Things haven’t been going well for a while.
It was probably five years ago, somewhere after the first child was born, that you and your spouse unintentionally began pursuing different goals. As a result of feeling deprioritized and neglected, one of you became focused on your career. The other folded the responsibility of “primary caregiver” to the baby into the full-time job they already juggled.
No warning lights flashed. No sirens shrieked. No one waved you down and forced you to pull your marriage over to the side of the road.
It was one degree of separation.
“What’s the big deal,” you thought. “Everybody goes through this. Besides we’re strong. We’re in love. We’ll make it.”
But you haven’t.
The arguments have increased. The date nights dissolved to piles of ash long ago. And although you may still have sex at least once a week, you now feel its an obligation rather than a desire. A gasping man’s futile attempt to catch a breath, rather than an exercise in passion and love-making.
In desperation, you and your spouse agreed to try marriage counseling. It wasn’t easy deciding who might be the best fit for you, and the shame of having to seek help made it impossible to ask your friends for referrals.
Finally, you picked someone.
You made the first appointment. And things seemed to be going okay…at first.
Eventually, however, old patterns reared their ugly head again at home. Your partner appears disinterested in continuing the therapy and often makes excuses for missing appointments. To make matters worse, the frustration has mounted to such a height that each of you has begun to routinely throw out the D-word when you argue.
Marriage counseling, you tell yourself, seems to have failed. Now what?!
Before you throw in the towel and decide that divorce is your only remaining option, take a deep breath. You have plenty of other avenues to explore before you permanently sever ties with your spouse, and many of these options can help save your marriage.
Using my 20+ years of experience as a marriage therapist, I am going to explain what goes wrong in counseling to create poor outcomes as well as what you can do to save your marriage, including your approach to therapy as well as some alternatives you may want to seek instead of (or in addition to) counseling.
Why Does Marriage Counseling Fail?
Lack of intentionality
I have a colleague who often tells his clients, “If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.” In other words, there has to be conscious, deliberate action behind how you attack what is wrong with your marriage.
If you are only focusing on the “problem du jour” each session, rather than on relational dynamics, interactions, styles of communication, and how you can fix your end of things, you will create a lot of energy and exhaustion but will never resolve anything.
However, if you want to fix your marriage, you have to A) know what you are focusing on and B) put practical strategies in place to implement a healthier relationship. Too often, couples are so frustrated with each other, their only use for marriage therapy is to have a third party validate their negative feelings about their spouse. Without intentionally trying to change the way you treat each other, healing will never occur.
Therefore, you cannot wait to work on the issues you have with each other only during the session. Therapy is a practice for how we want to relate in the home. In order to be successful, you must work hard both in session and out of session. Each time a couple comes in my office for a follow-up visit, one of my first questions is “What have you been working on this week?” I ask this for two reasons. First, I want them to recognize the importance of being consciously engaged in changing their unhealthy attitudes and behaviors throughout the week. Without continually slowing themselves down enough to replace old behaviors with new ones they will never change. But my second reason for this question is even more important because my job is to work myself out of a job! If they never develop the mental skill of intentionality as a relational habit, they will always need a third party to guide them through how to ward off negative reactions, improve communication, and connect with their spouse in empathic, valuing ways. They must be intentional about improving their relationship and about therapy if they want to be able to do marriage for themselves.
Lack of a common goal, poor goals, or no goals at all.
When a couple first comes into counseling, the therapist will often ask a question like, “What are you hoping the result of counseling will be?” A brief pause occurs while the husband and wife look at each other. Finally, one of them turns to the therapist and says, “I think we just need better communication.”
Now, I want to stop us right here.
Because comments such as “We want better communication” is NOT a goal. It may sound like a duck and walk like a duck but like the Burgess Meredith character from the 1960’s Batman TV show, it’s a penguin. A short, flightless bird that can never get off the ground.
Goals have four defining characteristics. They are specific, attainable, realistic, and measurable. The comment “We want better communication” meets none of these criteria. What does “better” look like? How will you know when “better” has been accomplished? Do both you and your spouse have the same definition of “better”? Given our history, is “better” something me and my spouse can do? Clearly, this is too vague for either you or your therapist to accomplish anything.
