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6 Reasons Marriage Counseling Fizzles

There are many marriage counseling dropouts. A couple may go to counseling to work on their marriage, but they only attend a few sessions before one or both of them don't want to go back. There's usually not just one reason that counseling doesn't work for a couple. Here are six things that can undermine couples counseling and how to spot potential counseling busters.

1 One partner is or becomes the focal point ("the problem" or "the one who needs to be fixed”).

No one feels good if they feel broken and it's hard to sustain motivation if you feel you are the one doing all of the work. One of the foundations of marriage is striving for equal partnership. Although one partner may have harmed the marriage or ignited the crisis, marriage always takes both partners to succeed.

This one-sided attitude can happen as one of the partner's may enter counseling with the idea that they are going to help their partner change. Their partner may even agree "I'm the problem, need to fix myself". Sometimes, the therapist actually supports or buys into this viewpoint.

Couples work should be about how the couple interacts. Even if your partner has betrayed you through infidelity, it will take hard work on your part to work through your pain, build an equally functioning relationship including owning any part you contributed to the breach, and decide if it is in your best interest to stay in the relationship. Even if you are the one who messed up big time, the partnership is ultimately what needs healing. Yes, you have personal work to do. However, it goes much faster and effectively if you identify the personal work and immediately incorporate your understandings into how you interact with your partner.

What to look for: Notice the airtime each person gets. Be wary if the majority of time in counseling is spent on one person. As a general guideline, each session should be like a back and forth discussion with equal time for the counselor and each partner. A notable exception is working with a partner who shows aggression in the session. Aggression holds back the healing work of couple's therapy and is best addressed when it happens.

2 The counselor either does most of the talking or only speaks very little—letting you and your partner wander wherever you want to go or are prone to go in your conversation.

Although each counselor has their own style and varying theories they practice under, the bottom line is that you and your partner need to know how to move to a better and happier relationship. You are investing your time, energy, and money to be there with the counselor. If they are not providing new information or attentive guidance in how you use your sessions—you can do your “sessions” at home.

What to look for: Does your counselor effectively keep bringing you back—highlighting for you what a healthy relationship looks like and guiding you and your partner to shift and reset your partnership?

Be wary of prolonged detours into any one personal issue while in a couples session. If it is a couples session, too much individual processing will slow the couples progress.

3 One or both partner's don't have specific things they personally have decided to work on for themselves.

Most counselors ask a couple state their goals and objectives for the couples therapy. It is also important that you know specifically what you personally will focus on.

What to look for: In regards to couples counseling, if you "got nothing", you likely have work to do in order to equally function in your partnership. There are few, if any exemptions to this guideline. If you are "happy" and your partner isn't, you have work to do within the partnership.

If you find it hard to form a goal that fits for you, it may be helpful to pretend you are single. “What would you want to work on to make sure any new relationship was a success?”

4 Aggression is not understood, called out, or curtailed.

Physical aggression is pretty straight forward, but I find that emotional aggression behaviors such as making pronouncements about the way things are or should be, fighting to win, and being aggressive from a passive stance are common patterns that are hard on a committed relationship.

If you bicker, argue frequently, get into escalating fights, or withdraw before conversations are finished— you have aggression in your partnership. Counseling sessions that frequently break into “he said”, “she said” or often have increasing tensions show aggression. Your therapist should intervene and guide you to approach the situation differently.

Terry Real, Author of the book The New Rules of Marriage says that any time we are taking a "one up" stance (not treating others as equal) we are using aggression. He also says that any time we don't advocate for self when someone is being aggressive we are taking the "one down" position. He notes that a hidden type of aggression may be present in a person who is perceived as the victim.

What to look for: Are you and your partner able to let each person's voice be heard? Do you allow your partner to influence you or do you struggle to convince your partner of your ideas. If your therapist does not address lack of equal voice in the partnership, they are missing the aggression that will eventually undermine the counseling process and the relationship itself. Effective couples therapists are vigilant to helping both partners fully participate emotionally in the relationship. One up and one down positions will keep a couple stuck.

5 Secrets.

I had a professor once tell me something that I have found to be very true. He said, "If you are working with a couple, and things are not progressing, then you likely don't know the whole story—there is a missing piece."

Any partner who withholds any information from their partner no matter what the reason is shifting their partnership out of balance—as in they are taking a “one up” position on their partner. A healthy partnership is balanced. There are some who say that you should withhold information that will hurt your partner. Though I can't know every situation, I think that any secret has the potential to erode the couple's bond.

What to look for:

Here are some signs that there may be secrets:


Incongruent behavior such as mood and attentiveness swings (being close, then distant).

A partner who becomes belligerent*, defensive or easily escalated in a counseling session and using aggression.

Effective marriage therapy will help the partnership work out their issues without the aggression.

*Belligerence: stony silence, defensiveness, challenging partner or therapist frequently with "how things are said", canceling last minute, threatening to quit or not show up, blaming partner or therapist as the reason they have poor behavior.

6 Addictions

This is a major cause for unsuccessful marriage counseling. We use addictions behaviors to manage or escape our painful emotions. A couple will not be able to emotionally open with each other if there is an escape hatch and they use it. Emotional and physical intimacy will dissipate if one or both people have something that is a “go to” rather than hanging in a challenging discussion to work through to a solution.

Addictions are tricky because there are so many ways we seek relief. Also, most of us guard our "relief drugs" very closely because we depend on them and get anxious if they aren't there.

What to look for: Be on the look out for either yourself and your partner glossing over a "counseling cancelling" addiction. Here are some tell-tale statements:

  • "I don't know— you tell me"

  • "I came to make my partner happy"

  • "I think we have a good relationship­–I don't know why my partner is always unhappy"

  • "I don't think I will ever be able to satisfy my partner"

These type of statements are suspect because they side step a person's ownership of the partnership and expressing their feelings and instead draw attention away from the speaker's behavior altogether.

Escape Hatches

TV, computer time

Video games

Social media, phone time




Mind altering substances


Parties, "out with friends"

Sleeping, sleepiness

Sexually focused activity


Extreme Sports and Risk taking

Marriage Counseling has the best chance of working when addictions patterns are spotted early on in the counseling process and your therapist can help you address them so they don't sabotage your therapy.

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