Why Some Couples Counselling Falls Short

There is no doubt in my mind that couples counselling can help many couples overcome challenges and better navigate the ups and downs of the life journey.  I have seen it in my own life and practice — helping to improve communication and problem-solving. However, it’s not uncommon for couples (or one half of a couple) to feel uncomfortable in couples counselling or that it doesn’t work. This blog identifies some of the reasons why couples therapy or marriage counselling doesn’t work for everyone.

One of the primary challenges is the timing of seeking help. Many couples wait until their relationship is on the brink of collapse before seeking therapy, making it harder to address deep-rooted issues. Early intervention can be crucial, as it allows therapists to guide couples in developing healthier communication patterns and addressing concerns before they escalate. When you have unhealthy patterns for long periods of time, these poor memories can replace the good ones — making it hard to remember why you’re there working on this in the first place.  It can also make it harder to feel motivated to repair when conflicts arise. Relationship therapist and researcher John Gottman suggests couples are in real trouble when they can no longer remember good times, cannot repair, and cannot accept repair attempts when one half tries.

Communication breakdowns within the counselling process itself can also contribute to failure. Much of the disappointment couples feel with each other come from misaligned expectations, unspoken assumptions, or unresolved conflicts. These can all impede progress. Even a highly skilled therapist can have trouble creating a safe space for couples to express themselves.  It’s a delicate balance, especially when trust issues are already a problem for one or both halves of the couple.

Additionally, a lack of commitment from one or both partners can be a significant obstacle. Buried resentments, repressed needs, active affairs, untreated trauma and addiction — can all interfere with the active participation needed and a commitment to change. If one partner is unwilling or resistant, it can hinder progress and result in a stagnant therapeutic process.  While the therapist might be blamed for being unable to ‘fix’ the problems — many couples therapists will refuse to work with couples until these issues are resolved or at least addressed.

There are external factors that can also impede progress, such as financial stress, work pressure, or family dynamics. These cannot be ignored. These external stressors can create additional challenges for couples, making it difficult to focus on the therapeutic process. Addressing these external factors alongside the relationship issues is essential for a comprehensive approach to counselling.

Another factor to consider is the therapist’s approach and expertise. Not all therapists specialize in couples counselling, and selecting a professional with the right skills and experience is crucial. Different therapeutic modalities may be more effective for certain issues, emphasizing the importance of tailored approaches based on the unique dynamics of each couple.  It’s OK if you feel a therapist isn’t the right fit for you. However, if you find yourself “therapist hopping”, there is likely something else going on that is not being addressed.

Finally, unrealistic expectations about the counselling process itself can lead to disappointment. Couples therapy is not a quick fix but rather a journey. It requires time, effort, and commitment. Unrealistic expectations can set couples up for frustration, especially if they anticipate immediate resolution to complex issues.

In conclusion, there are  couples counseling depends on a myriad of factors, and recognizing these challenges is the first step towards improvement. By navigating these complexities, couples and therapists have a better chance of positive outcomes and happier couples.

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