However, saying “I would like to reduce our arguments from 5x a week to 2x a week” is specific, attainable, realistic, and measurable. This can have strategies built around it. It can be measured to ascertain success. And it’s not asking so much of the client at one time that it is unrealistic. This would be a valid therapeutic goal. It may not be their only goal, and it may be only a stepping stone to a larger objective, but it is the type of goal you should shoot for.
To encourage this type of productive goal setting, a couple should sit down with each other prior to their first session and define what they specifically want to accomplish in therapy together. This should help sow the seeds of unity between them. And as long as they continually pursue the same idea throughout their counseling, they will find that it is possible to have these seeds bear fruit.
However, a word of caution must be mentioned here. Believing in the wrong things to make your relationship work, such as communication, an increased frequency of sex, or making each other happy, can be just as damaging to your therapeutic results as having poor goals or no goals at all. What really needs to be focused on are things that will strengthen your connection to, improve your vulnerability with, and consistently express value to each other.
A third reason marriage therapy may fail is …
You Bring the Worst Parts of Yourself to Therapy
This may sound counterintuitive, but it is not uncommon for people to seek out therapy for help with serious issues and then work harder at maintaining the status quo than on change.
Although the following list is not an exhaustive one, here are several ways that clients bring the worst parts of themselves to counseling and manage to slide through treatment and stay sick:
- Disguise: Don’t tell the truth
- Avoid the truth: Tap dance
- Answer questions with questions
- Keep people off track
- Keep the B.S. going
- Let someone else do all the work
- Don’t take responsibility
- Blame someone or something else
- Keep the attention off of yourself
- Keep everyone else in an uproar!
- Scatter birdseed, i.e. lead them on a wild goose chase!
- Consider yourself special, get into cliques or sub-groups
- Focus on a member of the opposite sex instead of what you should be doing
- Don’t do anything extra. Do ONLY what you HAVE to do.
- Tell others what they want to hear and look sincere.
- Change the subject when your dreams/goals are brought up.
- Trust no one! Never let down your guard.
- Focus on rescuing someone else from their mistakes, failures, etc.
- Convince yourself that you don’t need anyone’s help.
- Quit…and take someone with you, if you can manage it. (Misery loves company)
- Focus on what’s happening in the world
- Isolate yourself. Avoid sharing with others
- Gripe and complain about everything
- Don’t help others, let them fend for themselves.
- Build resentments and hang onto them for a long time.
- Stay in your head. Don’t let yourself get in touch with your feelings.
- Get angry. It throws others off balance.
Or maybe you use one of the following words to weasel out of doing anything at all:
- I don’t know
- I don’t remember
- I’ll try
- You’re picking on me
- I don’t see how
- If I can
- I can’t
- As I can
- It’s too hard
- I guess so
- More or less
If you have done any of the above behaviors in your counseling, you may want to approach your partner and apologize to them. Take ownership of what you did by being specific, i.e. “I was wrong to ________.” Take the initiative to find a new counselor, and make a concerted effort to eliminate these behaviors. Admission of wrong without repentance may affect respect, but it will never produce reconciliation or change.
I see the above behaviors most prevalent in cases where one partner forces the other to show up to counseling. This opens the door for a power struggle to occur between the two partners and usually expresses itself through manipulation in all its sinister forms, such as emotional blackmail, guilt-tripping, withholding sex, the silent treatment, threatening divorce, and more. Regardless of how much they want to change, the need to defend their right to be treated with love and respect will always outweigh their desire to have a healthy relationship. Resentment will be more prevalent than mutual servanthood, and self-protection more advantageous than selflessness.
The Wrong Mental Approach
This marriage therapy fail manifests itself in several different ways, so let’s examine them one at a time:
- The Me vs. You mentality (also known as “I’m right/you’re wrong”) — This approach treats marriage therapy as an argument to be won, rather than a relationship to be healed. The couple often wants the therapist to act as a judge and jury between them, instead of as a teacher-guide. Too often, these couples just want their point of view validated. They are not invested in solving the problem with their spouse. They are only interested in being right. Couples that persist in approaching counseling in this way will only wind up having a new arena in which to snarl and bite at each other. Marriage therapy, however, is there to teach you how to use a “Us vs. It” mentality for your problems. Regardless of its size, every problem you have in life can be an attack on the “oneness” you vowed to have with your partner. Therefore, you must be allies against whatever tries to separate you. Combined strengths are necessary for marital survival and will increase alignment, unity, and security within your relationship. But a house divided cannot stand.
