Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Does Marital Counseling Help?

January 22, 1996

As a marriage counselor, what do I look for to indicate whether counseling will be successful? Here are some observations I've made over the years.

When a spouse comes alone. Some couples prefer to see the counselor individually before starting marriage counseling. After the initial sessions, all the counseling is done together. Counseling couples separately about marital problems doesn't help the couple learn communication or problem-solving skills.

If the process means one partner coming alone for an extended time and the focus is on the unhappy marriage, then, in my opinion, counseling will ultimately have a destructive effect on the marriage. What makes me angry is when I hear later that one spouse was shut out or not invited to participate in the counseling and that individual counseling helped prime a divorce.

When a spouse refuses to come. There is a useful purpose to seeing one partner alone if their partner refuses to come. The person wanting the counseling wants to get an objective third party view of their marriage and what can or cannot be done. There are instances of the refusing partner shaping up and working on the marriage knowing that their marriage is being talked about in counseling.

Also, there are behaviors one person can do to alter the dynamics of a relationship on their own - whether their partner attends the sessions or not. Another main purpose of counseling one person alone is to strengthen the resolve to confront their partner effectively. This is a preliminary step to applying enough pressure so their reluctant partner does decide to come for counseling.

Success factors. No matter how severe the problems have been, when I see a couple who is willing to work at their marriage I have a good feeling about our eventual success. Enough goodwill still exists between them and both are willing to learn and change. The key to success is that they both possess the motivation and commitment to make it work.

When minds are made up. Sometimes problems are workable, but a lack of commitment by one partner dooms the effort from the start. The decision to leave has been made and compliance with counseling is seen as a necessary step to get a divorce. It becomes apparent after just a few sessions that their negative opinion of their partner's character or ability to change is cast in stone.

They may have good reasons for leaving. Too much may have happened. There may have been too many hurts or broken promises for the unhappy partner to put more emotional energy into their marriage. They feel hopeless that even counseling can help. They may have gone too far in considering a life outside the marriage or perhaps a third party is involved.

When one party is skeptical but still open-minded. There are those who are skeptical and come for counseling to learn and see if anything can be done. They are open-minded and patient enough to give their partner the benefit of the doubt whether change is possible. Although they are holding back until they see evidence for hope, their participation is evidence of their commitment to give counseling a chance. It is in situations like these that tests the skill of the counselor.

Mistakes in courtship. In a significant number of cases, I see divorce being caused by mistakes in judgment during courtship. Couples who are mismatched from the start and don't have a strong foundation of mutual likes, goals and beliefs have a tougher time in counseling. Their motivation can't overcome basic differences or character defects in themselves or their partner.

Often these mistakes involve marrying someone who is seriously flawed in some way that makes them a poor marital partner. Problems with domestic violence, addictions, rigid uncompromising thinking, selfishness, dishonesty, avoidance of responsibility and an inability to listen, be empathetic or take another's point of view all interfere with a partner's ability to put another's needs ahead of their own. These are destructive elements in the relationship that will not change.

Family of origin issues. One or both partners may come from dysfunctional family backgrounds where their basic needs weren’t met. As a result, they may be too needy, demanding, insecure, possessive or controlling. They have poor notions of boundaries in relationships.

These marriages have land mines that are not easily resolved until they have been addressed either in individual or marital counseling. Insight and work on these issues help people become more prepared to have a respectful, two-way, give-and-take relationship without their emotional needs and insecurities interfering.

Some of these people are highly committed and motivated. They need a counselor to help them make sense of their lives. Sometimes the problems resist change and one partner can no longer tolerate being in a relationship that is destructive. On the other hand, when two people are trying at the same time, miracles happen. They really do.