One of the main ways that therapists help couples is by giving them a sense of hope about the possiblity of things being better in their relationship. This is an important part of the first session: hearing the couple’s problem, validating their struggle, and then offering them some sense of hope about what can be different and how they can get there.
But it’s important to understand that couples therapy isn’t always the best solution, and there are cases where it’s actually a really bad idea.
Today we’re going to talk about three conditions under which couples therapy is not recommended.
One Foot Out the Door
As I mentioned in an earlier post, many couples seek therapy after a lot of bad stuff has happened in their relationship. Often, one or both partners has thought seriously about ending the relationship on more than one occasion. The less committed each partner is to the relationship the less effective any kind of relational intervention is going to be. But it’s very difficult to assess for relational commitment in the therapy room with both partners present. The fact is, neither partner wants to be the first to say they are done with the relationship inside a therapist’s office, so they will often put on a show of being committed and maybe even temporarily convincing themselves that they are committed, even though they know deep down that they’re finished with the relationship.
That’s why it’s important that your couples therapist takes the time to use validated assessments to measure levels of committment in both you and your partner, so that you don’t end up going for seven or eight sessions of futile couples therapy, only to end the relationship anyway.
In my practice I use the Weiss-Cerretto Relationship Status Inventory. When both partners score high on this evaluation, it usually means that the relationship is extremely troubled, both partners are all but completely checked-out of the relationship, and the odds of couples therapy succeeding are very low.
A good therapist will take the time to share this feedback with the couple, and delve into their motivations for therapy, their goals, and whether they see success as a realistic outcome. Where there truly is no committed motivation to the process, a therapist is doing a disservice to the couple by continuing couples therapy and leading them on in some belief that he or she can fix their relationship.
If that’s where your relationship is at, it would probably be wiser to begin a conversation with a therapist about how you might best bring the relationship to an end in a safe and (ideally) amicable way.
Characterological Relational Maltreatment
You may have heard that couples therapy is a bad choice when there is physical abuse in the relationship, and that’s absolutely true. But research indicates that a therapist’s evaluation of the relationship should go much further than just phyiscal abuse in assessing the appropriateness of couples therapy.
I’ve used the term “relational maltreatment” because I think it is less loaded than the word “abuse,” and because I think it also results in a broader way of thinking about problematic relational interactions. At the heart of relational maltreatment is the attempt by one partner to coerce the other partner into behaving exactly as they want them to. This coercion is all about controling the other person.
In some relationships both partners attempt to use coercive means to get what they want. This is often because they don’t know how else to express their needs. It is often possible to help such couples change their ways and learn to get their needs met by more helpful means.
But when the coercion is characterological, it means that one partner is fundamentally coercive and abusive toward the other partner. The perpetrator will typically use emotional appeals to manipulate their partner initially, but if the partner does not comply, the coercion may become more direct, agressive, and in some cases physical.
Every couple I see is assessed for evidence not only of physical abuse, but also of characterological relational maltreatment precisely because in situations where this exists, it can be extremely dangerous to continue any kind of couples therapy. Everything that happens in the couples sessions becomes ammunition for the perpetrator, and it is almost impossible for the other partner ever to feel safe enough to say what he or she is really thinking and feeling. In fact, no matter what is said, it will be treated as defiance or noncompliance by the perpetrator.
So far, there is no evidence that any kind of relationship therapy can successfully deal with characterological maltreatment.
If you think that you might be involved in a relationship where abuse and maltreatment exists, it’s important to get help as soon as possible. Things are unlikely to improve in your relationship and the best choice is to find a way to get out of the relationship as quickly and safely as possible. To learn more about this and to gain some insight into some of the signs of such abuse, check out the resources at HelpGuide.org
Over the long-term course of a relationship there is about a 25% chance that come kind of infidelity will occur. This is not simply limited to sexual infidelity. It also includes emotional infidelity (engaging in emotionally intimate conversations with someone other than your partner — typically about your partner) and internet infidelity (engaging in extra-relational activities with a secret partner over the web). Frequently, the infidelity isn’t even intentional — that is, the unfaithful partner never set out with the intention of committing infidelity.
Couples will often seek out therapy after infidelity has been discovered, and there are many good evidence based therapies for helping couples overcome infidelity and rebuild the trust in their relationship. But one thing that never works is if there is ongoing infidelity in the relationship. That may sound like a crazy thing to say, but more people than you might think will operate under the notion that they can somehow fix their relationship while still being involved in another relationship elsewhere.
That’s why a thorough assessment around infidelity is essential to evaluating a couple for therapy, and where there is a history of indiscretions, it must be absolutely clear to the therapist that there is no ongoing infidelity.
If there is an ongoing affair, then work must begin on ending that relationship first, or helping the cheating partner determine whether they are actually committed to the existing relationship. If they can’t be “all-in” with their partner from the beginning, then therapy is going to be a true exercise in futility.
All three of the factors I’ve listed are the sorts of things that are only really effectively evaluated using good, sound assessment procedures. That’s why it’s so important to understand how your therapist assessess your relationship and what tools he or she will use. You also want to be going to someone who is bringing up questions of infidelity and relationship committment early, because if those things aren’t addressed first, there is no solid foundation upon which to build the therapy. Keep this in mind if you’re ever seeking couples therapy.
In addition, know that if any of the above situations are true for you in your relationship today — you’ve thought often of leaving the relationship, you see the signs of characterological maltreatment, or there is ongoing infidelity — you should consider carefully the value of maintaining the relationship and pursuing therapy to try to maintain it. While therapy might temporarily bandage the relationship, it’s less likely that it will be able to provide permanent healing.