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  • Writer's pictureStacy Taylor, LCSW

Does Couples Therapy Work?

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

Jan and Peter have been together for over ten years. But for the last few years, they've been bickering almost nonstop. Communication is poor, while resentment high. Jan and Peter should get into couples counseling, right? Not necessarily.

While the conventional wisdom says that unhappy couples should see a couples therapist, research questions this notion. While couples counseling can be helpful, many times it is not. And, in some cases, couples therapy can make the problems worse.

Why the poor outcome in so many cases? I will offer my insights on the topic of why couples counseling can succeed, but why it often does not.

The main reason for the lack of success, I think, is that by the time a couple sees a counselor, it is oftentimes too late. Anger and resentment have built up to the point of no return. And, many times, a partner has one foot out the door and is no longer committed.

Unfortunately, when problems begin, most couples don't go to therapy. They don't want to spend the time and money in treatment. The couple may fear digging up the past. They may feel embarrassed airing their "dirty laundry" in front of someone else.

So what oftentimes happens is this: problems go on for a long time and accumulate. Then some destructive behaviors may follow: emotional or physical affairs, addictions, and/or emotional or physical abuse.

By the time the couple sees a counselor, it may be too late. One of the partners may already be checking out housing on Craig's List or having seductive texts with someone else. But to assuage guilt (and feel he or she has tried everything) that person agrees to treatment. Several sessions later, the person declares that therapy isn't helping and moves out.

My advice? Don't wait until the point of no return to see a therapist. When problems begin that you cannot resolve on your own, reach out for help.

Which brings me to the second reason why I think couples therapy can fail: the wrong therapy approach. Research shows that certain types of therapy may do more harm than good. Non-directive therapy that just allows the couples to argue and dig up old dirt doesn't go anywhere.

There's common sense here: just arguing leads to more arguing; dwelling too much on old grievances allows those grievances to fester and grow. What is more effective for couples is problem-solving treatment that builds on strengths. Learning new ways to communicate and developing more empathy help more than rehashing the past.

This leads me to another reason for treatment failure: when clients feel so aggrieved and hurt that they don't want to let go of the past. Therapy becomes about recounting every hurt and slight, while each partner tries to convince the therapist that he or she is right. Again, it is obvious why this approach wouldn't work.

Here's some advice for optimizing your changes of success in couples therapy:

--Realize that you can't change another person. Couples therapy works best when each partner is willing to make changes within him or herself.

--While it may be helpful to disclose difficult experiences in the relationship during therapy, it's important to eventually find a way to heal from them and to give the relationship another chance.

--If there is substance abuse, affairs (emotional or physical), pornography addiction, or other destructive behaviors, then therapy will likely not work. Partners need to end harmful behavior.

--Find a therapist who will keep you on track so therapy doesn't just descend into arguments and drama. And then give therapy a chance! It took a while for problems to develop, and it can take some time for things to get better.

--Lastly, Dr. John Gottman of the Marriage Clinic has identified what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Engaging in these behaviors dramatically reduces the chances of happiness in a relationship. The Four Horsemen are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalilng.

Notice if you engage in any of these behaviors towards your partner. Being self-aware and making a commitment to stop will greatly increase your chances of success, not just in couples therapy, but in your relationship.

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