SALT LAKE CITY — Couples may need help at any stage of a relationship. But the fact that they might need some professional counseling early on doesn't naturally occur to people, says author and family therapist Jen Elmquist, even though being together is something new that sometimes takes a lot of adjustment, humor and goodwill to manage.
"By the time people got to me, it wasn't always too late, but there's a lot we had to work through to get them to a better place," she said.
"I like the concept of preventive medicine to your relationship. If things aren't going well, there's no reason to wait except you're afraid or you're unsure or sad. Maybe you don't even know that there's help out there for you. Doing preventive work early, whether it's education or dealing with a problem right away instead of letting it linger — that is key to having a relationship that can go the distance," she said.
Marriage and family therapist Jen Elmquist says even new couples may need help with their relationship. | Jamie Stoia, Jamie Stoia Portrait Design
Elmquist, a Minneapolis-based therapist whose book "Relationship Reset" was just released, knows personally, not just professionally, that couples can struggle even when their union is young, she told the Deseret News. She and her husband Jess faced problems not long into their life together, and their marriage was in real peril until they sought help and committed to work on it as a team. That marriage has endured now more than 25 years, but maintenance is an ongoing process for a strong relationship, she said.
In the book, Elmquist recounts the aftermath of seeking help and following through: "We have had seasons of great gain and times of distinct loss. We have experienced the joy of family and friends, mourned the death of family and friends, and navigated the tensions of family and friends. We have achieved significant accomplishments, given up unproductive dreams and rearranged careers. We have moved, built, sold, simplified, and filled albums of memories with ordinary moments and epic adventures. We have not done it perfect, right, or clean.
"Love is messy, and we have just done it together one season at a time. Through it all, we have trusted the process and believed in each other and for each other as stewards of each other’s souls. And we aren’t done yet — we are still chasing sunshine."
The Deseret News recently talked to Elmquist about the importance of maintenance and prevention early in a marriage. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: Was one message really important to you as you wrote the book?
Jen Elmquist: There are a few motivating factors behind what I am doing, but one is to destigmatize mental health and couples getting help.
I would say a relationship isn't any different than our physical and financial health. I would not go my whole life without seeing a doctor. I wouldn't expect to go my whole life and retire without having seen someone to help me with my finances. I think relationships are so similar to that. The sooner in your relationships that you are willing to reach out and get some support … maybe it is reading a book or doing something online or seeing someone — a mentor in your church or community.
It helps to have accountability from outside a relationship and also to learn what you just don't know.
DN: What's so challenging for couples starting out?
JE: The early days set the stage, not just for the foundation of the relationship long term, but for the issues that come up that are inevitable because they are natural in every relationship. Couples early on may need help understanding specific things, starting with what's normal in a relationship. Sometimes what's normal is interpreted as a problem and then it becomes one.
Couples may need help at any stage of a relationship. | Jenelmquist.com
DN: So what is normal?
JE: The first thing is change. A relationship does change, whether it's the beginning of the changes you see in the first 18 months — maybe where those good-feeling chemicals start to wear off and you are not attracted in the same way you were when you first started. That's normal.
There are changes that couples go through with natural life stages, too. Relationships change once you bring children into a family, which is a dramatic change for most couples. So, change is a big one.
The other one is conflict. Great research out there shows all couples are going to have three or four conflicts that are going to go the distance; you won't resolve them. You will have to agree to disagree. If you're with Tom, you're going to have an issue. If you leave Tom for Sam, you are going to have trouble with Sam. So finding a new partner doesn't change that fact. Conflicts are normal.
Once you understand that change is normal, you are going to feel it and it's going to be uncomfortable. Your relationship is going to change versions over the years and conflict is normal. You'll just have to learn how to do it really well. You can actually do things so change is not so difficult in your relationships, which is really empowering.
The beginning part of a relationship is about growing up together, whether you are getting married in your 20s or getting married in your 40s. You still have to grow up together in that relationship.
Another — and I think this is critical — is patterns.
DN: Are there different kinds of patterns?
JE: We all have drama patterns and we all have durable patterns — the roles we play in our childhoods growing up in our family. And when we get together in intimate relationships, we easily take on these roles: We play the fixer or we play the victim or we play a persecutor. We tend to play a role in the relationship with our partner, and we develop a pattern.
We're doing the same thing over and over. That is really natural in a relationship and you are going to find homeostasis or that comfort place. But it gets monotonous and can wear on a relationship.
DN: What can an individual do to strengthen a relationship early on?
JE: We don't come into a relationship with perfect partners and we may never become a perfect partner, but we can become a better partner. A lot of that is how one is able to manage oneself: How you manage your emotions and your own thoughts and communicate that with your partner in a way that (he or she) is able to hear and you can have a conversation.
We hear over and over "communication, communication, communication." But that first relationship, which is you with your spouse, is one of the most important places communication starts. If I'm not able to understand my own emotions and clearly communicate them with my partner, that's often where the breakdown begins within a relationship. In the book, I refer to "mind benders." You can be the change you want to see in a relationship by learning how to work with your own mind.
DN: You also write about "muscle builders." What are they?
JE: Those are the things that couples need to do together to strengthen and stabilize their relationship. Here's an example: There's a bit of research out there that says if you kiss your partner for six seconds or longer, it actually creates a deeper intimacy than a quick kiss on the cheek or a peck on the way out the door.
It's actually amazing; you can feel your whole body relax as you give over to that physical connection in a really different way.
Another that's simple is prayer for couples. How do you pray together, whether something specific to faith or the way you're meditating on the relationship? That kind of spiritual connection is (linked) to greater longevity in the relationship.
DN: Did you have role models of these things?
JE: My grandparents met in the 1940s right when my grandpa was heading off to World War II. They had one of those cherished relationships, together more than 60 years. Maybe a decade after my grandma passed away in 2003, I was talking to my grandfather and he said, "I was the last person she said anything to before she passed away. The last thing she said to me was, 'What about you?' That was how she loved me and that was how we loved each other."
I like the acronym of "What about you?" It's the way to be grounded in a relationship and in each other. Look at each other each day and say, "What about you?" If we have that reciprocity, what we are saying is you matter more than me. I can put you in front of me. I can set myself aside for your greater good."