People enter couples counseling hopeful it will help strengthen their relationships. Unfortunately, many couples stumble because they are unknowingly doing things that sabotage marriage counseling. By learning what they are, and how to avoid them, you can have a truly productive experience in marriage counseling.
Counseling is not a magic pill. It’s a process that you have to engage with intentionally, and many couples aren’t sure how to do that. To begin with, they don’t know how to find a marriage counselor who is actually qualified to help them (because, unfortunately, many are not!), or the mindsets they need to embrace in order for couples counseling to work. If their relationship doesn’t improve, they may believe it’s beyond repair, when in reality they didn’t get the right help, or they didn’t know how to use it.
When your relationship is in trouble, the stakes are high. Whether you need counseling now or someday in the future, I don’t want you to believe your only option is to file for divorce and tear apart your family simply because you don’t know what you don’t know. I hope this article will help you avoid that outcome, and get the help for your relationship you need and deserve.
I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. It’s a conversation between myself and my colleague Jenna P., MA, LPC, MFTC. Jenna is a marriage counselor and relationship coach on our team at Growing Self, and together, we’re discussing the seven most common mistakes that couples make in marriage counseling. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Things that Sabotage Marriage Counseling #1 — Not Working with an MFT
If you do a quick Google search for “marriage counselors near me,” you’ll get a list of professionals with different letters after their names. If you live in the United States, you’ll probably see some PhDs, LPCS, PsyDs, and LCSWs appearing alongside the MFTs. They all advertise couples counseling, but they aren’t all qualified to provide it.
Marriage and Family Therapists or MFTs are required to have years of education and training that is focused specifically on relationship systems. They are trained to approach couples counseling from a systemic lens, which means they can identify the roles each partner is playing in creating their relationship dynamic, and the things they can each do differently to create positive change. For an MFT, the client is the relationship itself, not either one of the individuals who are participating in it.
This is actually very different from the kind of training that individual therapists receive, and that includes those with doctorate-level degrees. Individual therapists are trained to diagnose and treat mental health conditions. They are focused on rooting out the source of dysfunction and then fixing it. This is a helpful model for individuals, but it’s not a good way to repair relationship systems.
If you see an individual therapist for couples counseling, it’s likely that your sessions will start to feel like a quest to uncover “which partner has the problem.” Do you want to be the partner with the problem? Does your partner? I doubt it!
Individually trained therapists are also often unaware of ethical boundaries when working with couples, such as not transitioning into couples therapy with a client they had been seeing solo, or not keeping secrets between partners. They may unwittingly cause harm to your relationship, just because they aren’t aware of these concerns.
Sadly, many couples call it quits in their marriages after just one failed attempt at counseling, because they believe they’ve tried everything and their relationship couldn’t be saved. You may only get one shot at couples counseling. Make sure you choose someone who is actually qualified to help you.
Are there some exceptions to these rules? Of course — some individual counselors have done continued education beyond their degrees so they can provide couples counseling effectively. Some of the LPCs and PhDs on your list might have the skills to approach your relationship in a helpful, healing way. But if you choose an MFT, you can be certain they do.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
Marriage Counseling Mistake #2 — Waiting Too Long to Seek Help
It is so much easier to help clients improve their relationships when things are still fundamentally good. But only the most proactive couples seek counseling under these circumstances (not coincidentally, they also tend to be the happiest couples).
Many people buy into the myth that counseling is only for couples who have serious problems. But working on your relationship intentionally is how you prevent problems from becoming serious. As communication problems are left unchecked, conflict becomes nastier and more frequent. People begin to develop negative narratives about each other’s character, and lose trust that they’re on each other’s side. They begin emotionally disconnecting, until they’re in a lonely relationship that feels empty and unsatisfying. Their commitment to each other wanes. One person may eventually leave the relationship, or they both may trudge along unhappily for a few more decades. It’s a loss for everyone, and an unnecessary one.
A good couples counselor could have easily intervened early on in this process, and helped the couple communicate more effectively, repair trust, and reconnect emotionally. But this is much more difficult when things have been bad for a long time. If one partner has already reached the “emotional point of no return,” there’s nothing the best marriage counselor in the world can do. The relationship will fail.
If you’re wondering when to get marriage counseling, the answer is sooner rather than later. The worst thing that could happen if you seek help too soon is that you will have gotten everything you needed out of counseling after two or three sessions and then you can be done. But if you seek help too late, you stand to lose a lot.
Marriage Counseling Mistake #3 — Mixed Agendas
It’s a myth that everyone comes into couples counseling with the goal of improving their relationship.
Some people come because they want to be able to say they tried before pulling the plug. Some come because they believe their partner needs help and this is the only way they’ll get it. Some don’t really want their relationship to change, they just want their partner to get off their back. Many others feel ambivalent about working on their relationship and they come to counseling to see if it sways them one way or the other.
