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When Marriage Counseling Fails

When Marriage Counseling Fails

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. 


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. 

Third, seek a ‘strength-based’ counselor. Many counselors are trained to ‘find out what is wrong in the marriage.’ With this training and orientation, they tell you everything they see that is wrong with your marriage. Of course this only serves to make matters worse if this counsel is not coupled with observing and building upon the strengths in your marriage. Your counselor notes, and help you note, what you do well in your marriage. What are the ties that bind you together in a healthy way? 

Fourth, seek a counselor willing to offer clear and specific guidance. If you could find your way out of your jam on your own, you wouldn’t need a counselor. Sitting with a counselor who only does reflective listening can make you feel good temporarily, but you need an ‘emotional surgeon,’ willing to make incisive comments and observations. This won’t always feel good, but you will sense you are getting to ‘the heart of the matter.’ If you don’t have a sense that you are receiving specialized, skilled, decisive direction, you’re not getting your money’s worth. 

Finally, find a counselor who is available to you. While most counselors work 9-5, Monday through Friday, not all issues arise during ‘banker’s hours.’ Increasingly I find I must often schedule multiple sessions per week during the crisis phase of marriage counseling. At times I must take phone calls or answer emails to ensure the couple is staying on track with homework assignments or managing their conflicts effectively. Good marriage counselors aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and listen carefully to the needs of their clients, changing course as is needed and requested. 

What is the bottom line? You must feel a sense of direction and traction in your counseling. If frustrated, share your frustration with your counselor. If they are unwilling to alter their course, find another counselor who will work effectively with you. You must feel satisfied and have a sense of teamwork. If you don’t, something is wrong. 

Living Beyond a Broken Marriage from drdavidhawkins on GodTube.

What have you found helpful in marriage counseling? Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center and my Marriage Intensives on my website and You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.

Publication date: November 2, 2012