Picture this scenario:
There’s a couple, who love each other; but one day they realize they are having problems. Or maybe they aren’t even having problems, and instead they find themselves thinking that maybe there should be more to life.
Whatever is going on starts to put stress on their relationship, and they are starting to question if they really want this relationship any more. Or maybe they know they still want the relationships, but not as it currently is. They want to see some sort of changes that they believe will improve the relationship.
So, either because they think it may help or because other people are suggesting it is a good idea, they decide to see the help of a couples counselor.
The problem is, counselling often doesn’t work.
I don’t have any real hard numbers here, but from what I’ve seen only around 10% of couples show any sort of improvements in their relationship after seeing a counselor. And for people who choose to see a counselor, around 50% of the relationships end up failing.
That 50% number is right in line with overall divorce rates, so really, what’s the point. If seeing a counselor doesn’t really improve the success rate of relationships, it looks like it’s just a waste of time and money.
Is counselling nothing more than a waste of time and effort? Or can it actually help relationships?
I happen to believe counselling CAN be very valuable – both individually and as a couple. But you need to be doing it for the right reasons, and you need to go in with the right mindset.
Prevention or Cure?
The first big problem with counselling is, couples often go to a counselor WAY too late. In fact, many counselors feel that a couple has gone to see them a year or two later than they probably should have.
In many ways this is understandable. Our personal issues are, well, personal. Communication is hard at the best of times, which probably the biggest reason that couples get into trouble in the first place. Yet couples who are struggling with some sort of issues are supposed to now go to see some third party (with their partner) and talk to them about the exact issues they find it hard to talk to their partner about?
Ummm, yeah. Not fun, or easy. So it’s easy to see why people often opt to instead do nothing, and hope that this is something that will pass, or something they can just live with.
Except it doesn’t work that way. Ignoring things doesn’t work, and will never make things better.
As the saying goes:
Yet most couples see counselling a last resort, so what may have been fairly manageable issues tend to grow and become magnified. Resentment often sets in, and by the time people are willing to accept that it’s a big enough problem that they need to do something, there is a lot of damage that needs to be undone before any true improvements can be made.
Problem? What Problem?
Another big problem with counseling is, in order for it to be effective BOTH people must want it, and see a need for it. Unfortunately relationship issues often don’t work that way.
Commonly one person is actually pretty happy (or at least content) with the things that are a problem for the other person. This can make it very difficult to see any real improvements, because the person who wants to see changes needs to get buy-in from someone who doesn’t see a need for any changes.
An important thing to remember is, a relationship involves two people and both peoples needs/wants have to matter. If one person believes there is a problem (lets just call it an opportunity for improvement) – then guess what, there’s a problem. The other person who doesn’t really see this as an issue can’t just convince their partner it’s not an issue, or wish it away. Whether they like it or not, if their partner believes there is an issue then there’s a legitimate issue.
In fact, one of the WORST things they can do is try to convince their partner it’s not an issue. By doing that, they are invalidating their partners’ feelings and beliefs (hopefully unintentionally). And doing that will only serve to widen any gaps between a couple.
What is your Goal?
The last (and largest) problem I see with counselling is the reason people go.
See, we have this (broken) notion that unconditional love means you are being accepted “as you are”. And being accepted for who you are means you shouldn’t have to change.
But if a couple is talking about going to counselling, generally there is a reason. Something is not working, or could be working better.
And how is that supposed to happen without change?
I’m pretty sure a couple doesn’t expect to go to a counselor, describe their issues, and then have the counselor say something like “Sounds great, keep doing what you’ve been doing”. That won’t address anything. That won’t allow anything to improve.
No, couples go to counseling usually because one person is pushing them there, and on at least some level the person pushing for counseling is expecting the counselor to side with them.
They are expecting to go in and tell their story, and have the counselor “fix” their partner for them. They want the counselor to tell their partner to change their behavior in ways that better accommodate them, and their needs.
And that is where I think counselling really starts to fall apart; because that’s not what it’s for.
To me, counseling is not about determining who’s right or wrong. It’s not about having one person change their behavior to accommodate the other person.
It’s really about trying to understand the conflicts facing a couple, the gaps between their needs and wants, and trying to find a path forward works best for BOTH people.
And that will almost never involve change on only one side.
