We Tried Couples Therapy and it Didn’t Work!

Did you try couples therapy hoping things would get better but instead they got worse? Did the session devolve into the same argument or you were deeply hurt in the session? Does couples therapy even work? If previous efforts to use couples therapy have been unsuccessful, our hearts go out to you. You took a risk to try to get help and instead were met with disappointment, maybe even judgement. Are you not wanting to go through that again but don’t know where else to turn for help? As specialists in couples work, we have a few things for you to consider…

First, did you choose a therapist who specializes in couples work? As in all fields, therapists have a range of specialties and capabilities. How do you know which therapist is skilled? Too many well-meaning therapists who have only been trained to work with individuals agree to see couples. They may invite their client’s spouse to join in the sessions OR the client may request their partner comes in. The concern with individual therapists is the therapist may not be knowledgeable about the complicated dynamics in long-term relationships. They know how to validate and empathize with individual clients but not know how to handle the interactions between a couple. They may not know how to redirect couples headed toward an argument, or assist couples with communicating effectively about conflict. They may not know to go underneath the content, identify the meaning this subject has, and address it at that level. Perhaps they don’t realize the need to develop good interactions that currently exist between them, such as friendship and intimacy, or recognize the importance of fondness and admiration in a healthy relationship. There are many skills necessary in treating couples versus treating individuals, so it is crucial to look for a specialist in couples work. Things to ask a potential therapist…

· Do you have specific training in marriage and relationships above and beyond your master’s degree?

· Do you hold a certification in one or more couples therapy methods, if so, which one(s)?

· Do you let couples argue during the session in order to see how they interact?

· Do you teach couples skills in communication and positive interactions?

Second, did you choose a therapist who uses an evidenced based approach? An evidenced based theory is one which has been thoroughly researched and shown to be effective. At Couples Therapy Center of NJ, we use the Gottman method, which is backed by decades of research by Doctors John & Julia Gottman to be effective with working with couples. One of Gottman’s key finding (that’s been replicated many times over in the literature on couples) is: couples need a ratio of 5 positive to every 1 negative emotion expressed during a conflict. The Gottman Method specifically addresses this by teaching couples to successfully repair a conflict and exit the negative-affect state early, before it becomes a problem. When choosing a therapist be sure to ask…

· Which couples therapy theory do you use?

· What is the research showing it’s effectiveness?

Third, did both people start the therapy willing to improve the relationship? For some couples, one client may be ambivalent about the relationship – not sure they want to repair things. In those cases, our therapists here help the couple to talk through their dynamics in a productive way and to identify what each person brings to the relationship (the good and the bad). It is through this process of exploration that the couple comes to their own conclusion about whether they want to repair and stay together. For other couples, one partner is already ‘checked out’ of the relationship and intends to divorce. In their mind, that partner wants to be able to say “We tried everything to save the marriage – even couples counseling.” In these instances, no amount of skill on the part of the therapist or research done on the therapy style can overcome an unwilling client. At our center, during the first meeting, we ask each partner to say what results they’re hoping for from couples therapy. It becomes clear at this point what each person’s agenda is. If the couple is ambivalent but agrees to continue couples meetings, the focus changes to improving their ability to communicate and how to help their children. When choosing a therapist, ask…

· How do you handle if one partner is ambivalent about the relationship?

· What if my partner says they don’t want to repair things?

If you had a bad experience in couples therapy, we feel for you and hope that asking yourself these questions gave you more insight into that process. We hope you’ll consider this process again, this time being sure to ask the above questions of a future therapist. Ultimately, couples therapy can be an experience that leads to incredible growth and happiness in your relationship.  If you want to work with therapists who specialize in relationships, please reach out to us at or 908-246-3074.

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