Why Does Couple’s Counseling Sometimes Fail?

I was recently posed a question, as to why couple’s therapy does not always work, even if one person, or both, may want it to. I thought it an excellent question. Here is my response to that person, and I thank them for the opportunity to discuss this.

Being happily married for over 25 years, and being a couple’s counselor, my hope is that I can help salvage every relationship that comes through my door. That being said, I also know that some relationships cannot be saved, and some should not, such as cases where there is characterological domestic violence, ongoing addictions that are not being addressed, numerous betrayals of trust in a relationship, or abdication of marital responsibilities.

Many people walk into my office, hoping I will tell them to stay or leave. I cannot and will not do that. It is not my marriage; it is theirs. They have to look deep into themselves, explore what their needs, hopes, and expectations are, and whether they are willing to change, and what if their partner does not. They make their own decisions.  If there is danger to the client, such as in domestic violence, then I do have a duty to warn them that if they stay, their life may be in jeopardy, and they need a safety plan.

So why does couple’s therapy sometimes fail?

Couple’s therapy requires a suspension of the belief, “I’m right, you are not.” It requires people to stop blaming and criticizing, and to learn new tools to have a conversation. It requires bringing up the past hurts and wrongs, so they can be addressed, rectified, and put to rest. It requires people to really listen to learn, and to discuss their feelings, to tune in to each other. Unfortunately, a person may not want to expose their vulnerabilities or do the hard work, and therapy will not work.

Another answer is that trust has been broken and cannot be repaired. As Gottman points out, “A committed relationship is a contract of mutual trust, respect, nurturance, and protection.” Brain research into Affective Neurology (Panksepp, Maté), and research into Attachment Theory (Johnson, Siegel) certainly support this, as well.

What breaks trust? Research from John Gottman, and experience along the way say the following: Sexual Affairs; Non Sexual Affairs; Conditional Commitment; Lying; Absenteeism or Coldness – one partner not being there, emotionally, for the other; Disrespect; Unfairness; Selfishness; Breaking Promises; and forming a coalition with a parent against the other partner, and always siding with the parent.

Here is the more gradual death of a relationship, and why couple’s counseling does not work. It is too late.  The commitment died.  It may have worked, if done years earlier, but it wasn’t. These are the saddest cases. Usually, a problem has been occurring for, on average, 7 years, before a couple walks into my office.  Loneliness in a relationship is a major factor. One, or both partners, feels they are not important to the other person, not a priority in that person’s world, not respected and not appreciated. This causes the friendship to break down in a marriage and people stop being able to turn to each other. It erodes the trust in the relationship, and the commitment. Arguing increases as bids for affection, attention, and reassurance are routinely missed or ignored. The person asking for couple’s counseling is ignored, or it is started, but never goes beyond a few sessions. Problems do not get solved, as a negative view of each other is now ruling the relationship. People will not be responsive to the other’s needs if they feel that the person does not have their best interests at heart. They do not see their partner as being there for them.  Fun goes flying out of the window. The person feels abandoned and alone. They grow tired of the loneliness, living parallel lives, and the commitment to the relationship dies. This is when people leave.

I do referrals for legal and financial advice, frequently, if the clients request it. I try to give 3 names, and encourage them to get referrals from friends, and to discuss their situation with the legal or financial professional. That way, they receive accurate information as to what they can and cannot do. Some clients have met with attorneys and have been quickly dissuaded from their notions, and decided it would be better to work things out. Others have decided to proceed. It is not my decision. That decision belongs with the individual.