If you are thinking about marriage counseling, don’t be surprised if you feel a lot of resistance to finding a therapist and scheduling an appointment. Couples who see marriage counselors typically have reached a point where things are so bad that they are willing to see a stranger to talk about it.
Often there are feelings of shame associated with the marital disruption, which makes it even harder. To make the decision even more complicated, you may be asking the question, “Does marriage counseling work?” Not surprisingly, the answer ends up being, yes, usually depending on both spouses’ commitment to the process.
Does Marriage Counseling Work?
While there are arguments for and against, you are trying to preserve your most important relationship on earth, and you may have to overcome a lot of reluctance to make the journey.
Arguments for Marriage Counseling
1. We Need a Mediator
Usually, by the time we need help with our marriage relationship, communication has broken down enough that we can’t discuss issues that matter without it turning into an argument.
We need a referee to call timeout, to call fouls or out of bounds, and generally direct the way we are talking to each other, so each side is heard and emotions are kept in check.
When our anger or anxiety escalates, we lose our ability to think and we lose our ability to bond. The only way to have a mutual, adult conversation about a difficult subject is if both parties are able to contain their anger and anxiety or manage it with deep breathing and mindfulness techniques.
Until we are able to maintain our emotions in this way, we need a third party just to be able to have important conversations without having an argument.
2. We Need a Fresh Perspective
Another facet of problems that develop in a marriage is that they sometimes form over years, or decades. We end up trapped in cycles of thinking, feeling and communicating that are unhelpful, and with no solution over and over it can seem like it will never change.
Seeing a counselor brings in not only a new perspective but hopefully some experience and expertise as well. A therapist can help you get past the defenses you have erected around a painful problem in your relationship, actually see it for what it is, and help you find workarounds to reduce the impact on your marriage while each of you works on your own part contributing to the problem.
3. We Need to Encourage Hope
The long-term intractability of some marital problems, the persistence of them, can make us start to think this is just the way things are and there is no hope of changing them.
This is a bleak state of affairs and even if you stay together, you may end up with a sterile, pallid reflection of the engaged, nurturing relationship that on some level you desperately desire. Deciding together to engage the services of a marriage counselor is a declaration of hope for the future, that it may be possible to overcome your problems and move into a new way of relating that encourages emotional growth and health for both spouses.
Happiness is a byproduct of being well cared for, not the ultimate goal. Happy feelings come and go, but feelings of trust and gratitude are worth far more in the long run.
4. Overcoming Hardship Together Often Improves Bonding
If you will allow a military metaphor, marital problems can feel like a battlefield. You end up trapped in the same foxhole shooting at each other.
When you finally admit what a painful waste of time it is, and find help, the therapist is the one who can help you team up and face a common enemy, find a safe way across the battlefield together, or better yet to fortify your foxhole as a place where both of you stand strong together to face whatever life brings.
You may have heard of the “war buddy bond” where soldiers who have been in combat share a bond beyond family, beyond affection or friendship. It is a deep, abiding desire for the other person’s welfare, and fuels our ability to fight for them when they are under attack, whether from without or within.
We are sometimes our own worst enemy, allowing negative self-talk to rule our internal dialogue. A spouse who is bonded well can call out the lie without triggering shame and encourage the struggling spouse back to the solid ground of an adult position and kinder self-assessment.
The beauty of moving through the battle together is that down the road you may discover you are both living embodiments of your marriage vows, loving, honoring, cherishing, and being for each other the way you always hoped you would be.
5. The Harder Path is Often the Better One
Depending on your personality type, you may naturally gravitate toward the path of least resistance. Unfortunately, everything in life worth doing requires some effort, sometimes a lot of effort. Certainly, there are times when we need to pack up and go home, but if we give up too easily often enough it can become our default mode of operation.
Unless our marriage has deteriorated to the point that there is nothing to save, there is usually something wonderful that is worth trying to preserve. We saw something in our spouse that caused us to say, “I want to wake up next to this person every morning for the rest of my life.” This is no small thing.
Some people go through life without ever feeling this. Working through your problems together in counseling is the most reliable way to get back to the place where you remember what you fell in love with in the other person and find new things to fall in love with.
6. There’s a Lot at Stake
When a marriage fails, it impacts every interconnected relationship in the couples’ life. Not only is it often devastating to both spouses in one form or another, if there are children they are deeply affected by it, such that it may damage their ability to trust intimate relationships or commit to their own marriages.
Extended family relationships are damaged, even if a breakup is amicable. Familial bonds are broken, and though they may be preserved in some way, they will never be the same.
