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When Couples Counselling Won’t Work: 5 Signs You’re Not Ready for Therapy

When you’re trapped in seemingly intractable conflict with the person you once called your best friend, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by hopelessness. Many couples enter couples counselling convinced that there’s no way talking to a professional can help them work through infidelity, constant conflict, and other marital challenges. But research suggests that couples counselling is highly effective, with one study finding a stunning 98% satisfaction rate.

Couples counselling isn’t for everyone, though. Sometimes it’s little more than a waste of time. Here are five situations in which couples counselling may not be able to help you after all.

You Want to Win and Be Right

Marriage counselling is about taking responsibility for your own behavior. Even if you’re convinced you’re right about everything, the best therapists have a knack for shaking you out of that belief and seeing the other side of things. But if you’re bound and determined to prove that everything is your spouse’s fault, you may be wasting your time. Good marriages are founded upon a mutual respect and desire to change—not the desire to “defeat” your spouse in battle.

There is Active Infidelity

Believe it or not, it’s possible to recover from infidelity, even if you or your partner have cheated multiple times or with multiple people. Indeed, infidelity can be a powerful catalyst that shakes you out of complacency and inspires you to change your partnership for the better. But if there’s ongoing infidelity—unless you have an open marriage, of course—then that’s another story. You can’t work through the pain of infidelity if the cheating spouse is unwilling to address the source of the pain. Moreover, going to counselling when you’re still cheating shows a remarkable degree of disrespect for your partner, and disrespect has no place in the counselling room or in a marriage.

One Partner is Abusive

It’s normal to occasionally say unkind things to your partner—even if doing so is completely indefensible. But ongoing verbal or physical abuse can undermine counselling. The problem here is that counselling is founded upon the premise that you’re both to blame for the problems in your marriage, and that by understanding one another, you can work yourself out of the hole you’ve dug.

When one partner is abusive, though, nothing can explain or excuse the behavior. And counselling that attempts to blame the abuse on the abuse victim is, in and of itself, abusive. Further, research suggests that what happens in therapy is sometimes used as an excuse by the abuser to intensify and worsen the abuse. If your partner abuses you, he or she need to seek independent help first. You should move out immediately, to protect yourself, and only consider staying for the long-term once your partner has completely ceased all abuse for at least six months.

One Partner Isn’t Committed

You might be surprised to learn that couples counselling can be effective even when only one partner attends. But no matter how dedicated you are, counselling won’t work if one party isn’t committed to the relationship. Therapy can help you decide whether or not to split up, but if you’re in disagreement about whether the relationship should last, this is something you need to address before counselling can help. Otherwise you could end up sinking lots of time and money into counselling, only to have your noncommittal partner walk out the door.

You Can’t or Won’t Be Honest

Good relationships are built on a strong foundation of honesty, and many couples find themselves in a counsellor’s office because they cannot stop lying to one another. There’s no shame in admitting to some past deception, but if you’re unwilling to change a pattern of dishonesty, therapy cannot help you. For counselling to work, you need to be honest, even when doing so feels uncomfortable. If you can’t commit to this, you’re behaving disrespectfully toward your partner. Don’t waste your money.