Does marriage counseling work? Here are four reasons counseling leads to divorce in some marriages, plus several options for couples who want to save their relationship. These suggestions will help you decide if marriage counseling might help save your relationship.
Whether or not marriage counseling works depends on several different factors, such as how willing you and your husband are to work on saving your marriage, the reason you’re seeking counseling, the counselor’s approach to marriage therapy, and how invested you – as a couple – are in the process.
The success or failure of marriage counseling also depends on your previous experience with therapy. I saw a counselor for nine months; it wasn’t until the third month that I realized how painful therapy is! When you truly face your issues, problems, weaknesses, failures and regrets you’re looking deep into the darkness of your own soul. And it’s not pretty.
Knowing what to expect from marriage counseling will prepare you, for better or for worse.
4 Reasons Marriage Counseling Leads to Divorce
Some people say marriage counseling “causes” divorce. This isn’t usually true…but therapy can expose problems and issues that aren’t easily resolved. If the couple refuses to or can’t work through their issues, then they may blame the counselor for causing a separation or divorce. But it wasn’t the counselor that destroyed the marriage; the marriage was already failing. The counselor simply uncovered the problems.
1. One or both partners aren’t honest with each other, themselves, or the counselor
One reason marriage therapy doesn’t work is because it’s hard to be honest. Telling the truth about your thoughts, feelings and actions makes you vulnerable. Being honest puts you at risk for shame, guilt, judgment and criticism. It’s especially hard to be honest if you believe the marriage counselor is on your husband’s “side.” Many husbands and wives feel ashamed, embarrassed, or reluctant to admit their true thoughts and choices. This creates obstacles in marriage counseling and the couple’s relationship. If divorce becomes the only healthy solution, it may seem like marriage counseling didn’t work.
2. Couples seek marriage counseling as a last resort
Couples who go to counseling usually have serious marriage problems that aren’t easily solved. The couple may not have learned how to resolve conflict, perhaps spending years avoiding or suppressing problems. Age-old resentments, disappointments and wounds can’t be solved in a counseling session or two. Apologies and honesty aren’t always enough to save a marriage – and neither is a counselor’s skills, education or experience. If a couple waits until the problems become deeply ingrained before getting help, then marriage counseling may not work for them.
3. Couples quit going to counseling too soon
Serious relationship problems often take years to develop, and need a great deal of time, effort, and energy to resolve. If the couple quits therapy after a few months and then separates, it could appear that the counseling didn’t work. Some couples blame the counselor for the divorce. In reality, it was the fact that the couple didn’t work on their problems long enough. Depending on the reason the couple is seeking help – and their willingness to work through their issues and save their marriage – it’s important to stick with counseling for at least six months.
4. Marriage counselors actually cause do problems for couples
Marriage counselors aren’t perfect. They sometimes make mistakes, say the wrong thing, misunderstand the issues, and perhaps even damage the relationship in some way. Some therapists get too close to the couple and their problems, or let their personal feelings impact the therapeutic process. A good marriage counselor will recognize when he or she isn’t objective or professional. He’ll refer the couple to a different counselor.
Marriage counseling doesn’t usually cause divorce. Usually, therapy reveals unresolvable or deep-seated issues in the marriage; it’s those marriage problems that lead to divorce.
If you’re wondering if marriage counseling is a good option for you and your husband, ask a counselor for an exploratory or information session. Don’t just get the counselor’s credentials and reference; ask what type of marriage therapy she specializes in, how effective it is, what’s involved, and what you might expect from the counseling sessions.
If you don’t think marriage counseling will work for you – and you want to stay married – read How to Save Your Marriage Without Counseling.
If you don’t think marriage counseling will work for you…
Research the effects and consequences of divorce. Talk to a divorce counselor or a marriage therapist about how to lessen the damaging effects of ending a marriage. If your situation with your children, finances, health or other issues are stopping you from considering divorce, learn how to find happiness in a loveless marriage.
Here are four options to consider.
1. Stay married and hope your marriage improves
“Although it may sound silly, you do have the option of doing nothing and hoping things improve,” writes Susan Pease Gadoua in Contemplating Divorce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go. “Sometimes, putting the problems on the back burner does make issues go away for a period, but in most cases they usually resurface somewhere down the road.”
If a couple chooses to ignore marriage problems now, those problems may lead to a future crisis, such as physical or emotional affairs, financial losses, addictions, or mental or emotional breakdowns. Ignoring problems often makes unhappy marriages even unhappier in the long run. Ignoring marital problems may only temporarily solve the problem of whether to get a divorce.
2. Commit to marriage counseling for six months or more
Marriage counseling will work for couples who are motivated to save their relationship, and who are willing to put time and energy into each other. It also helps if the couple has an external reason to stay together, such as their love for family or a focus they’re both committed to. A couple of different options for couples who don’t think marriage counseling will work is legal mediation or a trial separation.
But, be warned: “People sometimes have unrealistic expectations of how much these outside influences can accomplish,” says Gadoua. “What couples should keep in mind is that the success rate of any intervention they employ, regardless of what it is or how capable the professional, will only be as good as both spouses’ levels of motivation.”
If you’re considering a trial separation, read What You Need to Know About Reconciling After Separation.
3. Focus on working through your marriage problems on your own
Couples who believe marriage counseling won’t work for them can read books about rebuilding a failing marriage. Books that help couples decide about divorce, such as Should I Stay or Should I Go?: A Guide to Knowing if Your Relationship Can–and Should–be Saved are helpful, too. Or, a couple can, through rational discussions over a period of time, methodically and objectively explore and resolve the marriage problems that led to this point. This is difficult because it’s impossible to be truly objective when you’re inside a relationship, but it can be done. “Inside interventions” like this involve dedication on both partners’ parts. Both partners need to be committed to making the marriage work.
Other types of inside interventions that can save a marriage are changing careers, moving to a new city or country, starting a new life together – though it really depends on the source of the problem.
4. Learn how to initiate a healthy separation and divorce
Is it time to seriously consider divorce? You may find it helpful to research the process and consequences of divorce. Talk to people you trust and respect. You might also talk to a divorce lawyer, read books about divorce, or visit a divorce support group.
The decision to get a divorce or try marriage counseling isn’t easy, but making a decision and working towards your choice can lift a heavy weight from your shoulders.
In Desperate Marriages: Moving Toward Hope and Healing in Your Relationship, Gary Chapman offers hope and encouragement for every marriage – even for those with deeply rooted wounds. Chapman provides positive steps for dealing with spouses who are workaholics, controlling, critical, uncommunicative, physically, verbally, or sexually abusive, unfaithful, alcoholic or drug-abusing, depressed or irresponsible.
This book is a great option for couples who don’t think marriage counseling works, or works for them. It’s also a good read for women married to men who refuse to go to marriage counseling. By the way, I always encourage women to get counseling on their own – even if their husbands refuse to go. Seeing a counselor can be painful, but it often leads to emotional healing and spiritual freedom. This helps women make healthy decisions about everything else in life.
Are you confused about what to do next? You may find it helpful to read 6 Signs Your Marriage is Over.
Is your relationship in trouble? Get 7 Steps to Fixing Your Marriage from relationship coach Mort Fertel. It's free and helpful, no strings attached.
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