Does Couples Counseling Help Relationships?
Does a marital crisis or some very disruptive marital event (e.g., wife discovers husband watches porn) indicate that marriage counseling is indicated? I am often asked this. For many people it seems natural to suppose that a significant and threatening marital conflict indicates marital counseling, but I think the matter requires some thinking through.
I grant that seeing a therapist together as a couple may be necessary to avert immediate and drastic action, like someone moving out, but it is none the less not so clear that the antidote to conflict and unhappiness in the relationship is some form of relationship counseling. Based on my experience working with couples, I reason as follows: (a) the accusations, bitterness, blame, etc. expressed in couples sessions does not bring the couple together. The therapist is obliged to devote a great deal of time and energy trying to get the members of a couple to actually listen to each other. Once out of the session, the couple reverts to how they are and what they do in relationship with each other no matter how vigorously the therapist implores the couple to practice outside the session what they are instructed to do in the session; (b) since the couple has to go home with each other, there are important matters for each member that are unsaid in the session because each member censors what is felt to be too dangerous to say in front of the other; (c) each member of the couple is committed to what is really an error, i.e., the other is to blame for the relationship conflict and unhappiness. This is actually the heart of the matter. It takes some explaining.
It’s almost inevitable that frustration and so on in a relationship is seen and felt as the fault of the other person. The problem appears to be the other person’s personality. This is a dead end for relationship satisfaction (if only the other person was different). The real problem as I see it is that each member’s personal and relationship problems emerge over time with full force in the relationship. To the extent that each person really has personal and relationship issues that pre-date the current relationship, to that extent relationship conflicts and disappointments are inevitable in the current relationship. There is just no running away from one’s unresolved personal and relationship issues. The current relationship will not cure the old personal and relationship problems; rather, the current relationship will become the venue for bringing them out.
Based on the above reasoning, I have concluded that the realistic and responsible thing for people to do who want to upgrade their relationship is to have personal psychotherapy. Couples counseling is simply the wrong venue to address the personal and relationship issues you unwillingly and unwittingly drag into and enact in the current relationship. It is only in your personal therapy that you find the safety and support to identify and work on what you have unwillingly and unwittingly dragged into the current relationship. The problem is not your partner. Granted, your partner may have substantial problems of his own, but nothing you can do will make those problems go away. You can only productively work on your own problems. This is likely to help your relationship, but there is no guarantee because there are two people in a relationship. That’s why I believe that the realistic and responsible thing to do if a couple wants to upgrade their relationship is for each member to have personal therapy. There can also be couples sessions at times (with an independent party) to address major disruptions, but the main work is in individual therapy. The main work is to liberate you from dragging around personal issues that will militate against your satisfaction and happiness in living. You can dedicate yourself to this, but you can’t dedicate your partner to it. She has to do the work on her own with her therapist. An intimate relationship is the field of play for personal issues. That’s the main take-away message. I can’t emphasize this too strongly. Your intimate relationship naturally improves when you and you partner make progress on personal issues.