When is Couples Therapy Not Likely Going to Work?

If you recognize the scenarios below, while it’s not guaranteed that couples therapy won’t work, it has a lower probability for success, or at minimum, be highly frustrating in the early stages.

However, I always feel that couples therapy “works” in the sense that it provides sometimes much needed, although often much denied information. Because our actions and reactions are all information, the way each person responds to couples therapy reveals a lot, e.g., their temperament, general orientation towards collaboration, their assessment of the credibility of the partner making the suggestion, openness towards change.

So, instead of reacting to negative actions or delving into “I know why he/she is like that,”  you may want to step back and ask yourself, “What do I want to do with this information?”

This question is also a major point of couples therapy. Sometimes partners can start off really cut off and angry, but as they process through layers of defenses, they start slowly gravitating back towards each other. Sometimes, however, the opposite happens. People stall, stagnate or go backwards.

So, in these scenarios when couples therapy “isn’t working” due to one or both partner’s resistances, is precisely what people may need to see. Sometimes it doesn’t work because a partner might simply want out, but isn’t quite ready to say goodbye. So, while he/she is participating in couples therapy, the couple isn’t progressing together towards resolution, instead towards an end

Challenges to Couples Therapy Work

  • One or both partners don’t like the idea of couples therapy at all.
  • A partner is afraid they will be “bitched at” for an hour.
  • The idea of sharing your private world with an outsider in uncomfortable.
  • Couples don’t emotionally “connect” with therapist. There may be more alignment between therapist and one partner, rather than primarily between the couple. Or, there is a perception that the therapist is more on “one person’s side.”
  • “Real” issues are covered up, not addressed. If the therapist doesn’t infer what’s at the root of the problem, partners don’t bring it forward.
  • Material from couples therapy is used as ammunition later, partner(s) manipulate truths shared while in a vulnerable
    state as little grenades of injury, sabotaging the positive outcomes made while in the consulting room.
  • One partner always has to be right and dismiss the other. Pervasive lack of respect is a hard one to crack. This is different from someone lashing out and being in pain but who wants to be respectful to their partner. Usually partners feel the difference.
  • Couples are comfortable and distracted with the day-to-day, which keeps the status quo, rather than encouraging each to adopt new mindsets.
  • There can be subtle issues with the therapist. She can be stressed to stay on schedule, or not have enough personal or clinical experience with hard issues, or possibly project or transfer onto the couple.
  • Traffic & Scheduling.  People are often rushed with daily life and traffic, and come into the the office already stressed and distracted.
  • Money. While often cited, money may or may not be the barrier to couples therapy, instead fear of the unknown or of exposing a secret may be more the reality.

When I started working in longer increments, couples often described these more intense sessions as the catalyst for significant shifts in their relationship. If you are feeling frustrated, this format may be ideal to get past many of the blocks quickly and help you both down the road to make real progress.

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