When Marriage Counseling Fails: A Cautionary Tale

Dr. Melissa Hudson, MS, PhD, LMFT-Supervisor on Mar 28, 2023 in Relationship and Family

Imagine you are ill, really ill, and you don't quite know what to do. No garden-variety over-the-counter pill will relieve what you have. And day after day, it gets worse... and worse. You're becoming really concerned. It's impacting your work, your energy levels, your sleep, your mind, your interactions with your kids... How long until you go to the doctor? 

Well, we know how long couples in distress wait to seek help... Six years! SIX YEARS! Would we ever wait that long to attend to any other obstacle in our lives? Of course not!

So six years of built up resentment, hurt, bitterness, and then what? Often when couples decide to come to counseling, the research reveals couples expect four sessions of therapy to repair their relationship. Most sessions are 50 minutes... That's three hours and some change to course-correct what has often taken years to create. So that, too, is a completely unrealistic expectation that will lead couples to believe if therapy isn't working after four sessions, there's something wrong with this marriage or the therapist or both. Neither of which may be true.

Another challenge to couples counseling is when one person, unbeknownst to his/her partner, is not committed to the relationship anymore. Often dragged, cajoled, or coerced into therapy as the "last chance" before splitting, this sort of couple is really asking the therapist to perform a miracle. Sure, doubt and fear and even a feeling of hopelessness are not uncommon when beginning couples counseling, and those can be worked with, but when there is a lack of commitment by one party, the therapist and the unwitting spouse are paddling upstream. Therapy is not a miracle; it's a tool to help you learn, grow, and do the work on yourself and relationships.

Another common approach is that one or both members of the couple choose not to work on the relationship outside of sessions. They also may not be open to exploring their part of the challenges. One or both hopes that therapy will be a place where the therapist will decide and deem who needs "fixing" and who is right and wrong. First, no therapist, no matter how skilled, can fix you or your marriage. They can guide you to healthier interactions, teach practical relational skills, and highlight underlying emotions and issues that keep you stuck, which when all combined will lead to a happier, fulfilling relationship. Secondly, a good therapist will not mediate your arguments. That's not what we do. We also know that both parties have a part in creating the dynamic that exists in your relationship: Dynamics in relationships are always complimentary, and both partners contribute to creating the patterns. Your contribution might be 10%, but what's your 10%? Focusing on you in addition to understanding the overall relational dynamic (instead of vilifying your partner) will likely lead to better outcomes.

Finally, another reason marriage counseling often fails is that the therapist the couple selects has not received extensive training and education in working with couples. Wait, doesn't every therapist learn about working with couples? Nope, some learn more about one-on-one counseling with individuals. Only 18% of the therapists in the U.S. conducting couples therapy have actually had training in how to do the work. Most claiming to be competent to work with couples are trained in working with individuals and attempt to apply this training to the couples dynamic. It's not the same, not even a little. And the stakes are too high! Just take a look at the divorce rate in the U.S. Quality couples therapy is a must; therefore, finding a qualified couples counselor is imperative.

So how can couples avoid these pitfalls?

1. Make couples counseling a priority until your relationship is where you want it to be. Couples counseling should be the most important item on your calendar, so making time and being consistent is necessary. Momentum can be lost when too much time passes between sessions. Couples should consider if it's a good time financially to begin counseling as well. You are investing in your relationship and yourself, and your relationship is worth it. In order to honor the process and get the most out of it, the proper commitment and resources are necessary from the start.

2. Work on the relationship outside of sessions. Small shifts can make major changes. Don't wait for your partner to change — "Oh, I'll change when she does." Instead, take responsibility for your behavior and choices. Start integrating what you learn in session in your relationship. The therapist can provide tools, guidance, support, encouragement, and strategies, but only the couple can put it into action outside of sessions.

3. Have realistic time expectations. Your challenges did not form in just over three hours, and they cannot be solved in four sessions either. There is no set number of sessions, but the research cites that positive outcomes are often achieved between 12 and 22 sessions, depending on the presenting problems (and with a skilled clinician). At minimum, committing to attend 10 sessions and then evaluating progress is reasonable.

4. Be open to taking responsibility and also taking an honest look at yourself and the relationship. This is tough, no doubt, but this is where the answers lie — not with fault-finding in your spouse. Be open, curious, and vulnerable. That may feel foreign and new. A skilled therapist will lead the way.

5. Find a qualified couples counselor. Ask about their education and training in couples counseling specifically. Licensed marriage and family therapists exclusively study how to work with relational dynamics throughout their graduate studies. They are then required to practice with couples and families more so than individuals. Those with training as an individuals therapist (psychologists, LPCs, LCSWs) may take various days-long training post-graduation, which is a good start (Gottman levels 1-3; EFT training), but this needs to be supplemented with years of practice with couples. In your consultation call, ask what percentage of the therapist's caseload is couples. If they have a few couples in their caseload, that likely is not an area of specialty. Ideally, couples work is an area of specialty; it takes long-term focus and supervision to become effective in this area of practice.

Couples counseling can be life-changing and successful. It takes a combination of the right mindset and expectations from the client and a skilled, knowledgeable, and qualified couples counselor. Relationships are too important to allow them to flounder when there is an option that works.

Dr. Melissa Hudson is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Plano, TX.

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