Many people think there is no way to improve their marriage if their spouse won’t go to marriage counseling. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Although you may be upset with your spouse, you need to realize that your spouse does not want a bad relationship any more than you do. Bad relationships are stressful and tiring for everyone. Your spouse does not want to be tired or stressed any more than you.
Well then, why doesn’t your spouse want to go to marriage counseling? Let’s look at the top reasons spouses don’t want to go to marriage counseling:
- Fear that the counselor will side with their spouse against them (shame);
- Refusal to admit that there are any relationship problems (denial);
- Because they see marriage problems as entirely their spouse’s fault and responsibility (blame).
- They believe it will cost more money than they can afford (financial insecurity and priorities).
- They believe that marriage counseling is not helpful or will make things worse (security and safety).
- They are no longer interested in improving their marriage and want to maintain emotional distance (protection and distancing).
Notice that only one of these reasons has to do with a lack of desire for improvement. That is the one related to self protection and distancing. If you believe your spouse is distancing, cheating, or wants to leave you, marriage counseling would not be helpful anyway. There are better options for those situations.
Let’s take a look at when marriage counseling would be most helpful. Then you can determine if it fits your situation before you spend a lot of energy trying to get your spouse to go.
The Ideal Situation for Marriage Counseling
Marriage counseling is often used as a last ditch effort for couples who are getting close to divorce. That is the worst time to use marriage counseling. In this situation, counseling will focus too much on differences which will further divide the relationship. Highly conflicted and distant couples typically end up working on amicable divorce after several months of unhelpful marriage counseling.
Unless you are wanting to emotionally let go and end your marriage, do not attempt to get marriage counseling if your relationship has severe damage. You will need instead an approach that focuses on relationship building skills rather than on relationship problems.
Marriage counseling is best used early on, when a husband and wife still love each other and are both distressed about what is happening to their relationship. In counseling, they can learn to better understand and listen to each other. They can validate each other’s feelings and will be more motivated to make changes in themselves.
Couples who benefit most usually sit side by side in therapy, holding hands, and supporting each other as they pour out their heart to the therapist. In my years as a marriage counselor, I saw many such couples. The outcome of this kind of cooperative work was very good. Invariably, I would see from my office window, couples hugging in the parking lot after their session.
Marriage Counseling Doesn’t Always Work
I learned a long time ago that the majority of marriage counselors are not pro-marriage. They are actually pro individual and want to foster self development, self actualization, and taking responsibility for one’s own happiness. If this means ending their marriage, then so be it. This is their training. Psychology as a profession focuses on the well being of the individual.
If the marriage seems bad for one or both, moving the marriage toward amicable divorce is considered a success by the therapist. The therapist will consider that each person was able to get out of a bad relationship to be free to create a better life. Unfortunately, nowadays, many young therapists are anti-traditional marriage.
Psychological associations follow social trends in determining what is and is not healthy. What was unhealthy or an illness twenty years ago may now be seen by psychological associations as healthy lifestyle choices. People with conservative values such as Christians, are viewed as unhealthy for not being in favor of these social changes.
There is no such thing as value free counseling. All therapists are influenced by their values and beliefs in their choice of questions, their decisions to re-enforce or not re-enforce what a client is saying or doing, and in the advice they give. There is much more variation in treatment than in the field of medicine, which uses more of a protocol or “cookbook” approach to treating patients.
Marriage counselors have relatively few techniques for working on interpersonal issues. They have a few techniques that work well with cooperative, motivated, couples, such as planned dating, positive communication techniques, and reflective listening. These skills are helpful mainly with people who are motivated to do them. Clients who are resistant to doing these things do not cooperate with treatment, drop out, or soon stop doing the methods once therapy ends.
Counselors spend a great deal of time going over the history of problems in the marriage and work to get each spouse to understand where the other is coming from. Those are great methods for couples who are cooperative and caring, but if one spouse has lost interest in the marriage, these methods often fail. Marriage counseling with an unempathetic or unloving spouse will focus on differences which further divide couples.
We always connect on similarities; we always disconnect on differences. Whether your marriage counseling is creating more connection or disconnection should be a major factor in deciding whether to continue marriage counseling or to try a different method.
What do you do when you have an unmotivated spouse?
Marriage counseling will not motivate your spouse to want to reconcile or improve your marriage. He or she must already be motivated before attending marriage counseling with you. Likewise, sending your spouse for individual counseling will not make your spouse more motivated to reconcile or improve your marriage. Be careful not to send an unmotivated spouse to counseling as that is likely to move your spouse more toward divorce.
The exception to this is if your spouse has a serious psychological problem. In such a case, I would recommend your spouse get help as the psychological problem is likely to become an obstacle in your trying to improve your marriage. However, do not pressure your spouse to attend counseling for a psychological problem, as that may cause more harm than good.
You can do some initial relationship building on your own. This will increase your spouse’s desire to further improve your relationship. At that point, you can then both go to marriage counseling or simply continue to improve the relationship on your own. Most of my clients do not need to go to marriage counseling after they have completed their coaching. They simply continue to use the same skills they learned in coaching to maintain their improved relationship.
Choosing between coaching and counseling
To recap, marriage counseling with your spouse is a good choice if you are both motivated to build your relationship. Continue in your marriage counseling as long as it is improving your relationship. Another alternative for motivated couples is a marriage retreat. My favorite one is called Weekend to Remember.
Individual coaching–just for yourself, is the best choice if you have severe relationship problems, your spouse is unmotivated to work on improving your relationship, your spouse is having an affair, is intentionally distancing, or is planning to separate or divorce.
Coaching will help you to learn skills for reattracting your spouse and helping him or her to enjoy your relationship again. It will also help you to learn boundaries for earning respect and stopping damaging behavior.
Just because your spouse is not motivated to work on your relationship does not mean you can’t re-interest your spouse in your relationship. I have been doing such work for nearly 30 years to help people to re-create enjoyable relationships with reluctant spouses. If this is your situation, don’t give up! Work with a relationship coach. You can find my services advertised on my website coachjackito.com.
The most important thing I want you to realize is There is plenty of reason for hope, even if your spouse won’t go to marriage counseling.