Why Couples Counseling Isn’t Always Enough

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By the time people seek marriage counseling, they’re usually in crisis. Even when the relationship becomes problematic, the average couple still waits seven years before seeking help (according to The Gottman Institute). When a couple waits that long, it’s often too late. They no longer care enough to try and at that point therapy almost always fails.

However, when couples are motivated to seek help, therapy provides a safe place to work things out and learn new skills. The therapist helps by providing structure to minimize abuse and keep communication healthy.

When Counseling Doesn’t Seem to Be Working

After several weeks (or months depending on the issue) of consistent sessions, both partners should be starting to practice new skills. When this doesn’t happen, the couple feels stuck - like no real progress has been made. This is a good time to reassess the situation - not necessarily give up on therapy.

While starting couples therapy is a huge step in the right direction, certain people need more. Spending an hour each week in therapy makes an impact but there are times when it’s not enough. Thankfully, we live in a time where there are so many additional resources that fit well with therapy.

When Additional Support Is Needed

Sometimes, it’s obvious when additional support is needed. While individual recommendations are made on a case by case basis, each person has the right to make their own choice. Suggesting a client do some individual work or attend a 12 step program can cause the client to feel criticized, like “something is wrong with them” despite the therapist’s efforts to explain in compassionate terms.

Of course, therapists aren’t always right but dismissing their feedback is often a missed opportunity for growth. Clients are encouraged to share their disagreements and ask for clarification.

Sometimes, it’s a question of timing. There are times when people aren’t ready to hear the truth because it hurts. There have definitely been moments in my own life when I wasn’t ready to hear something only to find that when I heard the message again years later, I had a more willing attitude. Can you relate?

Common recommendations from therapists:

  • Assessment for medications ( mental illness or severe depression )

  • Joining support groups

  • Starting individual therapy

  • Participating in a grief support

  • Starting outside interests and hobbies

  • Being willing to address childhood issues or trauma


While I’m not a big supporter of medications, there are times when it’s necessary. When people suffer from mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, psychosis, or severe depression, couples therapy isn’t enough to address what’s happening.

In fact, doing therapy without addressing psychiatric issues can do more harm than good. Therapy requires being able to tolerate intense emotions in order to make progress. Even short term medication can be very effective until the initial crisis has passed.

Medication doesn’t always have to be used long-term. Some people don’t actually know they are depressed or struggle with mental illness. I’ve seen this with people who can’t recognize the signs. Once someone agrees to additional help, they can learn to function much better.

Individual Therapy:

When there are issues of childhood abuse or past trauma, couples therapy can be overwhelming. Individual counseling provides more concentrated support to help decrease anxiety and heal past wounds.

While couples therapy does address these issues, when they are severe, they end up hijacking the sessions because the trauma has to be contained first. That can take a significant amount of time.

Support Groups:

There are times when support groups are a great adjunct to therapy. When couples can’t afford individual counseling joining a support group helps reinforce new behavior. Or, when they don’t have a strong enough support system, finding a group can decrease isolation and avoid unhealthy dependency.

When there are issues related to addiction, attending 12 step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gambler’s Anonymous (to name a few) and Al-Anon (for families with addiction) can be a lifesaver. These groups provide free support and mentorship that have helped millions worldwide. Click here to read more about the benefits of 12 step programs.

Outside Interests and Hobbies

Sometimes the problem is a lack of fun! Trying to balance the demands of work and family can cause an unhealthy imbalance in relationships and self-care. Eventually, the stress becomes a daily occurrence and each partner becomes emotionally less tolerant. Prioritizing obligations over self-care often become the norm. Click here to read my blog Why Self-care isn’t Selfish.

Having separate interests can foster each person’s independence and promote a more balanced lifestyle. Relying exclusively on your partner for emotional support creates an unhealthy dependency that creates resentment over time.

Final Thoughts

Couples therapy works well for most people but when progress is lacking, it’s time to examine what else is needed. Once therapy ends, continuing with additional work helps the couple retain what’s learned and avoid reverting back to old behaviors. This can be prevented when they have regular activities for growth.

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