Deciding to see a couple’s therapist is never easy. It can bring up many painful and scary questions. For example, is going to see a therapist an admission that both I and my relationship are failures? What if couples therapy doesn’t work, will that mean the end of my relationship? And what if it does work, will that too push my relationship to the brink? Will I discover things that I am not ready to deal with? These are all normal and typical questions that folks may find themselves dealing with when pondering whether or not they should seek out the services of a couples therapist.

So, let’s talk about what someone can expect in couples therapy, when couples therapy makes sense, and when it can prove to be less than effective.

First, I think that any good couples therapist will help the couple to realize and understand dynamics within the relationship that can be undermining it. A couples therapist can act as a neutral facilitator to help couples overcome disagreements and impasses, embark on life transitions, and make important relationship decisions. Here are some specific instances where couples therapy can do a whole lot of good for a couple:

  • Resolving ineffective communication strategies
  • Resolving differences in expectations of and attitudes about the relationship
  • Resolving discrepancies in sexual desire and/or sexual interests
  • Deciding whether to make important life decisions, including whether or not to stay in the relationship
  • Overcoming infidelity and deceit

The common denominator in these situations is that a couple is so lost in the weeds, that they cannot step outside of the conflict or disagreement to see the bigger picture. This is why it can be so helpful to have a neutral, third party facilitator that has worked with many couples before and so has the experience to guide them to a more desired solution. Also, many of these issues, such as communication, sexuality, big life decisions, and infidelity, carry a great deal of emotional weight, that many people find difficult to manage on their own. A good couples therapist can help each individual to sift through the emotional turmoil to make sense of the best course of action both for themselves and for the couple.

Let’s now take a look at the situations where couples therapy can be undermined:

Waiting Too Long

Sometimes a couple will just wait too long before seeing a professional, and only finally come when the relationship is on the very brink of falling apart. That’s a tough road to hoe for anyone. Often times there will be so much resentment built up over a lengthy number of years that it will take months, if not years, to rebuild the trust and good faith that has been destroyed. The question then is how much commitment and patience does the couple have for the process of change? Couples may come in knowing that they no longer want to experience pain, but they may also not be willing to put in the work. Here’s a typical example– a married couple comes in and the husband says that he took his wife to a romantic weekend getaway, where they made love all day, but now that they are back home, he wonders why she is still resentful of him. Turns out that the resentment between the two had built up for over 10 yrs, and so I told him that it was probably unrealistic to expect that 10 years of resentment would be solved by one nice weekend, and that probably the couple would need to work together over an extended period of time to undo the anger. They decided to separate rather than keep working.

Mixed Agendas

Sometimes couples come in with totally different goals. One member of the couple is trying to make things work, while the other is dead set on destroying it. In this scenario, it is not uncommon for the individual who is on the “outs” to actively try to sabotage the therapy in order to prove to the other individual that any attempt to save the relationship is futile. Sometimes one person drags the other one in, and rather than being earnestly interested in seeking ways to fix what’s wrong in the relationship, the individual is merely looking to scapegoat the other person and take no responsibility whatsoever for their own actions. Usually, if the therapist tries to approach the situation from a fair and balanced perspective, the “healthy” individual will end treatment because the “problem” individual is not being properly vilified. This obviously does not mean that there aren’t situations where one person has tremendously aggrieved the other; however, I am merely focusing right now on the agenda of each individual– rather than looking to fix a problem, an individual may bring another into therapy in order to find a collaborator to gang up with.

Unrealistic Expectations

This may in some ways be similar to the first situation (waiting too long), but this category differs in that it refers more to the expectation that the couples therapist will be able to transform the couple magically, regardless of the situation or circumstances. This includes thinking that complex problems can be resolved in a session or two or with a single technique or intervention introduced by the therapist. Most difficulties with couples are emotional in nature, involving painful feelings such as anger, shame, guilt, and grief, and so sorting through these emotions and using them in the service of the relationship, rather than against it, takes time. Sometimes one partner has absolutely no interest in changing and thinks nothing is wrong, or is just not ready to actively do something about it. Obviously nothing a therapist can do will force someone to change if they are not willing. And sometimes what the couple really needs is individual therapy in conjunction, or even in lieu of couples therapy. Someone who is abusive to his partner needs individual therapy– this is not the kind of issue that is resolved in a couples setting. Someone with personality disorders or addictions needs individual therapy. Couples therapy may be helpful, but it is not a replacement for individual therapy in these situations.  Attachment issues, extreme forms of avoidance and dependency– these are all issues that are frequently presented in couples treatment, but are more appropriate to be more deeply resolved with an individual therapist.

Couples therapy can be very powerful and helpful for many couples seeking to make positive changes in their relationship. However, there are some circumstances where couples therapy is more or less likely to be effective. If a couple is hoping to resolve years of resentment overnight, if they are trying to prove that a relationship is futile, if they are scapegoating another, or if they hope that a couples therapist will solve longstanding attachment or personality issues, they may find that they have embarked on a journey that has been set up to fail.