I get requests for therapy from a lot of young couples. This surprised me at the beginning. When I was first learning about working with couples I read that couples often don't seek help until their patterns of negative interaction have been set for six years or more. I expected to see a lot of couples in their late thirties or forties with kids. Instead, many of the couples I see have been together for two to five years and are without children. At first it was hard for me to get my head around the idea of people in their twenties seeking couple's therapy three years into a relationship. The conflicts they bring to therapy are not the long-standing, cumulative resentments of a couple who have been together for fifteen or twenty years. And without kids in the mix the collateral damage of choosing to end a relationship rather than work on changing difficult patterns is definitely less. But when I speak with them, most of these young couples describe real challenges. The value they place on their relationships is usually high. And as one client told me, "We want to get this right, now, to set a strong foundation."
There are probably a couple of reasons why I see more young couples than I expected, more than perhaps I would have seen if I was practicing twenty years ago. One, I work on a sliding scale, so young couples with less disposable income who are looking come my way. Two, stigma around couple's therapy may have decreased. The third factor, I think, is generational. Unlike previous generations, people in their twenties and early thirties have been living with the sense that lifelong couple-hood is unlikely to succeed. They have grown up with the idea that as many committed long-term relationships fail as succeed (the much bandied 50% divorce rate number for the US has never been that meaningful. The odds of a particular relationship staying together for life are probably higher. A 2005 article in the NYT article gives a good run down of the difficulties with the 50% number). They have seen long-time married couples at close range that were full of anger and hurt, either their parents or friends of their parents. It is my sense that many of the young couples I see, feel that they are doing something very nearly counter-cultural and difficult by trying to stay together and stay loving for the long haul. Viewing staying together in a loving relationship as hard may make some couples more likely to seek help earlier that they otherwise might.