- The Self-Centered Mentality — You look at your problems from a self-centered perspective and expect counseling to be about teaching your partner how to please you. This exposes a belief that marriage should be all about your happiness, rather than our joy. Couples that approach counseling in this way often devolve into blaming behaviors, because “he/she is not making me happy.” But if counseling couples for over 20 years has taught me anything it is that wherever there is blame, there exists a shifting away from personal responsibility. These are the people who will say things like, “I know I’m not perfect” or “I know I’ve contributed to problems in the marriage” but cannot specify what their role has been when pressed on the issue. If a spouse believes that his job is to improve the happiness quotient in his partner, he will operate out of a dynamic of fear rather than love. In other words, he will: a) measure his success as a spouse by the mood of his partner b) choose what to do in order to “stay out of trouble,” instead of “how to express love” c) feel a need to rebalance the scales of power in the relationship, which can lead to continual opposition of his partner and d) stall the therapeutic process in its tracks. If you are so invested in being self-centered, then make sure you keep score on the right person — yourself.
- The Microwave Mentality — You expected marriage counseling to work in 3-5 sessions. This just isn’t the reality. Successful marriage therapy can take a minimum of 6 months. Why? Because the average length of time that couples wait before entering therapy is 6 years, and considering that you meet only 1x a week for an hour with a therapist, can you realistically expect that they should be able to help you and your spouse restore in 3-5 hours what it took you years to corrode? You have to learn to reattach to each other and develop feelings of empathy towards each other so that you can lay a solid foundation for a successful relationship with your spouse.
- The Hidden Heart Mentality — You believe that even though secrets got you into this mess, secrets can get you out of it too. Therefore, you hold back. Although you may be truthful, you are not completely honest. What’s the difference? Truthfulness is an accurate retelling of the facts. (e.g., “I had one piece of cake last night”). Honesty exposes where the heart was during the event (e.g. “I wanted to have that second piece really badly, but I didn’t.”) I usually see this behavior in unfaithful partners. They like to drip out information in an effort to “protect” their spouse’s heart. In reality, though, they are only protecting themselves. And with each new piece of information that they give to their spouse, they reset the marriage counseling back to square one.
- The Fortune Teller Mentality — You treat marriage counseling as a cost-benefit analysis. I see this especially in spouses who have been betrayed. Marriage therapy, though, cannot provide you with a definitive answer on whether or not the risk of staying will be more rewarding than the risk of leaving. It may clarify some thinking, but the point of marriage therapy is not to help you decide whether to stay or go. The point is to either relieve or heal what is broken. If you need help deciding whether you should stay or leave, then don’t call it therapy. Call it what it is: advice.
- The Saboteur Mentality — One (or both) of you is sabotaging the process. This is usually seen in people who will not give up their abusive, addictive, or enabling behaviors. Simply stated, successful marriage therapy cannot survive if a person is unwilling to address and overcome these issues. A subset of this mentality is also seen in the person who has already passed their point of no return in the marriage. They know they want a divorce. They may have already looked at apartment listings and consulted an attorney, but they are coming to counseling anyway in order to assuage their feelings of guilt. Such people literally do nothing to move the counseling forward. Their inaction or continual relapses blow up the process before it can gain momentum.
When It Fails…Now What?!
Depending on the above reason why your marriage counseling failed your marriage may still have a chance or not. As you may have noticed, however, you may need to reevaluate how you were approaching therapy and try again.
As you do this, you may want to ask yourself if you were approaching it as a diet or as a lifestyle change? Were you wanting a quick fix or were you looking for a new way of doing relationship with each other that will last a lifetime? If you are going to retry marriage counseling, it is imperative that you focus on long-term solutions, rather than quick fixes, and lifestyle changes over immediate results.
