Alice (not her real name) calls me to make an appointment to discuss the idea of leaving her marriage. “I’ve been miserable for so long,” she says. “I don’t know what else to do.” One of the first questions that I ask new clients is whether they have gone to couples counseling before deciding to divorce. “We went once but it didn’t work,” she says. “I don’t think Alec will agree to go again.”
Couples therapy is certainly not a magic pill, and one or two sessions will not cure all that ails your relationship. Let’s be realistic about whether it’s a good idea for you to pursue counseling, what marital counseling is, and what it isn’t.
Who should seek therapy?
- You’ve tried to address the problems in your relationship but feel it hasn’t worked.
- You just want a neutral place to talk things out.
- You and your partner are arguing a lot but not resolving anything.
- You aren’t talking about things that are bothering you because you don’t know how to bring them up.
- You are feeling angry, depressed, distant, or you are avoiding contact with your partner.
- You have lost trust in your partner, perhaps due to a betrayal or a disappointment.
- There is no longer emotional or physical intimacy in your relationship.
- You and your partner have very different values or goals in life.
- You are struggling with parenting together.
- You are facing big changes such as a new baby, job loss, the death of a parent, or retirement.
When couples therapy does not work
- If there is unmanaged violence or abuse.
- If either you or your partner is involved in another romantic relationship.
- When there are secrets that must be shared. A therapist will not hold secrets for you but may be able to help you disclose something you are afraid to disclose.
- If there is a psychiatric or other condition that would prevent one of you from being able to participate in therapy.
- If one or the other of you refuses to participate in therapy.
"No Stone Unturned?"
When Alice and I meet I ask her if she feels she’s “left no stone unturned.”
“I don’t want to regret my decision in two years or five years,” she says, “But what can I do if Alec won’t go back to counseling with me?”
I ask if the therapist they saw once was a good fit, if he is qualified to treat couples, and if she has interviewed other therapists. After learning that Alec had felt shamed in the first and only meeting, I suggested that perhaps Alec might be open to meeting a different therapist. “Would Alec be willing to interview two or three therapists to see if another might have a better approach?” I ask. I suggest that Alice raise the issue in a way that offers hope since some people feel going to therapy is “like being dragged to the principal’s office,” blaming or punitive. Alice decides to invite Alec to join her in learning new skills and tools that will improve and strengthen their relationship. She hopes it will give them both renewed excitement in their marriage. She asks Alec to interview several therapists and he agrees.
How does it work? How long does it take? What does it cost?
In marital counseling you can open up and share deep feelings, learning to be honest and vulnerable with each other. The counseling room is a safe, confidential place where you can each express yourself and, with the therapist’s help, be heard and understood.
You will learn listening skills and ways to express your own feelings.
You will learn to forgive and/or apologize in healing ways. You will learn to manage your strong emotions and to express them in ways that will bring you and your partner closer. You may focus on your goals for yourself, your relationship, and your future.
Growth, change, and healing can happen with the support of a skilled, experienced, and empathic therapist.
The therapist will usually not tell you what to do.
Rather, through questions and feedback, the therapist will help you get in touch with your own thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. Some therapists will give you homework, such as journaling, reading, or practicing new skills. A therapist may prescribe “date nights” or check-ins, or rituals for you in between sessions. A good therapist won’t look at either of you as the client, but rather your relationship as the client. Couples therapists are trained to look at the dynamics and patterns of behavior and interaction in your marriage to see where change may be possible.
Expect a minimum of 10-20 sessions
Invest the hard work, time, and money before making a decision about your marriage. Even if you break up, the insights and skills you learn will benefit you in your next relationship.
If you have an EAP or health insurance, the cost of your counseling sessions may be fully or partially reimbursed. Many excellent therapists do not accept insurance, but you may be able to submit receipts for their services to your insurance for reimbursement. Six months of counseling may seem costly, but it is a valuable investment in your marriage. And divorce is even more costly.
Hire a therapist who is trained in couples counseling
It is important to find a qualified, licensed therapist who has expertise in marital therapy. Look for therapists who have specialized training in couples work, such as EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), or Gottman approaches. Interview several therapists before hiring one. Think of it as a job interview for the therapist. Many will offer a brief phone consultation at no cost.
Can counseling cause a divorce?
Jim asks me this question when he consults with me about providing therapy for him and his partner. I tell him that a therapist should have no agenda. That is, the therapist’s job is not to fix your relationship or to tell you to end it. Rather, the therapist’s job is to stay neutral and help you and your mate safely and honestly explore your relationship, its strengths and weaknesses, and to help you make clear, thought-through decisions. Counseling is often uncomfortable, and more so when one or both of you realize that the relationship is unhealthy and not sustainable.
Marriage retreats jump-start the work
Some couples jumpstart their couples therapy by going to a marriage retreat. There are many available in a Google search, and some are very expensive or sound glamorous, but you should choose carefully, read the reviews, and learn about the approach used by the retreat’s leaders.
Don’t wait till you’re ready to give up to seek counseling
Marital stress and problems will not go away by themselves, although many couples sweep the difficulties under the rug for months or years. Sadly, this just creates a mountain of problems that divide the two of you, and at some point, one of you will lose the motivation to work at fixing the marriage. John Gottman has said that many couples come to therapy six years too late. If you wait too long, the problems may have extinguished your willingness to solve them. But if you have even just a few embers, counseling can help you bring back the heat and warmth you need in your relationship.
According to research from the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), 98% of couples who go to couples counseling say their therapists are either “excellent” or “good.” 90% report improvement in their emotional health and 66% say their physical health improves. Finally, almost 75% of couples see improvements in their relationships after couples therapy.
If you do decide to divorce after pursuing couples therapy, choose a divorce process that will reduce conflict and allow you to heal and move on. Stay out of court unless you absolutely need an outside decision-maker.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2022
To find a couples therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.