Is Couples Therapy a Good Idea for Unmarried Couples?

Why people are seeking professional relationship guidance whether or not they’ve tied the knot

Lisa Arbetter
Elemental
Published in
4 min readAug 21, 2019

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Illustration: Ellie Ji Yang

RRegina and Steve (not their real names) met on a blind date almost five years ago, and they’ve been together ever since. “Our relationship was pretty serious from the beginning,” said Regina. “But there were certain things that clashed and caused some conflict.”

Most obvious was their age difference. “I was 25. I had never been in a serious, adult relationship,” she explained, “whereas Steve was 31. He had had pretty significant loves in his life before.” Then there’s their very disparate emotional support systems: Regina relies heavily on a large group of close friends while Steve, who is more private, primarily talks to his therapist and parents. And they’re total opposites when it comes to fighting. Steve hates to go to bed angry. Regina loves it. “I need to be on my side of the room. I need space,” she said.

A couple with differences? Not so unusual. But the fact that they are going to couples therapy to deal with them is — for two reasons.

First, they aren’t married, and though they’ve discussed the possibility, there are no plans in the works. Instead they fall into the rising number of Americans who are living together, about 18 million as of 2016 — up 29% from 2007, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

More cohabitation means more couples are finding themselves negotiating decidedly unromantic day-to-day issues. When which movie to see is replaced with whose turn is it to do the dishes, it can exacerbate existing problems and bring new ones to light. Yet only some therapists report seeing a sizable number of unmarried couples.

Andrew Erdman, a New York-based licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, has twice as many unmarried-couple patients as married ones. But Jean Fitzpatrick L.P., a relationship therapist also in Manhattan, said, “About three quarters of the couples I see are married. I’ve seen unmarried couples throughout my career. Quite a few were previously divorced. The younger couples I see are generally planning to marry.”

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Lisa Arbetter
Elemental

Freelance journalist and editor. Formerly EIC of StyleWatch and Deputy Editor of InStyle.