Irene Wu, 28, and Dillon Tang, 24, hadn’t been together a year when they first started couples therapy. The couple, from Los Angeles, started seeing each other in the early days of lockdown, when severe growing pains set in. They found themselves constantly arguing, and their differing communication styles left both of them confused. Specifically, says Wu: “Dillon appeared to “not give a fuck about anything, while I give a lot of fucks.
“We were almost going to call it,” Wu remembers. But then, something changed. “I was telling Dillon about my therapy appointment one day, and he asked, ‘So when are we going to do couples counselling?’”
Wu and Tang didn’t share a child, a pet, or even a bedroom. The length of their commitment itself could have easily allowed for a clean break, yet instead, they self-prescribed couples counselling.
A decade ago the young couple might have been considered an anomaly, but Wu and Tang represent the millions of millennials for whom professional help has become fundamental to mental health maintenance. The American Psychiatric Association recently reported 37% of Gen Z have sought counseling, followed closely by millennials at 35%, and therapists believe the shift to viewing mental health as something that needs to be maintained – rather than only attended to in a crisis – has changed the way younger people view their relationships, too.
“In general, younger generations tend to feel less shame around seeing a therapist and are into self-improvement and sharing feelings,” says Simone Bose, a couples counsellor for Relate, a UK couples counselling charity. “Often one of them has had individual therapy before and suggests attending relationship counselling together,” she says.
Lisa Hochberger clientele’s reasons for therapy vary, but recently, almost all have shared one commonality: like Hochberger herself, they’re under 35.
“Young people don’t want to turn to alcohol, food, drugs, or partying to keep them calm anymore,” she says. “These young people want to prevent themselves from living a life like their parents who may have not had access to their unconscious pain and trauma.”
That is borne out by the numbers: one 2017 survey by MidAmerica Nazarene University put the number of millennials aged 23 to 38 who had attended couples counseling at 51%, with couples aged 25 to 30 making up the majority of those attending therapy. And in 2018, counseling charity Relate revealed a 30 percent increase in UK clients under 40-years-old in four years.
But while married couples usually take at least six years to seek professional help with issues in their relationships, the pandemic may have sped things up, forcing couples into early cohabitation and quarantine with one another.
Missourians Emily, 28, and Katie, 31 (surnames have been omitted for privacy), were dating for two years and living separately when they first sought therapy. Faced with the prospect of moving in together during the pandemic, the two couldn’t come to an agreement. Emily thought moving in was the natural next phase of their relationship (plus, it would bring cheaper living expenses), while Katie pulled back. Upon reaching an impasse, Emily gave Katie three options: prove you love me and live with me, break-up, or solicit external advice. They chose option three.
“The issue that brought us in turned out to be connected to a whole slew of other ‘issues’, as most trauma responses are,” says Emily. “A lot of things have arisen that I wouldn’t have ever predicted we’d be talking through, which is really terrifying and intimate.”
The pair were forced to address the disparities in their approaches to monogamy, finances and even friendships. Emily needed stability and control, while Katie closely guarded her freedom.
“We were kind of at this fork in the road that if something didn’t change between us, we were definitely heading towards breaking up,” adds Katie.
After Katie and Emily’s first session, a sense of relief set in.
“To have someone there to help us feel validated and to be there for our relationship, felt great,” Emily explains. “It’s like how yoga instructors always say, ‘Thank yourself for making it to the mat today.’ I feel just committing to showing up for the therapy process was such a huge turning point for us.”
Couples therapy has also become more visible in popular culture over the last five years – with a growing number of wildly popular books, podcasts and television shows that allow viewers to see the therapeutic process as real couples go through it. From Esther Perel’s Where Should we Begin to Couples Therapy and Love, Sex, Goop, these shows provide a nuanced depiction of therapy; who needs it; and what for – breaking the taboo over doing it.
That is in stark contrast to the romantic beliefs that many millennials grew up with. Between Victorian literature and the modern Hollywood rom-com, the concept that our significant other should be “ideal in every way” has been sold to us for centuries. Now recognizing these beliefs as unrealistic, young people are recruiting outside help to reset their expectations.
“All relationships begin with fantasy,” says Laura Day, author of the bestselling self-help book Welcome to Your Crisis. The fantasies include how the relationship will change us, how the other will make us feel, how couplehood will ease our individual vulnerabilities and challenges – and all of that lasts only as long as the fantasy does.”
For our ancestors, that fantasy gave way to a resigned discontent.
“Older generations think of therapy as a treatment to mental illness, you must have some issue and be mentally ill to seek a therapist,” explains relationships counsellor Lia Holmgren. “Now, couples who are in love are worried it might end and can learn communication techniques and understand each other better at the beginning.”
Chelsea, a 31-year-old communications consultant based in New York, was happy in her relationship when she decided to go into therapy. But with marriage on the cards, she and her partner wanted to put their “best foot forward”.
“As well as we know each other, we don’t typically have a forum to talk about how we feel, how we were raised or what specific issues we’d like to work on in our relationship,” she says. “I feel like couples therapy has an unfair reputation for being a last resort, but if you’re going to therapy with your partner as a last resort it might be too late.”
One year into therapy, Wu admits she and Tang are “very different people” than when they started dating. Their therapist frequently pushed the pair to unravel any past arguments from the week prior and identify its catalyst. Within the first few sessions, Irene says they reverted back into the “honeymoon phase”. While at times, Dillon may feel unappreciated and Irene misunderstood, therapy has given the couple with the tools to articulate these emotions.
Chelsea believes therapy to be the “best investment” she and her husband have made to their partnership. “What started as a premarital project with a finite timeline turned into something that’s been fully integrated into our everyday lives.”
Emily and Katie have continued with therapy, and are now approaching the six month mark with their therapist. Commitment anxiety has dissipated and the pair have since moved in together. “I feel closer to Katie than I ever have felt,” says Emily. “I don’t want to say it feels invincible but it definitely makes me feel a lot more present and loving.”
After 12 sessions, the initial lack of communication that plagued Irene Wu’s relationship has greatly improved. She has learned her triggers, how to prevent past trauma from informing her behavior, and that her boyfriend’s nonchalance should not be confused with disinterest.
“We accept and love each other for our differences,” Wu explains. “I’ve been more patient and he’s been learning how to empathize with my emotions more. At the end of the day, we both want the same thing.”