Yes, couple’s counseling does work. In my practice, I’ve seen some couples really benefit from therapy together. In order to benefit, certain circumstances are required.
When It Works
The first time a couple enters my office, I can usually tell almost immediately if therapy will work for them. It’s how they answer my initial questions that informs me. I’ll ask, “What do you like about your spouse?” And, I’ll also ask, “What attracts you to your partner?” The ones who truly like each other, are friends, and can easily answer these questions, those are the ones who will succeed.
If both people in the relationship really and truly want to stay married, are willing to work on their relationship, and are hopeful for a future together, then couple’s therapy will work.
Regardless of whether or not there is one major issue that the couple is struggling to agree upon or that the entire relationship is falling apart, if you both want to repair the marriage, then it can be done. Even if one person has had an affair, the marriage can be saved if that person is remorseful and both are willing to work through the issues that led to the affair.
The point of couples counseling is to give you the skills that will help you break negative patterns. As long as both people are committed and they want to be married, then couple’s counseling will work.
The Warning Signs: The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse
Dr. John Gottman has conducted extensive research on marriages and predictors of divorce. He has theorized that there are four behaviors, which he calls The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse, that can lead to divorce. They are:
When I meet with couples, I look to see if any of those four behaviors are present. In his work, Gottman points out that all couples might have some of these behaviors from time to time, but if they are not excessive and the couple is able to recognize what is happening, then the relationship can be repaired. But if you see any of these behaviors frequently, it’s a really bad sign.
Another big red flag is resentment towards your partner because it leads to contempt, which is the most serious of the four horsemen. If you notice resentment, ask why it’s happening. Are you not openly talking to your partner about your feelings? Are you stonewalling by shutting down and withdrawing instead of talking and dealing with an issue?
If a couple repeats the same argument regularly, a therapist can be helpful. They can help you shift the pattern and turn it around. Couple’s counseling will help each person see it from their partner’s perspective. Instead of becoming defensive, shutting down or responding right away to what the person said, I encourage them to use “I statements” and mirror back what their partner said. Even that simple exercise can really help someone to feel heard, which can be healing.
When It Doesn’t Work
Couple’s counseling doesn’t always work. When a couple cannot even answer when I ask what they like about their spouse because they are so full of resentment, contempt, or other negative feelings, then I know counseling won’t work.
Often, a couple comes into my office and one person wants to fix the other person. They’ll tell me all of the reasons why their partner is the problem. If you only see your partner as the problem, not the marriage, then there is a lack of insight on your part. Therapy won’t work unless both people are willing to look at themselves and make changes.
There are several additional circumstances where couple’s counseling will not work, and I don’t even recommend pursuing it until the bigger problem is solved – if it can be solved:
- One person struggles with addiction: In order for the marriage to survive, that person must first get treatment for their addiction. Once they are not actively using drugs or alcohol, you can begin to explore repairing your relationship.
- One person has a mental illness: If your partner is suffering from a mental illness, that has to be the primary focus. Once they are stable, medicated, and everything settles down, they will be more emotionally available to address their relationships.
- The cheater isn’t remorseful: When one person is denying it happened, sweeping it under the rug, or saying it’s over when it isn’t, then that person no longer wants to be married.
- Abuse: Often the abuser won’t recognize or admit that they are abusing their partner, so in this situation, I focus on the victim and give them support. Couples counseling isn’t going to help, and the victim needs to find the strength to mobilize themselves and do something.
Before You Call A Therapist, Ask Yourself These Questions
Before picking up the phone, do a self-assessment to determine if couple’s counseling will work for you and your partner. Ask yourself the following:
- Does my partner also want to go to couples counseling? Are both of us willing?
- Are there any red flags that are better addressed in a different setting?
- Is one person just not very insightful or self-aware? If not, are they capable of insight to make therapy work?
- If my partner is having/had an affair, are they admitting it yet? Are they showing remorse and/or attempting to repair our relationship?
If you are both invested in the relationship, then you have the power to turn it around.