1. You’re not being honest
It’s really tough to work on rebuilding a relationship if someone is omitting information. As a therapist, I always choose to trust my clients. All I have is your word, and your word is what we build treatment on. If you aren’t being honest or transparent, this can make moving toward healing and connection really difficult. Do yourself a favor and be honest. If for some reason you don’t feel safe being honest with your partner in the room, then just talk about exactly that. Say, “It’s hard for me to be open about everything, because I feel afraid that I will be judged, persecuted, not accepted, etc. Is there a way we can work on feeling emotionally safe first?” Fear can be paralyzing, so sometimes just talking about the fear can help breakdown walls to allow everyone to feel safer and more transparent.
2. You and your partner have different goals
Typically, therapy is most effective when you create a few goals to work toward. These are often created collaboratively with the therapist in the first few sessions and turn into what is called a “treatment plan”. In couple’s therapy, it’s important that you have similar goals. If they seem really different, the therapist can work with you to create goals that you both agree to. However, if someone has “secret” or extremely different goals, this can create a “pushing/pulling” effect instead of a “coming together” effect. And seriously, not many people feel comfortable or safe being pushed or pulled into doing something they didn’t agree to. Some examples of conflicting or “secret” goals are:
- “If they would just change, everything would be fine”: Couples therapy is about the dynamic between everyone in the relationship. Very rarely is it one person’s fault. Exceptions would be things like abuse, safety concerns, and addiction. Although, some therapists would even say there is a relational dynamic
with these issues as well.
- When one partner is in therapy to end the relationship, and one is in therapy to save the relationship: Couples counseling works toward building a relationship, and it can be difficult when one person has a different agenda. However, this is a common concern for many people so there is something called Discernment Counseling to help with decision-making and moving forward. Be transparent with the therapist and tell them your struggling with this.
3. One of you doesn’t want to be there
Although challenging, this isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. If you at least show up to the first session then you’re already ahead of the game. Showing up demonstrates that you care about your partner and you’re concerned about the future of the relationship. Giving it a try is a good faith effort that won’t go unnoticed. It’s actually really normal to be uncertain or apprehensive about therapy. However, if you’re already convinced therapy is a waste of time, and it doesn’t work, then that’s a difficult place to start from. Rather than spending time on goals to work on your relationship, we have to spend some time creating an environment where you feel like time spent in session is valuable. But sometimes those things go hand in hand and working on trust with the therapist is inadvertently working on trust with your partner. Whatever you do, don’t surprise counseling on people. I have had people who were expecting to go out for dinner and ended up in my therapy room. This usually doesn’t go over well.
4. You’re ready to listen but not ready work
Therapy is work! Let me say it again! Therapy is work! It’s work for everyone involved. It’s hard to come in and open up to a stranger about things that may be painful. Additionally, it is emotionally exhausting to feel vulnerable and allow yourself to be present for your partner when you feel like they are causing the pain. However, it can also be incredibly rewarding and bring a new found level of connection and intimacy to a relationship. Not only do you work in the therapy room, but you also work outside the therapy room. Bringing the skills, knowledge, or enhanced intimacy you learned in your everyday life with your partner is an important piece of maintaining what you worked so hard for.
5. Therapist isn’t a good fit
Research shows an important factor for effective therapy is the relationship between you and the therapist. Although it might be hard or uncomfortable to talk about painful/vulnerable things, you should feel safe in the therapy room. You should never feel judged, minimized, or blamed. However, therapists are human (Surprise! We’re human! Isn’t that crazy?), and sometimes these things can happen. A common concern I hear from couples who have tried therapy before, is they felt like their previous therapist was biased either for or against one of them. As a couple’s therapist, I’m constantly taking the temperature of my biases and work really hard to maintain a neutral position. The best thing to do is talk to the therapist about how you’re feeling judged, emotionally unsafe, biased against, etc. They should be receptive and listen to your concerns. If they are reactive and defensive, you should probably find a new therapist. If you just have a gut feeling that the therapist isn’t going to work, just be honest with them and ask them for a few referrals to other therapists… or don’t and just find a new therapist on your own. Either way, don’t give up because the therapist wasn’t right for you. It may take a few tries before you find a good fit.
What to do about it: First recognize when these things are happening and bring them out into the open by shedding some light on them. Then discuss how you are going to deal with it. A good couple’s counselor can help you facilitate some tough conversations with your partner that you might not be able to have on your own. Finally, If you can’t come to a solution or at least try to negotiate, you can always ask for referrals for individual counseling or other resources like support groups or relationship education classes.
Beth Boatman, LMFT-A, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy Associate and an AASECT Certified Sexuality Educator specializing in individuals, couples, and family therapy. She has specialized training in intimacy problems, sexual dysfunctions, and communication issues.
Beth also enjoys using a medical family therapy model to help families and couples experiencing issues related to chronic illness and medical problems. She provides an open and non-judgmental atmosphere where she is sensitive to multicultural considerations and careful to emphasize multiple perspectives throughout her clinical work.