Marriage counseling can unlock great relationships
From its first episode, the TV show “Big Little Lies” had me hooked with its sentimental storytelling and sublime cinematography. Set in the poetic coastal city of Monterey in California, the show portrays the lives of five women who harbor various secrets, from infidelity to depression. The character that most caught my attention was the graceful Celeste Wright, who seemingly has the perfect, coveted life: She’s a beautiful retired lawyer, married to a doting, wealthy husband, with two adorable twin boys, and lives in a gorgeous beachfront mansion. However, these fairytale vignettes slowly darken into moments of physical abuse by her volatile and violent husband, Perry. In the first season, Celeste decides to go for marriage counseling, in the hope of salvaging her marriage. The counselor urges her to re-evaluate her notion of love and how her husband might pose a safety threat to her and the children.
The show’s deft script explores the nuances of relationships, far from the ephemeral romances portrayed in popular culture. In reality, a lot of the successful and beautiful romances we see are a result of conscientious effort and work from both parties. In her recently published memoir, “Becoming,” former First Lady Michelle Obama credits marriage counseling for helping her to better understand herself and her husband; leading her to have more control over her happiness and enjoy her near-three-decades-long marriage.
Of course, there is nothing more blissful than being married to the love of your life, yet we need to honor this by educating ourselves in the art of loving. The sad reality is that many marriages end up in divorce due to a number of reasons, such as lack of harmony, financial strains, weak communication, and infidelity. In 2017, the Statistics Centre Abu Dhabi reported that nearly a third of marriages did not last one year, while more than half of divorces were filed in the first three years. In 2018, Saudi Arabia reported 58,049 cases of divorce, while Kuwait reported 7,869 cases.
Investing time and effort in understanding how a marriage can thrive is possibly one of the best things you can do for your partner and for yourself. Research shows that happily married couples live longer, healthier and more fulfilled lives than either divorcees or those who are unhappily married. Research by Lois Verbrugge and James House of the University of Michigan found that an unhappy marriage can increase your chances of getting sick by roughly 35 percent and even shorten your life by an average of four to eight years.
Marriage counselors use a combination of evidence-based tools to help couples improve the quality of their relationship. A qualified marriage therapist can provide guidance on skills such as understanding one another’s needs, fostering friendship, resolving conflict, nurturing affection for one another, and creating a fulfilling life together.
“Learning the necessary skills and tools to have a healthy relationship in the 21st century is important,” says Dr. Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The Lighthouse Arabia, a community mental health clinic in Dubai. She explains how therapists use different tools and methods to evaluate “the health of a relationship, which then highlights the areas that the couple needs to work on.”
Though it might involve an intense journey of unlearning destructive habits and learning new, more effective ones, it is well worth the effort. It is even advisable to enroll in relationship counseling sessions as early as possible to avoid the build-up of negative emotions and experiences. Yet, according to relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, unhappy couples wait an average of six years before getting any sort of counseling.
Happily married couples live longer, healthier and more fulfilled lives.
Recognizing the importance of the family unit in contributing to well-being, municipalities in Denmark have recently started offering relationship counseling services in an effort to reduce divorce rates. For example, the municipality of Ringkobing-Skjern provides free counseling to parents who are struggling with their relationships if their children are under the age of 18, in addition to offering five free relationship counseling sessions to strengthen their marriages. This resulted in a drop in the number of divorces by 17 percent.
Likewise, in Singapore, the Ministry of Social and Family Development offers the “Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Programme” (PREP), which is based on relationship research conducted over 30 years. Studies indicate that couples who attended PREP reported higher levels of positive communication, increased interaction, and greater confidence in managing their relationships.
The Ministry of Community Development in the UAE recently launched the Taalouf (harmony) initiative, which is a nationwide family counseling program. Other local entities, such as the Judicial Department in Abu Dhabi and the Community Development Authority in Dubai, also offer free family counseling sessions in an effort to reduce the high divorce rate.
Marriage counseling is an effective method to safeguard and strengthen relationships so that families can create a more fulfilling, loving life together.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.