Friendships can become divided, as those closest to the splitting couple are forced to choose sides. Relationships at church can become strained, again because people may side with one spouse or the other. Lastly, there is still a stigma associated with divorce, and though you will learn to move past it, on some level you will have a lifetime of regret.
Arguments Against Marriage Counseling
Though there are good arguments for marriage counseling, it isn’t for everybody. You have to take into account everyone’s current emotional state, willingness and have the patience to find a counselor who works for you. Here are a few things that might give you pause, if you are considering marriage counseling.
1. Both Spouses Have to Be (or Become) Committed
Often one or both partners are reluctant to begin counseling. This usually subsides as they start to see the benefit of it. If one spouse wants it and badgers the other spouse into attending, and the resistant spouse sits there with arms folded, refusing to cooperate, they aren’t going to make any progress.
Making changes is hard work, and a spouse who persists in their resistance to the process will be unwilling to make the necessary changes. If you have a recalcitrant spouse, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try or get therapy yourself, but if their resistance lasts more than a session or so, you might want to terminate therapy.
If the spouse is willing to keep coming and shows any sign of engaging, even in anger, you should give it a chance. If, however, the spouse sits there with arms crossed and won’t talk, or only spews negativity or criticism, you are probably done. Both partners must want this to work if you hope to make any progress.
2. Sometimes it’s Too Late
Some couples wait until they are past the point of no return before coming to counseling. If communications have deteriorated to the point that it’s all insults and bitter name calling, unless both partners are willing to let go of their need to be right, their need to feel vindicated, and their need to pay the other back for their injuries, no progress can be made in counseling.
Both spouses have to realize that there was something good in the relationship, something that was lost but might be regained, and that only happens if we can own our part in the breaking of the relationship. Unforgiveness is the beginning of the end of any relationship.
3. Spouses Must be Willing to Change
If one spouse is involved in an affair and wants to come to counseling, but refuses to give up the affair, they will make no progress in counseling.
If a spouse has been indulging some behavior or choice that is damaging or deeply upsetting to the other spouse, and they refuse to stop or get help to stop (as in addiction counseling or 12-step program), they are choosing the behavior over the marriage and that is a violation of the marriage vows.
They are saying, in essence, “I will hurt you to please me,” which is a recipe for heartache for the betrayed spouse. A spouse who doesn’t have, or no longer has, your best interests at heart has already left the marriage, emotionally. If the person cannot be redeemed from that state of heart, the marriage is over, even if they decide to stay married.
4. Individual Issues May Take Precedence
If one or both spouses have experienced significant emotional trauma prior to the marriage, marriage counseling may be the wrong choice for now. When someone is so agitated in their emotional state that they can’t calm down or be civil to the triggering spouse, individual work will have to be done to help the spouse get some room around their trauma, so they can separate the impact of their spouse from the impact of their old trauma.
Some couples will begin marriage counseling, then split off quickly into individual sessions, so each can work on their own issues without the other person in the room. Once enough progress is made, they may decide to come back together for actual marriage counseling, assuming the progress they have made has not already improved things sufficiently.
5. Know Your Own Limitations
There may be personal reasons why you would not benefit from counseling, though you might have to try it to find out what they are. Some people are pathologically averse to accepting advice, or so convinced they are right, no one can tell them anything.
However, if someone like that wants counseling, it usually means they know there is a problem and want to see change happen. They won’t know what’s possible until they try it. Also, incapacitating anxiety at the thought of marriage counseling might prevent you from seeking it out, but in that case, it would be best to see a psychiatrist to see if you can find the right medication to lessen your anxiety sufficiently so that you can get into counseling.
6. Find the Right Counselor
There are some counselors out there who give really bad advice. One counselor told a woman in marriage counseling that she should have affairs with other men, so she could better understand her adulterous feelings.
This would be disastrous to the marriage unless it was an open marriage, which is a different discussion entirely. If you become convinced that your counselor is not helping your marriage, stop seeing them immediately. It doesn’t mean you should give up on it entirely, but better no counseling than useless or harmful counseling.
Generally, when you have an insurmountable problem in a marriage, it is better to get help than not. If both spouses are willing to work at it with the therapist, there is a good chance they will be able to patch things up and go forward in better shape than when they started, and even better in the future.
“Couple,” courtesy of mrhayata, Flickr Creative Commons, 2.0 License; “Couple on Seine,” courtesy of Zoetnet, Flickr Creative Commons, 2.0 License; “Lake Couple,” courtesy of Lemsipmatt FCC (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Golden hour,” courtesy of photo fiddler, Flickr Creative Commons, 2.0 License