently.

When you know, for example, that all relationships go through a Power Struggle stage, and if you were to end this relationship and start a new one, you would meet the Power Struggle again just in a slightly different guise… you start to think very differently.

For my partner, this was all the impetus she needed to recommit and do the work to salvage our relationship.

Why do all relationships go through the Power Struggle stage?

Because when you're in the container of a long-term relationship, and you inevitably leave the Honeymoon Phase, all your childhood hurts of 'Am I good enough?', 'Do you really love me?', 'Can I trust you?' come up to be healed.

But we're not taught what to do when this happens. We act out. We freak out. We start to question, are we really supposed to be together? Maybe I chose the wrong person?

Recognising the signs: When to go to couples therapy

UK couples, I implore you not to wait so long before coming to a couples therapist. Notice the following signs and book a session with me, or another Imago Couples Therapist:

1. Endless bickering and escalating conflict

Frequent and increasingly intense arguments with no resolution in sight. Couples I meet often tell me that they go round and round in circles at home without being able to resolve their conflicts.

2. Destructive communication

Nasty or hurtful communication habits such as blaming, frequent criticism, defensiveness, or disrespect for one another, often demonstrated through sarcasm, mockery, or condescending language and expressions that erode emotional connection and trust.

3. Emotional distance

A growing sense of emotional detachment and loneliness within the relationship.

4. Trust and commitment issues

Struggles with trust, commitment, and valuing each other's well-being equally.

5. Attachment insecurities

Insecurities rooted in low self-worth and abandonment fears, which can manifest as extreme dependence that can feel suffocating or intrusive. Or extreme independence, where the partner doesn't feel like they are important or a priority.

6. Feeling unsupported

Feeling neglected, unheard, unloved, or dismissed by your partner.

7. Intimacy problems

A lack of sexual desire, minimal sexual intimacy, or infrequent discussion about intimacy. A big cause of sexlessness in marriages is due to a lack of emotional safety caused by lots of negativity, such as criticising, blaming, or endless bickering.

8. External stressors

Challenges stemming from external factors like in-law conflicts, financial worries, friendship issues, work-related stress, or health concerns.

9. Affairs

Effective communication is crucial when dealing with the aftermath of an affair and understanding the root causes. Affairs are often symptoms of deeper issues within the relationship, such as unmet needs, emotional disconnection, or unresolved conflicts. Therapy helps uncover these underlying issues and addresses them constructively.

10. Parenting conflicts

Disagreements related to parenting styles that consistently lead to conflict.

11. Financial issues

Ongoing mismanagement and disagreements regarding finances.

12. Household inequity

Feeling that the division of household chores and responsibilities is unfair, imbalanced, or not appreciated.

13. Mental health challenges

Unaddressed anxiety and depression issues that complicate the relationship dynamics.

14. Unequal decision-making

A sense that decision-making within the relationship is heavily skewed toward one partner.

15. Childhood trauma

Lingering emotional wounds from difficult childhood upbringings that hinder trust, engagement, and conflict resolution in the relationship.

These signs can serve as valuable indicators that couples therapy or marriage counselling may be beneficial, offering a path toward healthier communication, conflict resolution, and overall relationship satisfaction.

What to do if your partner rejects the idea of couples counselling?

If your partner is resistant to the idea of attending couples therapy, try not to be disheartened. It's crucial to communicate effectively about the concerns and misunderstandings they might have about therapy. Position it not to highlight flaws, but as a tool for fostering understanding, improving communication, and strengthening the bond between you two.

It can be helpful to emphasize the benefits that couples experience from therapy.

Some ideas:

You could suggest it's just like going to a personal trainer at the gym, but instead of getting coaching to improve your body, it's for your relationship.

Be patient and allow your partner the time to warm up to the idea.

If they remain reluctant, you might consider starting with individual therapy sessions. Many therapists in London offer individual sessions as part of their couples therapy programme. By opening up first, you could inspire your partner to eventually do the same.

Jedi tactic (requires extreme self-discipline): Flood your partner with love and positivity over a sustained period of several weeks. Eliminate all negativity. If your relationship has been beset with negativity, this will shock and stun your partner. If – and only if – you’re able to continue this over a few weeks, they will start to mirror your behavior. They will ask: what has changed? You will say: "I got some amazing ideas from a couples therapist, want to try it?"

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!

Shan Merchant Brainz Magazine

Shan Merchant, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Shan is a relationship coach and couples therapist who takes professional couples from the brink of divorce to peaceful, reconnected, and unafraid of conflict in 90 days or less. Shan teaches couples a simple communication skill that takes them from the ‘Power Struggle’ to the ‘Peaceful’ stage of their relationship. Testimonials from her clients across the globe range from, “We put our wedding rings back on,” to “Things are a million times better between us.”



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