You must also honestly evaluate the issues that brought you to marriage counseling and decide what you contribute to the problems in the relationship as well as what you can contribute to the success of the relationship. Without this honest self-evaluation, you are likely to repeat the same mistakes you made in previous attempts at therapy and wind up with the same results.
Aside from self-evaluation, though, what else can be done when marriage therapy has failed?
Here are some possible suggestions for you to follow:
Consider the Source
In this case, I mean the therapist that you employed. Most therapists say that they do marriage therapy, but not all of them are well-trained or have extensive experience working with couples. And even if they are good at what they do, some therapists are too blunt. Some aren’t blunt enough. And some have a personality that just does not “click” with you. It may be time to consider that the reason the therapy failed was not because of the information or because your issues were too difficult to overcome. You just may not have found that provider with whom you can both talk to and learn from. If this is the case, then I would recommend you do some research with your next therapist. Call them and do a pre-session interview over the phone. Ask them what percentage of their clients are couples; do they have training in EFT or the Gottman method; how long have they been in practice; and are they a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT)? This last question is not an absolute prerequisite. I myself am not an LMFT. I am an LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), but over 50% of my caseload is with couples. I have 20+ years of experience and I have found success using a variety of methods with my clients, including EFT and Gottman techniques. You may also ask if they have experience working with specific issues that you and your spouse exhibit, e.g. infidelity. Every therapist is human and as such we all have issues that we know we have limited ability to help. Any respectable therapist will be honest with you about where their limitations lie and what they can or cannot do for you. If you do not know where to begin looking for a new therapist, you can always get referrals from friends, pastors, or insurance lists. Or you can search the listings on any of the following websites. All of the sites listed below allow you to search by zip code and provide bios about the counselor you so that you have a feel for who you could be working with:
- PsychologyToday .com
- Theravive – Psych Central
- AAMFT.org (American Assoc. of Marriage and Family Therapists)
- AACC.net (American Assoc. of Christian Counselors)
Stop Trying to Do This on Your Own
Find a good support group that will give you wise and godly counsel. These need to be more than just “Yes” men,. They need to be people who will hold you accountable and will call you out on your BS. You don’t have to blab your situation to the whole world, but you cannot keep things inside and pretend that everything is normal either. Having a solid group who will give you honest opinions and objective views will be essential to discovering which pathway may be the best for you.
Get a Mentor
Find a couple that does marriage well, and understands the struggles that couples undergo. They need to be able to frequently meet with you, hold you accountable, pray with you, develop a friendship, and provide guidance through the questions and difficulties you and your spouse may be facing. Most of the marriage mentoring programs I am aware of are at churches, and a quick Google search for “Marriage Mentors” with your city’s name after it should bring up a quick list of places that have programs. As of right now, there are no directories of marriage mentoring programs that I can find. However, Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, who began www.marriagementoring.com have an online marital assessment called SYMBIS. This directory may be able to connect you with a church that also does marriage mentoring.
Marriage Retreats or Weekends
What’s the difference? Weekends last only for 2 1/2 to 3 days. Retreats can last anywhere between 3-5 days. Marriage weekends are typically group-oriented, have speakers, are educational in nature, and are generally cheaper than a retreat. Two of the most well-known and trusted of these weekends is from Family Life Today, called A Weekend to Remember and Hope Restored (from Focus on the Family). The cost for this A Weekend to Remember is usually around $200, while Hope Restored is between $400-$500.
Retreats, on the other hand, are a more intensive approach. They can offer one-on-one counseling, group therapy, and can cost between $700 to $12,000. For a listing of some of the best marriage retreats out there today, detailing services, prices, locations, etc., Click Here. However, many retreats have developed online versions of their services to reduce costs and to make it more accessible. One of the most trusted of these online retreats is Marriage Fitness and has been used by over 2,000,000 people and claims a 90% success rate.
A marriage intensive is a 1-2 day intensive couple’s therapy session. Therapy sessions can last up to 8 hours in length and strive to educate, practice healthy relationship skills, and resolve issues that plague your marriage. It, too, can be costly, but the dividends can be outstanding. One of the best resources for this option is the Smalley Institute. They have 8 locations over the country and are well-respected in what they do. Marriage therapists in your local area may offer this as an alternative to weekly sessions as well. Most of these intensives do not go through insurance and must be paid out of pocket.
