When a close friend refused to get marriage counseling, I was concerned and confused. She and her husband endured relationship problems for decades and I witnessed the frustrations turn into resentments and the resentments turn into outright contempt. For years, I’d pressed her to seek help before it was too late and it was sad to see their relationship reach that point. Why didn’t she want to try counseling?
“Marriage counseling doesn’t work,” she said, frankly. “I have friends whose marriages got worse after counseling.” I couldn’t argue with that. But although I firmly believe that having a third, insightful, objective party to help sort things out can save relationships, here are some valid reasons why counseling doesn’t always work:
Couples seek help too late. Counseling usually is the last resort for marriage partners, and by that time, a lot of resentments and grudges have festered for years. It’s easier to prevent than reverse damage so get help quick. Once love is gone, there’s little incentive to try to patch things up.
Some spouses agree to counseling as a way to “prove” that they are “right” and their mates are “wrong.” They’re looking for a judge who will attribute blame on one party. They stubbornly defend their own actions without any attempt to be objective.
Some spouses expect their mates to change but are unwilling to make any changes themselves. When people enter a counseling session, they don’t want to walk out with new revelations about how they can improve their marriage, but they want the counselor to tell their mates how to improve. In the majority of cases, both parties need to make some self-adjustments.
Spouses aren’t honest or open during counseling sessions. You can’t expect a counselor to help if you don’t share your true thoughts, feelings and past history but that is precisely what many people do. They only divulge half the story. They might be afraid to admit things to themselves, they may be afraid of being judged by the counselor. Most people want to hold up a certain image but in counseling, it is imperative to feel safe enough to spill it all out.
Spouses don’t implement recommended actions. They need to “do their homework” and follow through with what the counselor recommends.
At least one partner has already made up his mind that their marriage is unfixable. Remember that old joke, “How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.” Do both spouses want to save the marriage?
Couples have unrealistic expectations of the marriage. Their image of marriage is impossibly perfect, almost delusionary. It’s the old Ozzie-and-Harriet Syndrome (which I just made up because I suffered from it!) I honestly hoped for a perfect marriage—no fighting, no stress. But I learned that reality can be just as good.
They have unrealistic expectations of marriage counseling. They want drastic improvement immediately. Your marriage didn’t deteriorate overnight; and it could take more than a single night, week or even month for complete harmony to be restored. But it will get better, day by day.
They change counselors too often. You need to find a counselor with whom you both can relate, but changing counselors just because he or she doesn’t agree with you will mean you won’t get the continuity of support that your relationship requires. When you enter a new counseling program, you start from square one, getting acquainted, building rapport and trust, getting the counselor up to speed with your personal history. You need to start over with every new counselor and that takes time that could be better spent making progress in your marital counseling program.
Here are potential counselor problems
Couples can’t relate to their counselor or vice versa. When my husband and I sought grief counseling after the death of our son, we were sent to an earnest young man in his early 20s. He was a very nice guy, but there was no way he could possibly understand the strains of marriage, parenting and loss. He was going by the textbook instead of real life experience, and while one doesn’t necessarily need to *have* a disease to know how to cure it, counseling relies upon a emotional skill set that goes beyond scribbling down a prescription. You can’t just nod and empathize with deep feelings that you’ve never felt before. We passed on the counseling.
The counselor does not recognize the uniqueness of each marriage and instead attempts to make every marriage fit the definition of traditional marriage. Not all relationships care to live within traditional boundaries of marriage. Does the counselor take cultural backgrounds into consideration, for example?
The counselor cannot be objective. Let’s face it, counselors are humans, too. They have their own life experiences through which they filter and shape their opinions. Early in our marriage, I began to have second thoughts and wondered if I made a bad mistake rushing into my marriage. I sought counseling and the woman, fresh from a divorce herself, encouraged me to get a divorce, too. She said I was rebounding from a bad, long-term relationship and did not want to get married at all. From all outward appearances, it seemed possible, but deep within, something told me otherwise. Turns out that my inner self was correct. We just celebrated 25 years of a very happy union.
Some counselors take sides when they should view themselves as advocates for each person and the marital union. There is no right or wrong. Just choices and consequences. A good counselor’s role is not a referee or a judge; her goal should be to guide each partner to self-discovery and mutual understanding in order to create a happier relationship.
The counselor has poor communication skills. Some counselors can drone on in technical terms that confound the layperson. Others aren’t clear and concise.
The counselor isn’t having any effect on your marriage. While it’s good not to expect immediate change, a good counselor should help you set and reach mini-goals and be accountable for your progress.
The counselor makes you do too many unproductive or silly exercises. Homework is critical. You need to practice newly learned skills. But if the exercises are poorly designed and you can’t take them seriously, you won’t be gaining anything.
The counselor wastes your counseling time. A good counselor will have done her homework to refresh herself about your case before you walk in the door. She won’t spend your time with her re-reading notes while you sit there waiting. She won’t take calls and she won’t use any of your valuable hour to schedule your next appointment.
But it’s important to know where your boundaries are with your newfound confidante. You pay for her time as you would with any other service. You should not expect her to be your new best friend nor should you text, email or call her on her private cell number unless she invites you to for emergency purposes.
Counseling is a good way to hear an objective third party’s insights about your marital relationship. A counselor will keep the details confidential, unlike family, friends and co-workers, and offer solid advice on how you can improve the quality of your marriage through better communication and understanding. If your counselor isn’t helping, try another one who might bring better skills and strategies to improve your marriage.