As a marriage therapist, I know how exasperating this work can be. After a long enough time practicing, we can begin to see pretty early on which couples are going to do well and which one’s won't. I’m sure I can speak for those in this profession that we always hope for a good outcome for both the couple and the relationship. There are, however, certain attitudes, traits and behaviors that can seriously derail the work.
Here’s what some of the therapists had to say.
How can you tell if the therapy will be helpful to the couple?
“Couples that are willing to practice healthy communication tools. Educating couples on how to use feeling words can lead to how effectively they communicate with one another. Additionally, it opens up vulnerability and sharing in the relationship." Leslie Holley, LCPC, Chicago, Illinois
“When the couple understands that things might be extra bumpy as they begin to change behavioral and communication patterns before it starts to get better, and they’re willing to be patient and persistent. And, when couples are committed to work as a team instead of seeing each other as the enemy. Couples must also be open-minded, self-reflective, and work on individual issues that impact the relationship." Melody Li LMFT-A, NCC, Austin, Texas
“What makes treatment successful, of course, would be the capacity for self-focus: the ability to be vulnerable enough in your partner’s presence to open up and show your fragile emotional under-belly.
Therapy becomes successful when each partner spends their time in treatment being curious about themselves. They certainly should learn a good deal about each other, but self-discovery and self-enlightenment is the key to not only successful treatment, but an enduring and successful marriage." Michael D. Zentman, Ph.D. Director, Adelphi University, Postgraduate Program in Couple Therapy, New York
“Both partners are willing to do whatever it takes to save their marriage. Despite the problems and their current level of unhappiness, they do love and care for each other. They are open to the process of therapy and willing to take emotional risks in session.” Jessica Marchena, LMHC, Boca Raton, Florida
“A couple who will try what I suggest, even if it feels strange or uncomfortable, is exceedingly likely to be successful in therapy. Some couples are willing to take ownership of their role in the current challenge. This is a huge game changer. No one is solely responsible for all the problems in a relationship. When both partners are able to acknowledge what they did in a situation or over the long-term to contribute to the issues, they are much more likely to move forward in a positive way.” Meredith Silversmith, LMFT, Garden City, New York
“Successful couples show up regularly, have a common goal, and both partners have an individual therapist in conjunction with couples work. They also implement suggestions developed in weekly couples work, and are highly motivated.” Kelley Kitley, LCSW, Chicago, Illinois
“If both are committed, then the greatest sign of success is when both people are able to develop deep empathy for their partner's triggers and views.
True intimacy is just about being able to be safely vulnerable.” Sara Sedlik, LMFT, Los Angeles, California
How can you tell if the therapy will probably not help the couple?
“Partners who will not take steps to start to process resentment can lead to sessions that are heightened with emotions and unrelenting misunderstanding. Identifying resentment and working through anger can help couples grow in their understanding of their partner, and in turn, themselves.” Leslie Holley, LCPC, Chicago, Illinois
“When partners insist on keeping secrets from each other or only one partner is willing and ready to work. The other partner is often “dragged” into therapy or is there to appease the other partner. Also, when the couple resists putting what they learn into practice, and expect that a session a week will fix all of their problems or when the couple sets unrealistic expectations and quit therapy too early.” Melody Li LMFT-A, NCC, Austin, Texas
“The single most destructive thing to a successful outcome in couple therapy is unmitigated blame. Nearly all couples enter treatment with each person feeling unjustly and unfairly treated by their partner. Blame is a normal response: a list of things that were done, or not done, that resulted in a loss of safety and emotional closeness in the relationship. Each person has that list, if not on paper, in their minds.” Michael D. Zentman, Ph.D. Director, Adelphi University, Postgraduate Program in Couple Therapy, New York
“The couple aren’t honest with each other. One partner may be having an affair and just coming to appease their partner but are really planning an exit strategy. One spouse may be ambivalent and angry and wants their partner to do all of the changing. They are not open to see their role in their negative pattern that keeps them disconnected." Jessica Marchena, LMHC, Boca Raton, Florida
“Some couples come in viewing the therapist as a referee who will determine who is right and who is wrong. I’ve sat with many couples who re-enact a chronic argument and make strong attempts to get me to take a side. Other couples do everything in their power to discredit what the therapist says, especially if it’s not what they’re hoping to hear. Sadly, this just sabotages the progress they could be making in therapy.” Meredith Silversmith, LMFT, Garden City, New
“Unsuccessful couples aren't consistent, have differing core values that lead to frequent conflict and aren't able to accept or appreciate their partners point of view. They take a narcissistic approach, are not open to suggestions or get defensive.” Kelley Kitley, LCSW, Chicago Illinois
“What I see in my practice that contributes to unsuccessful couples counseling is the reluctance to truly commit to the therapy. Unfortunately, couples work takes time - more than a few sessions, and in this day, many do not want to spend the money, nor make the time commitment.” Sara Sedlik, LMFT, Los Angeles, California
Couples therapists realize that two people going their separate ways is sometimes the better choice.
However, in a majority of cases, the couple can and should work it out. Undergoing couples therapy is a brave choice for couples who take that path. If you do go, it is wise to bring your best self to the process, follow through on the professional’s guidance and stay hopeful!