Most communities offer some marriage classes at their local counseling practices. These are usually facilitated by a licensed counselor and vary in cost. Sometimes these can be filed with insurance under “group therapy” or they may be paid out of pocket. The cost, though, is typically reasonable, even if it is on a cash basis. Classes can last for several weeks and each class session can range between 1-3 hours in length. If you are looking for the free version of a marriage class, you may want to consult your local church. Although these classes are not typically led by a professional, you may be able to receive the information you need to make your marriage work.
Online Relationship Inventories
Inventories are a fun, scientific, and cheap alternative to receiving information about your marriage. Some inventories, such as Enrich, and SYMBIS cost around $30-$40 to take, but require a trained facilitator to review the information with you. Reviewing your results with this facilitator may take several sessions and may be an additional cost to you as well. Some inventories, like the 5 Love Languages, are free. If you click on the SERVICES tab at the top, you will see that I offer online counseling for couples and am a trained facilitator for Prepare/Enrich. I plan on becoming a SYMBIS facilitator soon and adding this service to my site as well.
Other ideas you may want to consider are watching videos from FierceMarriage.com, online coaching with Marriage365, or taking online courses (One of the best I have found for couples suffering the pain of infidelity comes from the Affair Recovery Center. Their course is called an EMS — Emergency Marital Seminar — and has had lasting, positive effects for couples who commit to the work that is involved.)
If all else fails, you may have to consult with an attorney. Before you do, though, please review this quick reference guide on Reasons to Stay or Leave.
If you must consult with a lawyer, don’t go into the initial consultation cold. Each state handles divorces differently so you may need to do a little research about your state. However, here are some basic questions you may want to consider asking during your initial consultation, according to Divorce Magazine:
- What areas of law do you practice? This will ensure the lawyer actually specializes in divorce and family law. Lawyers that practice in multiple areas of the law probably do not have the requisite expertise you need.
- What geographical area and courts do you cover? This will ensure the lawyer is familiar with the judges in your district.
- What experience do you have with divorce cases? This will ensure the lawyer knows how to handle a divorce case from start to finish and your case is not one of the first divorce cases he or she has handled.
- How will you help me resolve my divorce case? This will ensure you “fit” with the lawyer. Do they want to be aggressive or are the settlement-minded?
- What accreditations do you have? Various institutions have varios legitimate ways to provide accreditation to divorce lawyers. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML – www.aaml.org) is one of those institutions. Some state bars also provide a certification for specialization.
- Have you ever taught a family law legal seminar? This will ensure the lawyer is “recognized” as a divorce expert.
- How much is your retainer? This will ensure you receive a comprehensive description of the lawyer’s billing practice and what you should expect.
- What is your hourly rate and your staff’s hourly rate?
- What do you estimate the total cost of my divorce to be? No lawyer can tell you what the total cost of a divorce will be, unless they take the case on a “flat fee” basis. They should give you an idea of the cost based on the facts of your case. Beware of lawyers that charge a flat fee – they have an interest in resolving your case quickly, which means a settlement without aggressive representation in necessary situations.
- Do you offer different types of representation? Some lawyers may offer “consultation” services or other ways to help keep your legal fees to a minimum.
- Do you utilize mediation? The option of mediation or other ways to use cooperation to settle a case should always be a divorce lawyers priority to discuss with a client.
- How will property be divided in my case?
- How might alimony (spousal support), child support, and child custody be ordered in my case?
- How do you communicate with your clients? This will ensure the lawyer uses technology in an efficient way, which will keep your costs down.
- Tell me about yourself personally. This will ensure that you and the lawyer are “fit” to work together.
(taken from DivorceMagazine.com; https://www.divorcemag.com/blog/15-questions-to-ask-a-divorce-lawyer/)
Don’t Give Up
Things may not have been going well for a while. But that’s okay.
Restoration, rekindling of emotions, and reconciliation is possible.
Marriage may not be a party at the beach, but you and your partner can learn what you are doing wrong, and what you can do better.
You can learn from your mistakes.
With a bit of honesty and a touch of creativity, it is possible to have the marriage you’ve always wanted.
So, don’t give up! You have a lot of options available to you.