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Why marriage counseling doesn't work

Oct 21, 2021

Three reasons marriage counseling doesn't work:

1. Characteristics of the Helper

One of those reasons is the person who is trying to help. Maybe it's a professional counselor, pastoral counselor, friend, family member: whoever is trying to help with your marriage. Oftentimes, they don't really know what they're doing. So they're basing their information on what they know from their own relationship. Although it may work in their relationship, it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work in yours.

Sometimes couples will go to the same counselor for years. I saw a couple who had been seeing another counselor for five years and made no progress. Their counselor very happily referred the couple to me knowing that couples are my specialty. So I’m talking with the couple, and I’m realizing that they just keep going around and around in the same loop. Talking with the previous counselor, I discovered that she really didn't like working with couples!

If you want to find a counselor who’s actually going to help, you need to make sure, first of all, that he or she has a clue what they're doing. That is the number one factor in whether or not couples counseling is actually going to be successful.

So many counselors think it's not any different than doing individual counseling. But it's tremendously different. You’re not only trying to help each person with their process, but you're trying to hold the marriage together at the same time. So you really have to know what you're doing.

A Word of Advice to Couple’s Counselors

If you're a counselor or you want to be a couple’s counselor or a marriage mentor or anything like that, you must realize that it takes a lot of energy to work with couples.

  • That means you need to be passionate. You’ve got to be excited about what you're doing if you want to help couples.
  • And you must have a really good image of the possibilities. If you feel desperate about relationships – maybe even your own relationship – then this is not an area that you want to visit: trying to help someone else. You will do more harm than good.

2. The Blame Game

Another time that couples counseling doesn't work is when the couple – one or both people in the relationship – cannot see or refuse to see their own role in their negative cycle. They stay caught up in the blame game, “Well, when you change, then I’ll change.”

I remember one particular couple going through workbook. We were talking about it together in session. They had to write down what they had contributed to the negative cycle. The woman wrote down things that she had done, and she would follow every one of them up with a statement:

“But I wouldn't have done that if he wouldn't have been doing this. If he would just cut that out, I would be totally fine. Because my life is beautiful. My life is wonderful. I have great relationships that I’ve had for a long time, and I don't have a problem. He does.”

She could not (refused to) see that her constant criticism of him was something negative. She was proactively doing that. Even when he wasn't “misbehaving,” she still criticized him about everything. The pattern she had established was that she was there to correct him. Constantly. Anything from how he bought groceries to whether or not he sat on the sofa in a way that didn't mess up her pillows. How can you not see that as a negative behavior and expect your spouse is not going to be wounded and react accordingly.

Her behavior and lack of self-awareness was mind-boggling. I worked with them for about a year and a half. I don't quit on people when I feel like there's hope in their relationship. It was very, very frustrating. I even tried working with him individually to help build up his strength so he could tell her what he needed from her and let her know how she was coming across. I also talked with her, and she would just get angry with me. Her attitude was always, “I don't have a problem.”

Are you looking for Effective Solutions?

  • If you think your spouse is the one with the problem, then what I teach is not going to be the best help for you.
  • I really do my best work when people really want to be together in the relationship. They love one another, and they're willing to look at themselves.

Jesus said (paraphrased)

“How dare you try to tell your brother that he's got a speck in his eye when you've got a log in yours that not willing to remove?”

I don't think he said it quite the tone that I just did, but you get the point.

We cannot expect someone else to change when we're not willing to change ourselves. It’s a tough place to be. I totally understand that, and managing two people that that are misunderstanding one another is challenging! That takes a lot of energy, so we’re kind of back to #1: You need to find a counselor who is optimistic about relationships and has lots of energy to step into that space with you. to help you create the connection that you both long for.

The Counselor needs to recognize your pattern without getting caught in it herself. I noticed several years ago that couples very often argued about the fact that they didn't think the other person wanted them as much as they wanted that person. That’s crazy-making. One couple arrived at their bottom-line questions:

  • His question was: “Do you want me?”
  • Her question was: “Is it me that you want?”

That sounds subtle, but it was a huge difference in their respective perspectives and how they reached out to one another.

3. Men and women are different.

Finally, we need to make sure – when we're working with couples or when you're looking for somebody to help you with your marriage – is you include the understanding that men and women are different. They always have been. They always will be.

Until we can understand that and embrace it as something that's God-given and beautiful, we're not going to get very far.

  • At best, we might be able to calm the conflict. The arguing might be a little bit less than before. But must begin to understand where your spouse is coming from.

I talk a lot to women. They need to understand where their guys are coming from. It’s hard for a woman to understand the way a man has to operate in the world. Plus, the way he was brought up as a boy is very different than what she’s been taught as a girl. Men start with different biology.

How can we ignore the fact that men and woman are wired so differently?

  • In fact, men are incredibly sensitive. They are more sensitive than women but they're sensitive to different things than women are. So that can be really confusing.
  • But men often don't even try to understand their wives because they don't think it's possible. It really is possible to understand her more than he does.

Questions:

  • What has your experience has been in marriage counseling?
  • What worked well?
  • What part wasn’t helpful?

If you don't feel comfortable leaving your answer in the comments below, feel free to send me a message through Facebook/DrDebiSmith.PsyD or Facebook/OCChristianCounseling. You can also email me here.

I look forward to hearing from you soon!