when marriage counseling doesn’t work

Four Questions to Ask Yourself when Marriage Counseling Doesn’t Work

Nothing you tried was working to save the marriage, so you finally went to a trained marriage counselor with no results. What do you do when marriage counseling does not work?

“Why don’t you go to marriage counseling?”  Everyone recommends counseling when they see that you are not getting anywhere fixing your marriage. You finally decide to make the appointment and try it.  What happens when marriage counseling doesn’t work? Couples go to counselors because they believe that counselors will know the exact solutions to get them back on track or determine that their marriage will not work. Many believe that counselors have gone to training that gives them the magic recipe for saving marriages.  So you started attending the sessions, the counselor asked both of you to talk about what is going on. You were given homework assignments to do, new skills to try, and goals to achieve. After all that, it is still not working. Does this mean that the relationship will never work out? Are there any other options at this point? What do you do now?

No Magic Recipe

The first thing to understand is that there is no magic recipe. When you spend time and money to get assistance from a marriage counselor, there is no magic recipe or pill or voodoo that happens in those counseling sessions. The counselor is simply a coordinator of activities, like talking, opening up, journaling, listing your goals, etc. These activities result in greater awareness of what is happening in your relationship and an understanding of each other and yourself.  If counseling is not working for you, here are some questions to ask yourself before making any major decisions on your relationship.

Are We Putting in the Necessary Work?

If you are going to counseling and learning new communications strategies but then going home and screaming at each other or ignoring one another, the counseling will not work. Think about it this way. If you are at a point where the relationship is really suffering, the experience of repairing the relationship will be rocky. The two of you need to be in a place where you can commit to the rocky experience. This involves actually trying the strategies the counselor gave you. Of course, you have many other things to do than write in your journal every night. Of course, you don’t exactly feel like taking a deep breath and speaking calmly when you want to scream at the person next to you. It will take time, effort, and continuous practice. It also takes a real commitment to the goal of saving your marriage. 

You might not be doing the work because you don’t feel like those strategies apply to your situation.  During your counseling session, make the session work for you. Listen to the strategies when your counselor is explaining them. Take notes on exactly how they work. Ask questions or ask for examples if you are not 100% sure how you would use that communication method.   Your counselor might not give you the right strategies if he does not know your needs, so communicate with him. Tell him about the one terrible scene that often happens at the house, such as asking your spouse to put your son to sleep. Explain the sequence of your conversation and how it turns toxic. Ask what you are supposed to say or do in that exact situation.   This will give you actual techniques you can use right away. Your willingness to apply the counselor’s advice will increase when you feel that they will work. 

Is This the Right Counselor?

If the two of you do not regard your counselor as someone who can guide you in this process, you might just be putting up an act each time you go in for counseling. This doesn’t help you with your situation. You need to realize that counselors are not the same. Some have more experience or different viewpoints than you. If the counselor cannot connect with you, it is time to look for another counselor. You should be able to leave saying, “I really like how the counselor said…” This means that you truly regard what he says, and you will be more compliant with his recommendations. This should be true for both of you for the counseling to work.  As people, counselors might have different beliefs, backgrounds, and communication styles.  If you are a Christian and the counselor is an atheist, he might not connect with your faith and might not support you if you mention prayer or church as a priority.   If you are a person that assertive leader more influences, you might not respect the counselor’s mild way of speaking. Remember that some counselors are newer in their practice, so they might be speaking from what they learned in the textbooks. Others might be pro-divorce and quick to advise in that direction. It is wise to communicate with the counselor about what you believe and what you want.  Additionally, make sure you feel that this counselor understands both sides and is not showing favoritism to just one of you. The moment you hear the counselors say something like, “Yeah, Allie, you really are being selfish,” make sure to say that you are not comfortable with the counselor’s statement. They need to know their place. You should feel that the counselor’s office is a safe place. If you cannot feel comfortable opening up, there are many counselors to choose from. Be selective and find the right one.

Do both of you understand the importance of change in a relationship?

Many struggling relationships involve partners who don’t like the fact that their partner has changed. It sounds like this: “He is so different now. I hardly even recognize him.” Research shows that our bodies and our minds actually change every 7 years. In marriage, it is important to recognize that change is a part of your relationship as each of you changes with time.  Some resent the fact that they might be required to change to save the relationship: “Would I have to change? This is who I am, and he needs to take me the way that I am. I shouldn’t have to change for anyone, even him!”  In counseling sessions, the conversations often bring partners to realizing what is going on in the relationship and finally revealing that a change is needed. You might be required to understand that he can’t do the fun things you used to do because of health issues. He might be required to do more housework because you have a large workload that takes up more time. If you resist change, you are no longer part of the team in this relationship. If you are devoted to the relationship, you can work on plans for the changes that need to happen. You can divide the household chore list or research some new fun activities that will not wear him out. No amount of counseling will work if you refuse to change and put in the effort. Change is part of life.

Is one or both of you hard-set on ending the marriage?

When one or both of you has completely checked out, counseling turns into a box to check. The dedication needed to repair the relationship is no longer there. There is no compliance, no desire, and no cooperation to fix the marriage, and these are the necessary items needed to repair the relationship.  In some cases, a counselor might help the two of you dig deep into the brokenness reasons and might reveal something that could result in a change of heart. Communicate specifically with your counselor to ask if he believes this is possible and ask for his guidance in this process. Remember that you know your partner’s mind and your own mind much better than the counselor will ever know you.   Think about what matters to each of you and what is deep down in your hearts that would keep you together. You might both recognize that a lasting marriage was a goal you once set or don’t want the children to have separate parents. When your focus shifts to a different goal, you might be more willing to do the work.  Sometimes you can do more than a counselor could do if you look deep inside. 

Out-of-the-Box Approaches

If you have asked yourself the questions mentioned above and still feel that marriage counseling is not working, consider some out-of-the-box options. Although not as popular, there are other approaches to finding solutions in your marriage. Yoga has been known to bring clarity to your minds in the midst of a broken marriage. Marriage can get messy when our minds are filled with the stresses of life. Yoga brings out compassion and vulnerability, allowing the break down of walls that have caused your current situation. Other alternatives include workshops, conferences, and communication coaches. Remember that failed counseling does not have to be a dead-end for you. Consider other options. 

Next Steps

If you have tried all that you can to work on the marriage and feel that there is not more that can be done, communicate with your spouse about the next steps. Even if the marriage has come to an end, efforts to communicate are still needed to get through the final steps and any future communication needed if children are part of the picture. Most importantly, continually focus on your own personal healing through your next chapter in life.


Abby Hamilton
Dr. Abby is a fun-loving, neck-hugging organizational psychologist, whose favorite learning experience was watching her children grow and watching their every move. Over the years, filling her role as a mother and wife taught her everything she knows about love, communication, respect, and sacrifice. After 25 years of marriage and 23 years of parenthood, the lessons have been enriching and life-changing, and Dr. Abby realizes that there is still more to learn day and after day. She currently works as a Director of Student Services in higher education, guiding university students in their career and job search. With a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies and master’s degree in Management, she just completed her PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology with her research focused on assertive communication and Filipino culture, since she is a second-generation Filipino-American. When her dissertation results showed that Filipino culture was related to low assertiveness, Dr. Abby made a point to speak on how to be assertive. She wants to tell everyone to SHINE ALREADY. Her messages are found at http://shinealready.life and also at the websites listed below. She is thrilled about joining the SheIsYou family!
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