CEDAR RAPIDS — When it comes to couples counseling, Jennifer Gage believes “the sooner the better.”
The Marion-native marriage and family therapist half-joked it would be ideal if she could get couples in to see her on their first date. That way, she could help build a proper foundation for their relationship.
“A lot of times people wait to the point where there’s so much resentment and anger that there’s not a lot there to work with,” she said. “When they get here, they’re desperate. They’re scared. They want to hold onto what they have and they’re just out of options ... They feel stuck.”
In November, Gage formed the Cedar Rapids Relationship Center with her business partner, Rhonda Estling, a Vinton-native, after the two graduated with Master’s degrees from Mount Mercy’s marriage and family therapy program. In school they’d often work together on group projects, where they found they had similar philosophies when it comes to therapy.
Although there were a number of mental health and other therapy offices in the area, they “wanted to do something different” by opening a private practice that focused only on relationships and couples — including married, unmarried, traditional and non-traditional couples.
“A lot of therapists don’t like to do couples therapy because it’s hard,” Gage said. “And not all couples can come back together.”
But research shows improving your relationships can improve other areas of your life, including depression and anxiety, she said.
Every couple is different, but the most common problem the two see is poor communication.
“A lot of times couples get caught up in, ‘I have to say the right words’ or ‘say things the right way,’ but you’re never going to be able to say the right words all the time,” she said.
Instead of “getting lost in assumptions,” couples need to “be more direct about what they need,” and “give up the notion that if someone loves (them) they can read (their) mind and know how (they) feel,” she said.
But conflict can come in many forms, including intimacy.
“Pretty much all of the couples I see have some sort of issues in the bedroom,” Estling said, explaining that those issues will affect the rest of their relationship.
“A lot of therapists aren’t comfortable talking about sex, so they kind of skip over it. But if we don’t bring it up, our clients aren’t going to bring it up, and it’s a big part of people’s lives. It can’t be ignored,” Gage said.
Estling said she’s always felt comfortable talking about sex, and usually people feel comfortable talking to her about it, too, but “a lot of times couples just don’t know how to bring it up,” she said. So she usually starts with an icebreaker that “normalizes” the topic.
“Letting them know that it’s normal is an important part of the process,” she said. “It makes it OK for them to talk about it. And we hear a lot of things in our office, it’s kind of hard to surprise us anymore.”
People are afraid to be vulnerable, Gage added. But when they “open that door,” that’s where couples can “really feel connected” and “truly support and understand one another on deeper levels.”
But when it comes to couples counseling, there’s “no sugar coating,” she said. “When you have two people in the room, you can’t twist the truth because someone’s going to call you on it.”
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And unlike individual therapy, Gage said she’s able to work on the problem right there in the room.
“I’m not talking about something at home that might be going on. I can see it right here in front of me. If they’re having a fight, I can say, ‘Show me how you talk about it,’” she said. “Sometimes you just need an outside perspective to help figure out where the wires are crossed.”