For counseling to be successful, I think both people need to be willing to face some potentially uncomfortable truths about themselves, and their roles in the problems their relationship faces. Yeah, one person may be “more to blame” than the other, but that doesn’t really matter. If you are looking for who’s to blame, you’re already in trouble.
What’s really more important – for things to be better, or for you to be right? People often say they want things to be better (for both people), but really they usually want to be right. Because accepting that they have contributed to the problems means they have to change too.
It’s easy to see how and why our partners should change to accommodate us, but looking at our own part in things? That’s hard. It means we may have to change some things too, and no one wants to change – because change is scary as hell.
If we buy a car, we understand we need to do periodic maintenance or it will break down (seriously, just try driving your car and never changing the oil. I promise it won’t be fun). If we buy a house we understand there is yard maintenance that needs to be done and general repair.
Hell, we understand that doing something like taking a bath or a shower on a regular basis is fairly important to personal hygiene.
Everything wears out, gets dirty or breaks down over time if you don’t maintain it. But our relationships? In theory they should be one of the most important things in our lives – yet most of us do a TERRIBLE job of even maintaining them (never mind growing them).
Counselling is often seen as a last resort for couples who are searching for how to “save” their relationship, or make it better. And often even when we do go, it’s more about how we can make the relationship better for us than it is about how to make life better as a couple.
So what is your goal? Do you truly want to grow old with your partner? If so, wouldn’t it maybe be a good idea to try and make your relationship the best it can be – for both of you?
If so, putting in effort and working on your relationship a little be every day may go a long way towards keeping it strong. Trying to truly listen to your partner, and acknowledge when problems exist (even when it doesn’t seem like a problem for you) and show willingness to work on them may also help.
Sometimes it’s hard to work through things together. Sometimes we do need a bit of help – and that shouldn’t be something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of.
Divorce rates continue to hover around 50%. And success rates for couples who seek counselling are also believed to be around 50%.
But if you could quantify the success rates for couples who are able to put ego aside and really focus on doing what’s best for “us” instead of what’s best for “me”, I’m confident the numbers would be considerably higher.
16 thoughts on “Why Counselling Fails”
Very well said as usual 🙂 I like when you put it that when buying a car we need to do some maintenance and it’s the same with marriage. I do agree with that.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Nice post, very thoughtful. It’s hard to realise when is the right time for therapy. You always think you can manage on your own… until you just can’t anymore and it is often too late, as you say in your post. I think that individual therapy is a good ground work to couples therapy. One need to be ready to work through his own issues before tackling ones couple issues..
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi there, I actually don’t think it’s ever *too late* for couples (if they are able to put the “we” before the “me”), but everything I have seen says couples often wait much longer than they should have, putting themselves in a bit of a hole that can be very hard to dig out from.
Regarding individual therapy, I agree fully. My one caution there is, like couples therapy the intent has to be to get better and healthier (mentally and emotionally) as a person. I hear a lot about cases where people go to individual therapy and basically use it as a venting session for their issues. Not all therapists are “good”, and there’s a big danger of therapists being used as a way for someone to try and get validation on their belief that the issue lies primarily with their partner. Which may or may not be true, but if someone can’t own their own part in the relationship issues, nothing will get better.
Thanks for the comment
I believe a big reason counseling fails is that the counselor is not active and structured enough nor skilled at couples counseling.
Particularly with couples counseling it is absolutely critical to have a plan and skills at not just turning it into explanations of what you hate about each other.
I have a lot of respect for Terry Real and Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson as specialists in marriage counseling. They say excellent couples therapy is more challenging than individual therapy.
Ellyn Bader’s List
“Here is what it takes to be a really skilled couples therapist.
Insight: You have insight and convey this to your couples. You can see what is wrong and you delineate the way out.
Initiative: You take initiative. You are not passive. Clients of yours will never say, “All she/he ever did was let us fight.”
Impact: You have impact. You move incisively in and out of their system. You make a difference preventing premature and unnecessary divorces.
Integrity: You push growth in your own relationships and live your life congruently with the risks you ask your clients to take.
Instill confidence and courage: You communicate with conviction that your clients can do what it takes to grow their marriages.”
LikeLiked by 1 person
Sadly you are right about counsellors. They aren’t all good, and even when you find a “good one”, their particular approach may not match the couple very well. Going back to my post though, a counselor can only work with what their clients give them. If clients come in and one of them has the attitude that they “are only there because their partner wants them to be there” it’s really hard to make progress. I think belief is everything. People need to buy into the process, and want to be there because they want to improve individually and as a couple.
