Does Marriage Counseling Work?

Does marriage counseling work? Well, it has both advantages and disadvantages. Know both. (This article discusses the downside. Click on image to see the discussion of the upside.)

It didn’t work for me partly because I didn’t know what you are about to learn. Had I known, I would have seen the warning signs telling me it wasn’t going to work. I would have changed therapists. And I would have been more careful in selecting one to begin with!

Does marriage counseling work? Yes, marriage counseling can work, but it can also destroy your marriage. I’m not trying to scare you away from it, and I don’t have a bias against it. Marriage counseling or couples therapy does have its advantages . But to have success with it, to make your marriage strong and healthy, you need to know the dangers and disadvantages of marriage counseling, too. So, read on. Learn from my failure, and make marriage counseling work for you.

Does Your Therapist Believe That Marriage Is
Worth Fighting For?

That’s an odd question to ask, especially of a marriage counselor. And yet it is an important question for you because 61% of therapists believe they should be “neutral” on whether a couple should remain married or get divorced.[1] This kind of neutrality is not good. Ambivalent marriage counseling asks you to weigh the advantages of staying together against the advantages of divorce, shifting your focus onto your own personal gain and away from your marriage. Neutrality undermines your desire to remain married by showing no regard for loyalty and commitment. It treats marriage like a commodity, to be thrown away if it isn’t working for you.

Neutrality can even align the therapist with the spouse who is thinking of leaving.[2] Neutral therapists ask questions like, “If you are not happy, why do you stay?” or make comments like, “I’m surprised you’re still married.” They may as well say, “You’re putting commitment above personal happiness? That’s dumb!” This attitude puts doubt in the mind of a committed spouse, and encourages one who is considering breaking his/her marriage vows. A therapist like this has no understanding that you can be personally happy and in a committed, loving marriage at the same time. Or at least, he has no idea of how to make it happen.

Some counselors, even those who say they are committed to marriage, can thoughtlessly dangle the divorce option in front of you while trying to help you through your problems. They make comments like, “Maybe you should consider a separation to sort things out.” They believe you can somehow relate better if you are apart and not relating. (Of course, while you’re apart you can check out what life is like without your spouse around.) Can you see how this weakens commitment? And did you know that separated couples are more likely to get divorced than get back together?[3] If you protest that you don’t want that kind of advice, they will deny that they are advising you to divorce. But in the next breath they will say, “Just keep it in the back of your mind.” The screwy thing is they really believe they are not pushing a divorce recommendation on you. Bottom line: they are.

It’s not that therapists and counselors are bad people. It’s that they are people, mere mortals, human beings like you and me. They have their values, their ways of looking at life and making sense of it. Even the most professional among them cannot totally set aside what they believe in while they practice their profession.

You need to be aware of what your counselor believes, and how it will affect what he is trying to do for you. William Doherty, a therapist and trainer of therapists, says that many
"see themselves as liberation fighters for individual fulfillment against oppressive moral codes and family structures. That’s how I started my career as a therapist.”[4]
It took him many years to realize the harm he was doing. So, to make marriage counseling work for you, make sure the marriage counselor you hire believes marriage is worth fighting for.

What Else Can a Counselor Believe
That Might Cause Trouble?

Sometimes the therapist keeps information to himself/herself. Suppose you or your spouse reveals something important to the therapist in confidence. Probably the biggest secret one could reveal is having an affair. Since trust between therapist and client is critical to the success of treatment, how can he work with the other spouse while keeping such a secret? But 96% of marriage and family therapists say they would keep to themselves infidelity told in confidence.[5] Can marriage counseling work for you in such a situation?

No doubt they would cite a leading code of ethics which states that disclosing one spouse’s secrets to the other spouse without written permission is prohibited.[6] Therapists should discuss upfront matters of confidentiality, talk about consequences, and get signed consent forms. But many don’t. You, your spouse, and the therapist need to be "on the same page" from the beginning.

Another problem area again involves values. Suppose, for instance, you grew up in a close-knit extended family. Your identity derives from that association, and you naturally feel a desire to fulfill your role in the family. You take pride in that, and see yourself as a good person because of it. But, will your marriage counselor understand all that? Most approaches to counseling are based in individualism.[7] He may unwittingly work against your values, such as respect and harmony, with exercises in negotiation and self-expression. Using individualistic ideas that are at odds with your familial nature, he could do more harm than good.

