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. At that point coming to therapy almost always fails.

However, when couples are motivated to seek counseling, they realize that something needs to change. Coming to therapy means that they finally have a safe place to talk 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. That 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. Luckily, 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 choices. Suggesting a client do some individual work or attend a 12 step program sometimes makes the client 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 feedback quickly is often a missed opportunity for growth. Clients are encouraged to share any 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

Medications:

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

In fact, doing therapy without addressing the psychiatric issues can do more harm than good. Therapy requires being able to tolerate intense emotions in order for healing to occur. Short term medication can also be very effective until an initial crisis has passed.

Medication doesn’t have to be used long-term. Some people don’t actually know they are depressed. I’ve seen this with people who aren’t taught to recognize the signs of depression.

Individual Therapy:

When there are issues of childhood abuse or past trauma, couples therapy can be overwhelming. Doing some individual work that provides more concentrated support can help decrease anxiety and heal past wounds. Couples therapy does address these issues but when they are severe, they end up hijacking the sessions because the trauma has to be contained first.

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 the family 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.

Having separate interests can foster each partner’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, contenting with some 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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