I like the breakdown of what it takes to be a skilled couples therapist. Especially the part about integrity – living the life you preach.
I am taking an online marriage counseling course by Ellyn Bader and while it’s true that the couples have to responsibility, it’s also true that it is very, very common for couples to come in and just point to their partners faults.
A skilled marriage therapist challenges this assumption and know how to do this is a way that encourages change in this dynamic to get each person to accept responsibility.
I think most common do counselors “blame” the clients when it’s really their own lack of skill. Like blaming a patient when you are not a very good doctor at diagnosing and presenting an effective treatment plan for a disease.
Of course couples and individuals have responsibilities to follow the plan and work hard once the diagnosis and treatment plan are laid out.
Couples who go to marriage counseling are “sick”, but most therapists seem to think they should be well to get well. Doesn’t work which is why so much of marriage therapy actually makes things worse.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Also Terry Real says that virtually all of the couples he sees one person (usually the man) is there because the other person dragged him there.
That does not mean that therapy will not work if the therapist knows what they are doing.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I don’t think my replies were clear so let me take another stab at it.
“Going back to my post though, a counselor can only work with what their clients give them. If clients come in and one of them has the attitude that they “are only there because their partner wants them to be there” it’s really hard to make progress. I think belief is everything. People need to buy into the process, and want to be there because they want to improve individually and as a couple.”
I agree with you that for a couple to fix their marriage “people need to buy into the process, and want to be there because they want to improve individually and as a couple”.
If a couple is at that stage, they don’t even NEED a couples counselors. They could read a $20 book by Gottman or Johnson or Snarch or others and talk through the issues.
They could use a couples therapist for the process to facilitate if they can find a good one and have the time and money but it’s not necessary since they have the will and attitude to take responsiblity to change.
Most troubled marriages are stuck because one or both of the partners is not able to be differentiated enough to take responsibility and find a way to change to a healthier dynamic.
That is exactly why they need a skilled couples counselor so the inability to have those attitudes can be identified and active corrective steps laid out to get finally get to a place where real change is possible.
So I think it is exactly the kind of people who are the best candidates to be helped by a skilled couple therapist. If you are well enough to take a Tylenol and ice your injury you don’t need a doctor.
If you have a broken bone you can’t fix it with a good attitude and a willingness to change. You need a doctor.
Am I making sense? I feel like I’m not explaining myself well for some reason.
LikeLiked by 1 person
And if you have a broken bone you need to see
A doctor who will order and X-ray and put a cast in it not one who just wants you to talk about how much your leg hurts.
Yeah, I think I get what you’re saying here. And looking at it that way I suspect you’re correct when you say that “If a couple is at that stage (both want to be there to improve things), they don’t even NEED a couples counselors. They could read a $20 book by Gottman or Johnson or Snarch or others and talk through the issues.”
Where I struggle with this one is, you can’t ever make someone do something they don’t want to do. You have to find a way to make them buy into the process, and see how even though they may not be interested in being there, this will be beneficial to them in the long run. And I don’t think that’s an easy thing to do – which may be a big part of why so many counselors aren’t successful.
Really though, I think it’s probably a brutally difficult job (to be effective at). Kind of like being a general practitioner or even a teacher – anyone can take some courses and learn some techniques, but applying them effectively and being able to try and tailor your approach to the person you are working with is not always easy. I think many teachers/doctors/counselors are kind of like a carpenter that only has one type of hammer. They know one way of doing things, and that is what they will do. In the process they may reach a certain percentage of their clients with some degree of success, but many of the others fall through the cracks. The teacher/doctor/counselor can tell themselves that it was just because the ones they couldn’t reach were unreachable, but if they were able to change their approach then that may not be the case.
LikeLiked by 1 person
“I think many teachers/doctors/counselors are kind of like a carpenter that only has one type of hammer. They know one way of doing things, and that is what they will do. In the process they may reach a certain percentage of their clients with some degree of success, but many of the others fall through the cracks. The teacher/doctor/counselor can tell themselves that it was just because the ones they couldn’t reach were unreachable, but if they were able to change their approach then that may not be the case.”
Yes I totally agree!