I am not arguing the pros and cons of individualism and collectivism here. (I wouldn’t get all philosophical on you.) The point is that you and your counselor must be aware of your values and cultural background, and how they differ from his own. Furthermore, if you are married to someone whose background differs substantially from yours, be sure your counselor is experienced with multi-cultural marriages.

Counselors bring their own values and ethics into their work. It is impossible for them not to.[8] You also bring your values and ethics with you into counseling. You need to make sure his are compatible with yours as much as possible. In the course of your sessions, when you think a conflict has risen, discuss it. A good counselor will not get upset. The reaction of a bad one will tell you it’s time to find another counselor. And that’s a good thing, because you don’t want to continue working with a bad counselor.

The Counselor’s Training
Can Sink Your Marriage

Another point to consider when asking, “Does marriage counseling work?” is the amount of expertise the therapist has. Most have little or no training in marriage counseling, and believe their knowledge and skills in individual therapy are sufficient. Only 12% have been required to take even one course or have supervised experience in marital therapy to get their particular license.[9]

Without proper training a therapist can’t handle the marital conflicts that arise during sessions. He can find himself pulled into them, and possibly taking sides. He will suggest individual therapy, looking for what’s wrong with you instead of looking at the relationship. If you resist the suggestion, you risk being labeled as having problems and unwilling to change. And your marital problems don’t get properly addressed. If you do go into individual therapy, admit to having problems (and your spouse doesn’t admit any), you risk having your spouse become a co-therapist, and the relationship problems still don’t get addressed.

An orientation toward individual therapy can also lead the therapist to pathologize your marriage, followed by you. For instance, let’s say your spouse has been unfaithful, but you want to get him/her back. The therapist has already determined that your marriage is sick because of the infidelity. So he says you have a “psychological problem” because you want to remain in it, or you’re a “victim” whose trust is being “abused” by your spouse. You get a heavy weight thrown on your shoulders. And without realizing it, you are getting pushed into a divorce.

Bottom line: ask about his training. If it is just a weekend workshop or one college class, look for another counselor.

And Then
There’s the Two of You

Does marriage counseling work if you put off going until your relationship is in serious trouble? Well, it’s like taking a walk – the farther down the road you go, the farther you have to walk to get back. How far are you willing to let things deteriorate before you do something about it?

Nobody likes confronting problems, especially when you don’t know how they will get resolved. Unfortunately, problems only grow worse when you don’t deal with them. I walked far enough down that road that I never got back.

Whether you decide to try marriage counseling or go the self-help route, start mending your marriage now. Don’t wait. As Barney Fife would declare, “I say this calls for action and now. Nip it in the bud!”[10]

Does Marriage Counseling Work?
The Flip-Side

As I said at the beginning, marriage counseling does have advantages. Don't let this article scare you away from seeking help. Read about its advantages here.

Next: What Makes Good Couples Therapy Good? - Part 1

Previous: The Advantages of, and Resistance to, Couples Therapy

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[1] ^ John Wall, et al., “The Ethics of Relationality: The Moral Views of Therapists Engaged in Marital and Family Therapy,” Family Relations, Vol. 48, 1999.
[2] ^ William J. Doherty, “How Therapists Harm Marriages and What We Can Do About It,” Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, Vol. 1(2), 2002.
[3] ^ M.D. Bramlett and W.D. Mosher, Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States, Nat’l. Ctr. For Health Statistics, 2002. P. 21.
[4] ^ Doherty, 2002.
[5] ^ G.W. Brock & J.C. Coufal, “A National Survey of the Ethical Practices and Attitudes of Marriage and Family Therapists,” American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Ethics Casebook, AAMFT, 1994. Pp. 27-48.
[6] ^ American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy 2018 Code of Ethics, Paragraph 2.2.
[7] ^ John C. Christopher, Ph.D., "Counseling's Inescapable Moral Visions," Journal of Counseling & Development, Vol. 75, 1996.
[8] ^ Christopher, 1996.
[9] ^ Doherty, 2002.
[10] ^ The Andy Griffith Show, circa 1960’s.