Major Reasons Couples Counseling Doesn't Always Work

There are many reasons why a couple may seek out counseling. For some, they want to learn the tools that will help make their relationship grow and prosper, for others it may be about working on their communication skills, while other people may turn to therapy after there's been infidelity. When a couple decides to go to counseling together, it's up to them, but it's important to realize that couples' therapy isn't just for when things in a relationship go sour. It can also be used in a preventative way to avoid issues down the road.

Although research has found that roughly 50% of couples have tried some type of counseling, it doesn't mean that there's a guarantee that it will always work. People sometimes think that just showing up to a therapy session will automatically fix everything or that the therapist will waive their magic wand, and all will be perfect. Unfortunately, that's not how these things work at all. Like anything we do in life to better ourselves and our relationships, making strides in therapy or counseling takes effort and determination.

While there are many reasons why couples' counseling may not work, some of those reasons are more common than others. If you and your partner have sought out therapy and didn't see any results, one of the following six reasons may be to blame.

One or both partners aren't interested in therapy

The most important component for therapy to work effectively is both partners wanting to be there. If you have decided that your relationship needs some work, so you made the appointment with a therapist and you are now dragging your partner to therapy, you might as well just stay home. The outcome will be nothing but frustration.

Therapy is something that people have to actively want to participate in, learn from, and apply those learned techniques in everyday life. Similar to trying to get an alcoholic sober, you can't help them if they don't want to help themselves. The same goes for couples' counseling. Both partners have to want to get professional help so they can get to the bottom of any problems that are negatively affecting their relationship. If one or both partners aren't interested in therapy but are going out of obligation (or because they've been pressured to), they might as well not go at all.

Having a productive therapy session that will eventually lead to positive results requires being interested, showing up, and doing the work. You can't force therapy on anyone. Well, you can — but just don't expect to see any major changes in your relationship.

One or both partners have issues outside the relationship

When it comes to therapy, honesty is key. You can't expect a relationship to heal its broken bits if one or both partners refuse to address issues outside the relationship as well. For example, if one partner has a problem with addiction and the other partner is having an affair, all the couples counseling in the world isn't going to remedy it.

While one may think that omission isn't dishonesty, it very much is. Keeping secrets like addiction, financial struggles, infidelity, and similar issues under wraps just impedes the therapeutic process. Talk about a waste of time and money. It's only if and when each partner comes clean about those other factors that the relationship as a whole will see progress. If you have a secret lover on the side or your partner is hiding an addiction, you can't work together to unpack and resolve your relationship challenges.

One or both partners are looking to win

Couples' counseling takes maturity. When you and your partner are sitting there with your therapist, it's not a time or space for pettiness, name-calling, or the passing of blame. But while most people should know this, it sometimes doesn't stop one partner or both partners from showing up to a therapy session looking to win an argument (or series of arguments), as opposed to reaching a resolution. Some people just want a win so they can gloat and do the "I told you so" dance. 

Fun fact: Your counselor isn't there to take sides, prove your partner (or you) wrong, or high-five the "loser " — because there is no winning or losing in therapy. If either partner agrees to attend a counseling session under the guise that they will be proven right about something, then not only will that partner be disappointed, but the relationship won't make any steps forward.

One or both partners have unresolved trauma

When we meet someone and enter into a relationship with them, we bring all our baggage with us — everything single piece of it. Although some people are upfront with the details of their past and any trauma that they're trying to handle, not everyone is. Sometimes people don't even realize they have trauma to address until well after the experience that affected them. Situations like that can make succeeding in couples' counseling difficult.

With trauma usually comes some form of PTSD. That PTSD can show up in different behavioral and psychological ways. While trauma and the result of PTSD are things that we learn to manage with time and treatment, if it's not realized or is ignored out of fear, then that person will struggle in the dark. It's only when one gets to the bottom of their unresolved trauma that they will be able to understand their triggers and emotional response to them, and how it affects their life (and the life they have with their partner). In other words, couples' therapy can't work to the best of its ability if one or both partners still have work to do on themselves. Sure, we're all a little banged up. But if there's a deep-seated issue that has yet to be figured out and treated, then counseling can only take a couple so far. At some point, the trauma will need to be addressed independently of couples' counseling.

Partners have different goals

Before a couple goes into counseling together, they should sit down and talk about goals. What do you hope to change? What do you need to work on in your relationship? Where is the work needed the most? In order for therapy to work and work well, both partners need to be on the same page about what they want to get out of the process. If one partner thinks working on communication is what's extremely paramount, but the other partner feels that the communication in the relationship is on the right track, there's going to be a problem.

From the moment you step into a session, both you and your partner need to have the same goals in mind. You need to agree upon what works and what needs work. Having opposite agendas and contradictory expectations will lead to both partners running circles around their counselor, trying to get what they want (and not what the relationship needs).

The counselor or type of counseling isn't a fit

What a lot of people don't understand about therapy and counseling is that not every therapist is an automatic fit for everyone, nor is every type of therapy a fit for every couple. Trying to find someone with whom both you and your partner feel innately comfortable and can see yourselves working with isn't easy. In fact, sometimes it takes a while to find someone that both partners feel good about seeing. It doesn't matter if someone is getting counseling solo or with their partner for a relationship, shopping around should always be part of the process.

Another mistake that couples make that can hinder progress is they don't know what kind of therapy and/or counseling they need. There are actually several types of couples' therapy that a professional can use depending on what your relationship demands. Each type offers different techniques and outcomes. Although one would hope that an initial intake with a mental health professional would allow for them to make the appropriate assessment as to what a couple requires, that's not always the case. Specialized concerns deserve specialized treatment, so consider doing some research on your own. Sometimes we need to advocate for ourselves and our relationship's needs.