Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Marriage Counseling and the Decision to Divorce

Can marriage counseling make things worse?

It is very common for people on their way to divorce to try a round or two of marriage counseling. Many people don't think that they have "tried" enough to save the marriage unless they have attempted marriage counseling without success ion saving the marriage. What this post discusses is the use of marriage counseling after one of the parties has made the decision that the marriage is over. Consider the following scenario:

"Marie and Don have been married fifteen years and unhappily married for five. Marie, like so many other divorcing women, has grown progressively disillusioned with the lack of intimate connection or communication between her and Don. On numerous occasions, she has pleaded with Don to go to counseling with her but he has always refused, insisting that they could work it out themselves. So Marie has been in individual therapy for two years and has finally decided that there is nothing left in the marriage. She has told Don and he was thunderstruck. He doesn't want the divorce and now pleads with her to try marriage counseling. But now she feels that it is too late."

This is a very common scenario and it can take several paths. First, Marie, the initiator of the divorce may agree to try counseling. She has no hope of fixing the marriage and, in fact, wants out as quickly as possible. But she agrees to this false attempt at what Don regards as a possible reconciliation to "prove" to Don that the marriage is fatally wounded and cannot survive. She hopes that if Don sees this for himself he will be more inclined to work with her toward a cooperative divorce. She also secretly hopes that if Deon falls apart she will be able to park him with the therapist who will help him get through the process. Sometimes things go as Marie planned and Don comes to agree with her that they would be better off divorced But sometimes the strategy backfires.

Don and Marie started marriage counseling but by the third session, it becomes evident to Don that Marie has no intention of trying to save the marriage. In fact, he feels deceived and believes she agreed to marriage therapy just to prove to him that the marriage is over. This, he believes, is proof that Marie isn't willing to "try" to save the marriage and he becomes angry at her for deceiving him. In fact, he becomes angrier than he was before and begins to blame the whole divorce on her. And now, he is ready to find the "tough" lawyer to protect him from Marie.

It is almost universal that couples make at least one attempt at "reconciliation." But unless both partners sincerely desire to attempt a repair of the relationship, couples often emerge from this attempt angrier than when they began. When one partner is irretrievably committed to divorce, I, when asked for my opinion, usually discourage marriage counseling to "save the marriage." But that does not mean that counseling is not useful here. Divorce counseling is often a useful means of ending the marriage peacefully and I often encourage it when one of the parties, typically the non-initiator of the divorce, requests marriage counseling.

In divorce counseling, the initiator is provided with a safe setting to tell the other spouse why her decision is irrevocable. And the souse gets a safe place to tell the initiator his feelings about the divorce and the relationship. A skillful counselor can help to keep the discussion off guilt and blaming and help the couple reach a conclusion that the marriage, however disappointing, is over. Done well, this helps the non-initiating spouse come to terms with the finality of the divorce and guides the couple to framing the divorce in a way that both accept responsibility rather than trying to frame the divorce as the fault of the other. When this is successful the couple can usually manage a cooperative and non-destructive divorce.

More from Sam Margulies
More from Psychology Today