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When Will Marriage Counseling Not Work?

Updated: Jan 9

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Every year, thousands of couples go to counseling in an effort to save their marriage. In many cases, the strategies use in counseling, such as listening and communication, will help couples in the short term, but in some cases, they can be insufficient. It is also possible that a counselor lacks the skills and knowledge to work with couples who have serious problems in their marriage. Failing to understand the reasons for conflict and the resulting inability to move toward a resolution will force counselors to let the partners take turns talking week after week, with no end to the therapy, or to slowly lead them to divorce.

Although marriage counseling has proven effective for many couples, there are times when marriage counseling may not be your best option. Marriage counseling is not recommended for couples struggling with domestic violence or for those who are already “checked out” of the relationship. Couples struggling with active domestic violence are often recommended to attend individual therapy prior to engaging in couples therapy to ensure the safety of both individuals.

If one or both partners has “checked out” of the relationship, it is not likely that marriage counseling will be effective. It is important that both partners are on the same page and are committed to making positive changes in their marriage or relationship in order to see positive results.

Couples who are going through major problems and not getting along believe that marriage counseling is the way to go. While it’s not a bad idea to try marriage counseling, there are some times where it just won’t work. Let’s discuss some of these scenarios.

“Marriage counseling is just not working for us.”

People think that by just attending counseling, they will fix their marriage. Sessions will not automatically fix your problems and will not erase your past. Counseling will not magically bring you closer to your partner. Marriage counseling is just a tool that will help you better understand the roles you and your partner play in the relationship. Furthermore, mistakes and misconceptions around marriage counseling can cost your marriage.

For example:

1. Sessions are not going to do the work for you.

Marriage counseling is not going to magically erase the past or fix any problems with little or no effort from you. Marriage counseling will provide you with the tools to help you communicate better, but you and your partner also must put in the necessary work between sessions. Keep in mind that these changes take time and practice, and you need to invest in trying the new things you learn about in your sessions and be willing to make the effort.

2. Often, individual therapy is the best place to start.

Sometimes, individuals’ problems may be so serious that they affect the couple’s relationship. There are cases where a partner’s mental disorder is causing frustration in the marriage, while in other cases, trust issues from both partners shake the foundations of the relationship. Whatever the case, in times like these, individual therapy should be the first step.

3. Maybe you just haven’t found the right marriage counselor.

It is not uncommon that, the first counselor you visit will not be a perfect fit for you and your partner. The marriage counselor who fits your needs should make you both feel comfortable, feel seen and heard, and will assist you as per your specific needs. If your counselor is not meeting your needs, it is okay to find someone else. Therapy should work for you.

4. You are only there to tell your side of the story.

Marriage counseling should provide a safe space for both partners to express their thoughts and feelings. For marriage counseling to succeed, partners should understand that it is important to take turns expressing their thoughts. If a person is not there to listen to their partner’s thoughts, needs, feelings, and concerns, they may not find a way to help their relationship. Both partners need to be willing to listen and understand each other. Finally, understand that a counselor will not take anyone’s side, so you are not there to prove a point or win the case.

5. The purpose is not to change your partner to be the way you want.

In many cases, people enter marriage counseling because they feel that it will change their partner. In marriage counseling, you can only control yourself. Neither you nor a professional can force your partner to change. Instead of investing in counseling to try and change your partner, invest by acknowledging your behaviors in the relationship and pursue how you want to change to better your marriage.

6. Partners go into counseling with different agendas.

Marriage counseling will not work when the two partners have different agendas. For example, if one partner is more committed to doing the necessary work than the other is, then counseling is not going to work. If any of the partners is not completely honest, it’s not going to work, either. If one partner commits to counseling with the goal of divorce, then it is destined to fail. To make things work, both partners need to engage in counseling with the mindset that this process requires equal commitment and effort from both sides to succeed.

7. There is emptiness between the two of you.

When there are no emotions left, it is hard for any professional to revive the passion. Sometimes, when there really is no love left, partners need to make the hard decision to go their separate ways. Only then can healing be achieved.

Every situation is different, so it is important to do whatever suits your situation. If you still have questions or concerns, read on to have a look at more issues that can affect the success of marriage counseling:

An Abusive Marriage

Marriage takes time and effort to work. If one partner is abusive, marriage counseling is not the solution you need. Don’t waste your time; seek help from your loved ones to get out of your abusive marriage.

Substance Abuse

Addiction can have physical and psychological effects on individuals but can also have devastating effects on a marriage. The partner who suffers from addiction often denies being the problem in the relationship. Substance abuse puts a lot of pressure on the marriage and often leads to distancing and isolation. Furthermore, substance abuse frequently leads to financial issues, which, in turn, will put even more strain on the marriage.

No Trust

Trust is fundamental to all relationships, especially marriage. If the trust is broken in a marriage, the relationship will also break. Sometimes, trust can be repaired, but most of the time, it requires belief and effort from both people. For example, one person must be willing to take responsibility, and the other person has to be willing to forgive.

Bad Habits

People who display problematic behaviors in their marriage, such as contempt and disrespect, can cause resentment and anger on both sides. Those who put in the effort to change these habits and employ healthy communication and understanding can fix their marriage. Couples who can’t or choose not to, will see their marriage end in divorce.

More Bad Memories Than Good

Happily married couples display their happiest moments around their home. On their anniversaries, partners reminisce about all the good times they have had together over the years. Partners who remember more bad times than happy ones will fall apart. In addition to lack of trust or willingness to change from the couple in therapy, there are mistakes that counselors can make that can impact the effectiveness of marriage counseling.

Mistakes Marriage Counselors Make

  • Lack of Structure

The most common mistake made by counselors is providing too little structure. Some counselors allow sessions to generate a lot of negativities, which leads to zero change. Partners will interrupt each other and talk over each other while the counselor loses control. Finally, the counselor loses hope and ends counseling, while the partners lose hope in turn.

  • No Plan for Change

Counselors may play it safe by neglecting to recommend changes to the couple’s day-to-day life. Good counselors will give out homework, while a bad counselor doesn’t pursue change.

  • Thinking All Couples Are Equal

Counselors who believe that all couples are the same will not be able to meet their needs, and are doomed to fail. It is a fact that all couples are different. For example, married couples with children have different dynamics than married couples without children. Inexperienced counselors may apply the same or similar treatment plans to all their clients. Failing to meet a couple’s unique needs will cause counseling to fail.

  • Making Things Complicated

A marriage counselor who fails to explain things in a simple way that’s easy to understand will make repairing the relationship seem more difficult than it really is.

  • Choosing Sides

Resolving issues and healing a wounded marriage requires objectivity on the part of the counselor. Good marriage counselors understand that unconditional positive regard for both partners is of the utmost importance. Bad counselors may take sides and favor one partner over the other during counseling, which can be destructive to the marriage.

Does that mean that marriage counseling fails all the time?

A wide range of issues can be worked out through counseling, especially if you feel like you have the same arguments over and over again, you feel isolated, or if sex and intimacy are just not there anymore. But it also won’t work if one or both partners are not genuinely committed to the counseling process. Healing the wounds in your marriage and improving your relationship is a slow process, but it doesn’t have to go on forever. Marriage counseling is a healthy way to work through problems in your marriage; you just need to truly want to be an active part of it. If you don’t see your marriage reflected in any of the above situations, then with hard work and commitment, there is hope.

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