Maybe you’re the type of person who when you started seeing problems in your relationship thought right away to get to a couples counselor to work things out. Or maybe it took you a while to come around to the idea, possibly after a good deal of convincing and of repeated discussions about why you should try couples counseling.
Whatever the case, you went ahead and took the plunge. You got a recommendation from your friend/doctor/clergyperson, or you searched on Google, or found a YouTube video. You had your first session. Perhaps you had a few more. And it tanked. It was uncomfortable and awkward, and you couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Or maybe it was not awkward at all. Maybe you liked your therapist, and they seemed nice, and sessions went well, but nothing much changed in your relationship. The same old problems are still there.
I’d like to make the case for getting back on the horse and trying again. If you value your relationship, it really is possible to improve on the problems in it (and let’s be real, every relationship has challenges), and you don’t have to ditch it just because they haven’t been fixed yet.
Let me offer an analogy. Let’s say someone you love has developed severe headaches. They tried Advil, they tried Aspirin, they tried all kinds of different pills and it didn’t work. So they go to the doctor, who does a full examination, prescribes a new and stronger drug, and sends them on their way.
But the new medication doesn’t do the trick either. So they give up and tell you, “well, I guess I’m just going to have to live with severe headaches for the rest of my life. Oh well.” Thinking that to be a little extreme, you suggest to them maybe they ought to try another doctor. “Eh,” they reply, “I tried doctors already, that doesn’t work.” Does this strike you as a sensible approach?
How about this one: you’re looking for a partner you can settle down with, get married, start a family. You go online, find a good match, go out on a date, maybe two, but it doesn’t work out. “Well, so much for getting married. Dating doesn’t work. I wonder what’s on Netflix?”
The same goes for “couples counseling didn’t work.” Obviously, you don’t give up on dating because the person you met wasn’t The One. You don’t give up on medicine because your doctor didn’t have the answer. And likewise, you shouldn’t give up on couples counseling because the counselor you met didn’t solve everything. Couples counselors are human beings. This means A) they are not perfect and B) they are all different. If the last one didn’t work out, that doesn’t mean the next one won’t. If your relationship is important to you, it may be worth another go.
Why didn’t couples counseling work the first time?
I’d like to suggest a couple of good reasons to think things might be different a second (or third!) time around.
1. You had a bad therapist.
The unfortunate truth is that there are bad therapists out there. They don’t know what they are doing, or worse, they know what they are doing but are just crummy people who are judgmental and authoritarian, instead of empathic and collaborative. It’s hard for you to know for 100% certain before you meet with them what they’re like (which is why many therapists offer a free consultation so you can get to know them before committing to anything).
If you felt judged or pressured by your therapist; if you felt your partner and therapist were teaming up against you; if you did not feel like your therapist truly cared about your situation – these are all indications that your therapist was not competent to help you out, not that couples therapy in general is bogus.
2. It just wasn’t a good fit.
Even if your therapist is competent, empathic, helpful, and generally great, they simply might not have a been the right fit for you and your partner. Perhaps their conversational style was hard for you to follow. Or they were too humorous or too serious for your taste.
Perhaps their background made you uncomfortable – they showed up wearing a crucifix around their neck and you are lapsed Catholic. Perhaps they simply reminded you of your annoying Uncle Marty and you couldn’t get over it. Sometimes a seemingly trivial issue like this does arise, and you don’t have to feel bad about it. You’re entitled to a therapist who doesn’t look like Uncle Marty!
There is no rule that the first therapist you meet with has to be your therapist forever. If it wasn’t a good fit, someone else might be.
3. You don’t like their clinical orientation.
“Clinical orientation” means the theories therapists base their work on. Some therapists are psychodynamically oriented, which means they believe that the essential focus needs to be on people’s unconscious motivations. Others use cognitive-behavioral therapy, which says that a person’s conscious thoughts are where the work is. These are just two examples, and there are many more.
Research shows that no one theory works better than another, but an important component of the effectiveness of any therapy is that the theory is plausible to the client. If it makes sense to you that your unconscious mind has a strong effect on your conscious choices, then psychodynamic therapy might be great for you, but if it doesn’t, you’re probably better off with a different approach. If the last therapist used an approach that didn’t resonate with you, you can look for someone else with a different clinical orientation.
4. You weren’t ready.
It’s not all about the therapist, after all. It’s not uncommon for couples to enter therapy without a real understanding of what it’s going to take from them. And what’s it going to take is time and effort. Therapists are not magicians who can wave a wand and make things better. You are going to have to look at yourself honestly and accept that just maybe you aren’t perfect and your partner isn’t the wrongest person in the world. You are going to have to try things that aren’t necessarily typical or comfortable for you. You are going to have to work!
If you (or your partner) came into therapy with an I-need-you-to-fix-my-partner attitude, it would surprise no one that therapy didn’t work out for you. Consider how you approached the whole endeavor and whether a different attitude might make a difference in another attempt at counseling.
5. There was too much going on in your life.
As we just pointed out, therapy takes time and effort. If your life was in chaos last time you tried couples counseling, you may not have had the internal resources to devote to it. This might include job stress, unemployment, illness in the family, loss of a loved one, or many other life circumstances that could have caused you to be too preoccupied to give it your all.
If things have calmed down now, or if you have at least gotten to a place where you’re managing better, trying couples counseling again might yield a vastly different result. When your head is in a better place, you can devote the necessary efforts to your relationship that you might not have been able to before.
There are more considerations to take into account, and many reasons why you should try couples counseling again, even several times over. (However, if you’ve been to eight different counselors and nothing has changed, it might be a better idea to get yourself into individual counseling to see what’s going on – are you skipping out on therapy every time someone asks you to do something difficult? Is your partner completely unwilling to change and you’re just in denial?)
If your relationship is still in trouble despite a previous attempt at couples counseling, don’t give up. Reach out to us today and see how “Things Can Be Different!”