The person coming into counseling with one of these “alternative” agendas may not even realize it themselves. But the sessions will feel like you’re spinning your wheels. Change will be glacial or non-existent, and the reasons won’t make sense (except to an experienced couples counselor who can spot a mixed-agenda couple).
In order for couples therapy to work, both members need to be there for the purpose of improving the relationship. If that isn’t the case for you yet, that doesn’t mean your relationship is beyond help. It just means you may need to spend a few sessions in discernment counseling getting clear about what you want for the future of your relationship, and what the process would look like for making things better. Once you’re both clear about that, then couples therapy can be effective.
Mistake #4 — Coming to Counseling to ‘Fix’ Your Partner
When couples have conflict, it’s normal for both people to believe that their way of being is right and their partner’s is wrong, and if they could just get their partner to change, then things would be better. Many people have the expectation that their couples counselor will see the situation from their point of view and that the focus of the work will be on fixing their partner’s “issues.”
These clients are often a little taken aback to learn that they have a role to play in their relationship’s problems, and that to create change, they have to make some changes themselves. This can be tough to swallow when you have genuinely been hurt or let down by your partner. It’s very human to want some external validation from a third party who can take your “side” — but every good couples counselor knows that they have to maintain a neutral, supportive relationship with both of you, otherwise they won’t be able to help your relationship.
This is a positive thing. If we don’t understand our own impact on our relationship, we have no power to create change. We’re just at the mercy of other people’s misdeeds. When we begin to see and take responsibility for the relationship we’re both creating together every day, we become empowered to create the relationship we want.
Mistake #5 — Not Following Through Outside of Sessions
The real work of couples counseling happens at home. In sessions, you will have important conversations that will help you understand each other on a deeper level, but if you go home and don’t say much to each other besides “pass the salt,” it won’t make a difference. You’ll learn new skills, but they won’t change how your relationship feels until you’ve practiced them outside of your sessions until they become second nature.
In between sessions, you’re doing the real work of counseling. When you meet with your counselor, you will reflect on how it’s going, where you’re making progress and where you’re getting stuck, and what else you can try. If you’re expecting progress to happen on your therapist’s couch, then your sessions will start to feel like you’re “just talking” with no tangible change.
Mistake #6 — Going Too Long In Between Sessions
To create changes that stick in couples counseling, it’s important to go regularly, especially in the beginning.
When couples start counseling on a bi-weekly or monthly schedule, a lot of the time with their counselor becomes devoted to catching up on what happened since the last session, leaving less room to go more deeply into things.
They’ll also be more prone to “relapse” or losing progress. Relationship systems are hard to change, and when change is new, it’s fragile. It’s one thing to learn better communication skills, and another thing to use them consistently when you’re feeling emotionally flooded or triggered by your partner. We have to practice new skills for a while before they become part of the fabric of our relationships, especially if we’ve been doing things differently for years.
Couples counseling works best when you’re learning, applying, reflecting, discussing, learning, applying, and so on. Attending sessions weekly in the beginning makes it much easier to stay on track. Once the changes become ingrained, then it makes sense to see your counselor less frequently.
Mistake #7 — Using Health Insurance for Couples Counseling
Many couples want to know whether or not health insurance will pay for marriage counseling.
Sometimes it will, but before you use health insurance to pay for couples counseling (or *shudder* choosing a marriage counselor on the basis of whether or not they accept your insurance), you should know what using insurance in this situation means.
In order for health insurance to cover counseling, one of you needs to have a diagnosis, and your sessions are supposed to be for the purpose of treating the diagnosis. Otherwise, it’s illegal for your therapist to bill the health insurance company. This medical model sometimes (but not always) makes sense for individuals using health insurance to pay for therapy to treat a mental health condition, but it usually doesn’t fit what couples need.
Repairing trust, restoring your strong emotional bond, deepening your commitment, working through conflict, and improving communication are valuable relationship goals, but they are not treatments for a mental health condition. Unless your counselor is willing to commit insurance fraud (in which case you have other things to worry about), those shouldn’t be the goals of couples counseling if it’s being paid for by health insurance. And if your counselor accepts your insurance and then creates a “treatment plan” focused on treating you or your partner’s depression, anxiety, or other “issues,” then that will compromise the growth-focused work that makes couples counseling valuable.
It’s true that some couples really do need marriage counseling for the purpose of treating one partner’s mental health condition. In those cases, using health insurance is appropriate. Otherwise, it’s better to find other ways to cover the cost of your sessions. Which probably won’t be as difficult as you may think — couples counseling can be affordable, and there are many highly qualified counselors who accept clients at sliding scale rates.
Effective Help for Your Relationship
I hope this article gave you some helpful information about the things that sabotage marriage counseling. If you haven’t already, check out the Love, Happiness and Success podcast episode on this topic for a deeper dive into each of these common mistakes.
If it’s time to get help for your relationship, do it right. You deserve to work with the best, and to get the most out of your experience in couples counseling. If you’d like to meet with a talented clinician on our team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — For more advice on improving your relationship, check out our “Relationship Repair” collection of articles and podcasts.
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