Previous Counseling Felt Useless
“We tried couple counseling before and it felt useless.”
I hear that a lot. Here are some common places to look to explain what may be going on there.
The therapist’s training and experience
About 82% of clinicians (psychologists, counselors, social workers, etc.) routinely work with couples, but only about 12% have received specific training in how to do it. This means if you just contact a therapist at random and ask, “Do you work with couples” 82% of therapists will say yes, but 70% of those have no particular training. If you end up seeing one of those therapists, you are pretty likely to end up feeling like it wasn’t very effective. You may even have felt like it caused more harm than good. Add to this all the pastors and other religious leaders who regularly work with couples but are not trained in doing so, and it’s more likely than not, unfortunately, that a couple will end up disappointed.
Your investment in practicing and learning to apply new skills
If you’re seeing a trained couples counselor, what you and your partner bring to the process is as important as the therapist’s training. A trained couples counselor will know how to help you, but a lot will depend on how much time you put into practicing the new skills you are learning at home. You may have meant well when you started therapy but not really understood would be required from you.
Commitment of both partners
Both partners have to be all in. If both partners are not fully on board, I can meet with them for a few sessions, start developing rapport, and see if the less committed partner comes around, but I can’t make someone commit to the process. Even with 100% commitment, couples therapy can be hard work, so when one partner is not very committed, it severely lowers the likelihood of success. (If you’re a female who has struggled to get your partner interested in therapy, try this. And this.
Sometimes both partners really want to do whatever is required to save the relationship, but one or both are in a very difficult season at work, where the demands make it impossible to commit as much as will be necessary. Sometimes one partner has badgered the other partner about therapy so much that that person hasn’t really had a chance to fully buy into it at the time therapy starts. Sometimes a new child has just been born and there’s just too much extra stress and not enough sleep to be able to get down to business. Timing matters.
A personal mental or emotional issue affecting the relationship
A person struggling deeply with bipolar, PTSD, depression, OCD, or other clinical issues may need to do some individual therapy first and get their personal issue under control so they can apply themselves fully to the couples work. Part of my job is to help assess whether this may be the case.
It may be too late
I debated whether or not to include this one because I don’t want you to not be hopeful, or to delay getting help even longer because you’re afraid you’ve already waited too long and it won’t work.
But the number one reason couples therapy fails is because couples wait too long to get help. The average couple waits six years after a problem flares up to get the help they need. A point comes where there’s too much water under the bridge. Too much hurt, or resentment, or anger, or distance. By this time one partner just can’t bring themself to care anymore. Unfortunately when they reach this point is exactly when the other partner often starts saying, “I’ll do anything to fix the relationship,” but it’s too little too late. You can will yourself to invest time and effort into repairing your relationship as long as you still care about it. But you cannot will yourself into caring. You either do or you don’t. Sometimes in these situations I can help the partner who no longer cares to really search themself, to look deeply at the investment they have already made, and sometimes they will discover they care more than they had realized. But if not, there’s usually nothing I or the other partner or even the person who no longer cares can do to make them care again.
If your partner is at the place where they are saying they no longer care, this doesn’t mean your relationship is definitely doomed, but I can’t say that’s not a really serious problem. If one partner no longer cares and isn’t willing/able to invest in the work, the greatest therapist on the planet isn’t going to be able to fix what’s broken.
But please don’t try to evaluate this for yourself. If this is your situation, let’s at least get on the phone and talk about it. Let a professional help you understand the position you are really in.
It is with this understanding that I tell couples you need to take issues in your relationship seriously, and get help ASAP. And what you need to take most seriously of all is when your partner says they want you to go to therapy with them. In many instances where one partner stops caring, it happens because they have been unhappy and hurting in the relationship for years, sometimes decades, and begged the other partner to go to therapy with them, and were told, “It’s no one’s business but ours.” “It’s not that serious.” “You’re just too dramatic.” “We can handle this on our own.”
If you want to end your relationship, one of the most effective things you can do is refuse to take your partner seriously when they tell you they are unhappy and want you to go to therapy with them. That is a tragedy waiting to happen.