Written by therapist Crystal Choi
When Marriage Counseling Can Be Harmful
When you’re facing difficulties in a marriage, it might feel natural to want to start marriage counseling. And for many couples, counseling can help them find their way back to each other, learn to communicate better, and learn how to love each other better.
However, for some couples, marriage counseling is not the answer. It can actually be dangerous and harmful. Does this sound strange coming from a counselor? Here are three signs that marriage counseling is not for you.
1. There is a lack of safety in the relationship.
The foundation of any work with a counselor is safety. In an environment of safety, couples share hard things they’re struggling with individually or dynamically with each other and unpack what they’re experiencing to gain a greater understanding of themselves and their partners. In destructive marriages, safety is not consistent. This can mean emotional safety, physical safety, or a combination of both.
If one person isn’t able to speak freely and openly about their experiences because they fear retaliation at home, no amount of time with a counselor will help the marriage to heal and grow.
In a relationship where control, manipulation, intimidation, and threats are common characteristics, disclosing what actually happens at home can be dangerous because the person trying to control the narrative can retaliate with threats of violence or actual violence once the counseling session is over. This violence might be kept at bay during the session in the presence of the counselor, but there is no way for the counselor or any other third party to ensure safety after the session has ended.
2. There is only one person willing to do the work.
Like any worthwhile endeavor, pursuing a change of behavior or thought through counseling is hard work and requires internal motivation. This is true for individual counseling as well as couples counseling.
Change within a marriage requires both individuals in the marriage to do the work of taking responsibility for themselves and committing to do things differently. Admittedly, it’s easier for us to see the problems in someone else before we see our own issues. And many couples may start counseling to try to expose the problems of the other person. However, couples work really begins when the finger-pointing stops and each person takes ownership of their part in the problems.
If one person is pressured into counseling by their spouse, a pastor, or to avoid painful consequences like a separation or divorce, they may be physically present, but their intention is not to work on themselves or the marriage. They may show up to continue blaming the spouse for all the problems, to control the narrative being shared with the counselor, or to try to get the counselor to see just how crazy their spouse is.
It can be confusing for counselors to discern that in these cases because although there are two people in the room, only one client is truly showing up. The “non-client” spouse is physically there, but not actually there to work on anything (except to play the blame game). When clinicians fail to recognize this dynamic, what ends up happening is the person willing to change is given more focus and attention in doing the work of change, which only reinforces the “non-client” that their spouse is the one that needs to change, and they are free to continue in their destructive ways.
3. There are patterns of abuse, sexual betrayal, and/or addictions.
Abuse of any kind (i.e. verbal, emotional, financial, physical), sexual betrayal, and addictions are individual issues that cause marital problems. This can be easily confused because the perpetrator of these things tends to blame their spouse for their problems in these areas. But it’s important to be clear that these are NOT marital issues.
These types of issues need to be addressed through individual counseling before any couples work can take place. Trying to repair a marriage while these issues are present is like trying to repair a broken house built on quicksand. No amount of work on the house will be able to withstand the shaky foundation that is a result of building on top of quicksand.
What Can I Do If These Three Signs Show Up In My Marriage?
You’re the only person who really knows everything that you’ve gone through and experienced in your marriage. If any of these signs resonated with you, couples counseling may not be for you. However, individual counseling could help you process your experiences and start seeing the reality of your experiences rather than the confusing narratives pushed onto you by other people. We’d love to help you process your experiences, find your voice, and be empowered. Call today with questions and to book an appointment.