Is the First Date Too Early for Couples Therapy?

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Why waste time fixing a flawed relationship when there’s plenty of time to find someone new? Photo: Joseph Rodriguez/Galley Stock

Brendan and Cate had been together just over a year when, at 23 and 21, they began to feel trapped. They shared an apartment in Fort Greene, which neither could afford alone, and a motorcycle that they kept on the porch. Minor disagreements had been spiraling into misery-inducing fights, but neither had been in a serious relationship before — much less a serious breakup. So when Cate proposed weekly sessions with a marriage counselor, Brendan agreed. The insurance co-pay was $30, cheaper than most dates. And so, pretty quickly into a relationship that began before both parties could legally drink, the pair became regulars at couples therapy.

Couples counseling has come a long way since “Can This Marriage Be Saved?,” the Ladies’ Home Journal column that introduced it to the American mainstream in 1953 by featuring case studies from a marriage-counseling clinic run by a divorce-phobic eugenicist named Paul Popenoe (who had no formal training but did believe strongly in the breeding power of the “better type” of Americans). These days, when therapy in general often functions as a short-term tool for specific problems and notions of romantic commitment are increasingly bipolar — pseudo-marriage growing while real marriage happens later and less often — pre­marital counseling is increasingly popular in the lead-up to a wedding, and so is counseling that starts before marriage is on the table. I know a 20-something couple who started therapy before graduating from college (and ended up in grad school intact). I know a 30-something couple who never discussed marriage directly until they were on a therapist’s couch (and who realized their goals were incompatible and broke up). The actress Kristen Bell started couples therapy “right away” after meeting now-husband Dax Shepard. In a joint interview with Good Housekeeping, Shepard characterized it as a preventive measure: “In my previous relationship, we went to couples therapy at the end, and that’s often too late.” And sometimes, couples counseling begins because neither party wants to admit when marriage is explicitly off the table. I recently met a pair of 24-year-olds who had been dating on and off since their tweens. To learn how to let go, they went to therapy together.

To some, this may sound ridiculous — self-centered young people talking about themselves incessantly, playacting at adulthood without accepting responsibilities. Why waste time fixing a flawed relationship when there’s plenty of time to find someone new? Several skeptics I spoke to characterized the practice as a wimpily millennial pursuit —  wanting a grown-up to hold your hand while you make a leap, wanting to check off all the boxes to prove you’ve done everything you could instead of taking ownership of your life. (At my middle school, “conflict resolution” was an activity you could sign up for at the counselor’s office.)

“If you need couples therapy before you’re married — when it’s supposed to be fun and easy, before the pressures of children, family, and combined financials — then it’s the wrong relationship,” my friend Stephanie says. “Been there, done that.” (Some names, including Stephanie’s, have been changed.) When a three-year relationship crumbled right when she was expecting to get engaged, Stephanie embarked on nine months of couples therapy at her boyfriend Evan’s request. But therapy actually made her feel more alienated: “I think he viewed therapy as an argument to win, making the case for ‘his side.’ But you can’t have opposite sides if you’re going to make a relationship work. You’re supposed to be a team.” Therapy functioned like a nine-month-long breakup. Eventually, though, they agreed to end it — and nine months later she met the man she would eventually marry. She has never gone to therapy with her husband.

Of course, as Dax Shepard would argue, by the time Stephanie entered couples therapy, it was probably too late — incongruous expectations had already undermined their relationship. At his midtown therapy practice, psychologist Craig Kafko has seen couples who have been together only two or three months. “In this city, there’s a lot of pressure on both women and men to get relationships going,” he says. “They go on one or two dates, and in individual therapy they’re already talking about what their life would be like with that person. When they come in, they’re making sure the foundation is there.”

Kafko, who is 36, proposed therapy before he proposed marriage to now-wife Michal, a nursery-school teacher. “Initially, I was put off,” Michal says. “I felt defensive, as if something was wrong. I took a few weeks to warm up to the idea. I tried to view it as a new experience. Plus, I was humoring Craig.” He was studying for his doctorate at the time, and the pair had just moved into a studio apartment together. Michal, an only child, wasn’t used to sharing space. Craig, a chatty extrovert, wanted her to share more of her thoughts: “I’m a therapist, what did you expect?”

“Getting into a relationship is like putting Miracle-Gro on your character defects, because everything is going to come out,” says Laura Young, a Manhattan therapist who estimates that 70 percent of the couples she treats are unmarried. “All your insecurities, all of your flaws. And the question is, can you tolerate it? And can you tolerate this person’s defects? And can you help each other to work on them in a loving way?” This struck me as very wise and also very unfair. Why should I be responsible for fixing my boyfriends’ problems? Because, Young explains, if you’re living as a couple, then you’re living with each other’s problems, each reflecting off the other. “Bottom line, we didn’t get these character defects by ourselves. We get them from relations with others. And we get our strengths from them, too.” What is her most important advice? “The most basic in communication is how to argue effectively and not disconnect,” she says. Several other couples I spoke to cited “how to fight” as the most valuable lesson of therapy — when one couple realized nighttime fights had triggered a cycle of sleeplessness and crankiness, they resolved to save relationship talks for daylight hours. “The ground rule is not to threaten to leave during a fight,” Young says. “If they want to discuss leaving, they can do it when they’re not fighting. It’s a weapon with a short shelf life.”

But isn’t there a value to storming out sometimes? When I look back at the relationships I had in my 20s, my only regret is that I didn’t end them sooner. If a relationship isn’t built to last, isn’t it better to cut your losses as quickly as you can? Stephanie’s nine-month breakup was one-quarter the length of the entire relationship. If she’d refused therapy, she could have had multiple rebound relationships in the time she spent miserably analyzing the failed one.

“I think sometimes people come and one person wants out and they’ll use therapy to help them make the break,” admits Rachel Sussman, a therapist who specializes in couples and family. This struck me, initially, as a sign of cowardice. Imagine being so afraid to admit that a relationship failed — or so afraid to make an ex-boyfriend-to-be cry — that you’d pay hundreds of dollars to get a professional to do it for you. And then I realized that if there were some sort of “get out of jail free” card for breakups, I would pay almost any amount of money to acquire it.

Still, I couldn’t find a single therapist who says he or she would help initiate a breakup in a session with clients. (Perhaps this is for the best. If we outsource our breakups, what will we write love songs about? Too much closure would mean destroying the great artistic resource of “the one who got away.”) But if therapists aren’t willing to dump someone for me, could they at least tell me whether a new date is working? Like Kafko, Young has treated couples who have been together as few as two months, but she’s never seen a couple who haven’t yet decided whether they even want to be a couple. “I’d be loath to say it’s ever too early for therapy,” she muses. “I’d go back to what they need and what they think they need. I mean, if they’ve only been on one date and want to do therapy?” She pauses to consider her own hypothetical question. “I’d want to know what happened on that date.”

*This article appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.