Have you heard of movationak interviewing? It’s used in medical settings a lot. The doctor or nurse asks the patient what THEIR goals and helps them come with a treatment plan that works with their personality/envuronment etc.
Much better objective outcomes with this because you’re not just lecturing them and telling them do this or that which causes natural resistance for lost humans.
But if a diabetic is asked “are you interested in a plan for eating for better sugar control?” and if they say no you can ask their thoughts on that and perhaps find a new route. If they say yes you can give them information and ask them to set their own goals. Much much more likely to produce real change because it’s coming from their own motivation.
Therapy ideally should be similar to that. Getting the client to set their own goals and find ways to help them find their own motivation.
There’s a definite skill to it. I’ve tried applying motivational interviewing techniques with my kids and it takes a lot of discipline to keep it about the other persons goals.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’ve never heard the term “motivational interviewing”, but I guess I have heard of the concept. And it definitely makes sense, because it goes back to what I was saying earlier about buy-in. People need to buy into any process, and it’s easier to get buy-in when they are the one driving things.
I don’t think this always works though.
The problem I see is, it requires someone to actually know what they want. And in my experience people don’t always know that, and often have trouble trying to articulate it. Often people just know “something is wrong”, but they are unable to actually pinpoint *what* the problem is. All they know is they are unhappy, or dissatisfied with something about their life. And when you direct the questioning to try and help them see what the source of this dissatisfaction may be, there is often pushback. It’s almost as though people are unhappy, but they recognize improving this requires some sort of change, and they are terrified by the prospect of change. So they would rather remain unhappy then put in the effort required to do something about it. Bizarre (to me, as a solution oriented person), but it happens.
LikeLiked by 1 person
You said “the problem I see is, it requires someone to actually know what they want.”
Well that’s the beauty of certain skills. It’s obviously easier if the person knows what they want but as you said many people get stuck.
And that’s where a variety of approaches can work to help the person identify their emotions and goals etc. There at specific questions and exercises that can be used to help with those things.
Solution Focused therapy for example asks about other times in your life when there was an exception to the rule and they build on that. They also have the miracle question of if you woke up and a miracle happened and all your problems were gone what would be different? They go into great detail to elicit what you want and develop goals to get there.
Motivational interviewing similarly asks questions to help people figure out what they think and want if they don’t know.
Ellyn Bader, Gottman, Atkinson and others has many exercises to help identify what the underlying emotions are and goals etc.
That is the point I am ineffectively trying to make. This is normal, common. And there are a variety of techniques that can be used to help an individual or couple figure out their thoughts, emotions, and goals.
So much of the problem is that the people they go to for help are not skilled so they think all is hopeless and they’ve tried everything and so get divorced or sink deeper into depression or anxiety.
And it’s just not true.
LikeLiked by 1 person
From personal experience, I can say that therapy is very effective when I entered these sessions with the attitude that “I was the problem”. With that mind set, I was able to see my issues and work through them.
Personally, I think a skilled therapist can work with a person or couple to get them to see that they are the problem so that they can start down the path of change and rebuild their relationship.
As for accepting people for who they are and that they don’t need to change, that is only partially correct. You can accept someone and love them, but still want some aspect of them to change. The best example that I have is loving a family member. You love them, but there are points that you’d like to change.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Always on point! For me, counseling was at the “little too late” stage but you’re right, that’s when most people realize they need it. I am a talker, my partner is not so a 3rd person prying info out of her was helpful. Plus I interrupt a lot haha bc I always have something to say & the counselor helped me listen better.
That being said, find the RIGHT counselor. We had 3. First one made us both uncomfortable & she was just “odd”. The 2nd one we worked with separately through our turmoil days but when we got back together to work things out she was VERY one sided, her side, which was the hurtful side & basically told me I needed to get over it & move on. This being just weeks after finding out about the infidelity. I refused to go back & my partner agreed she “attacked” me. Now comes counselor #3… we loved her! She felt comfortable, she was laid back, very open & made things easy to talk about. She gave us homework & tasks while we were there where we had to engage in thought provoking tasks where the others felt like we should be laying on a couch telling our life story.
We did counseling for a few months & she said “I think you guys are doing great & have learned better communication” so she basically released us but said she was available should we need her. We definitely communicate better, not perfect (is there such a thing?) and I do chalk it up to counseling & life events. We learn from the shitty moments the most unfortunately but guess they’re there for a reason.
LikeLiked by 1 person