The complaints are commonplace, but never cease to impact me. With thirty-five years of experience, and thousands of couples telling me their story, I’m still saddened when I listen to the frustrations of opportunities lost. 

A couple seeking “something different” alerted me once again to an ongoing problem rarely talked about: many couples have gone to multiple counselors, feeling frustrated, discouraged and even annoyed with the experience. 

“No offense, doc,” Steven said to me recently in their initial couple’s counseling session. A tall man with a graying goatee, he spoke forcefully and deliberately. 

“Cynthia and I have done this before, and it didn’t help then. Why should I expect that it will help now?” 

I looked over at Cynthia, a forty-year old woman, energetic, stylish, but with a hint of annoyance on her face. 

“I wouldn’t say it didn’t help at all,” she said matter-of-factly. “I think we got a few skills out of it. But, it didn’t take long for us to slip right back where we are now—and we’re not doing well.” 

“I want to understand this,” I said to them. “I want to know what worked and what didn’t.” 

“Actually,” Steven began slowly, “we’ve seen a few different counselors over the years. None of them helped us much.” 

Cynthia nodded her head. 

“Maybe it’s us,” she admitted. “But, we couldn’t connect with some of the counselors. Others helped a little, but not enough. We’re not sure what the matter is. We need something different this time.” 

An email echoing Steven and Cynthia’s complaints came to me recently, spurring me to look deeper into the matter. 

Dear Dr. David. My wife and I have been going to counseling for six or seven weeks, and I must say I’m pretty frustrated with the whole process.. We spend fifteen minutes getting to the topic at hand, get into it, and before you know it it’s time to go. My husband and I leave in silence, don’t talk for two days, and try to hold on until our next counseling session. Anyway, the progress is painfully slow and we’re thinking about stopping. Sometimes it seems like we were doing better before counseling. Does counseling really help, or is it possible that counseling actually makes matters worse at times?  We need something different. 

---Discouraged

My answer is, “something different.” Let’s delve further into the matter. For the most part, my experience tells me there is not much different happening in the counseling field. My informal reflection on the subject suggested far too many couples had seen far too many counselors with far too little effective results. What was the matter? I’ve come up with a few ideas to consider which will help you as you consider marriage counseling. 

First, find a counselor who is competent. Just as you would do research before going to a medical doctor, do the same due diligence when seeking marriage counseling. Not only do you want a counselor with excellent education (with at least a Master’s degree), you also want someone trained and particuarly interested in marriage counseling. While most counselors say they do marriage counseling, very few receive specialized training in the field. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about their interest in the field, experience as well as specific questions as to their rate of success. Seek a marriage counselor who has a specific protocol for marriage counseling and feels confident with it. 

Second, determine your counselor’s attitude toward marriage. Again, don’t be afraid to ask about their stance regarding marriage. Do they actively promote divorce? Do they actively promote marriage? What are their beliefs and how do they play out in the marriage counseling process? Some counselors are ‘neutral’ about marriage and don’t actively try to ‘save a marriage.’ Instead, if there is too much conflict in the marriage, they will encourage separation and divorce.