How to Get the Most out of Marriage Counseling

Many couples who have tried marriage counseling feel it doesn’t work. However, Dr. Anthony Fiore, a therapist who has treated hundreds of Orange County couples during the past 30 years, disagrees. He argues that marriage counseling is as important therapy tool as it ever was. However, for it to be effective, the timing has to be right. The therapist has to make sure that both parties in a troubled relationship are totally committed. Discernment Counseling is the all-too-often omitted first step.

A guide for Orange County couples on the brink of divorce

Many couples come to me after they’ve tried traditional marriage counseling. They’re usually frustrated and depressed. One of the most common things they say is: “We tried marriage counseling and it didn’t work!”

If you feel this way, you’re not alone. But, as you’ll see, there’s hope at the end of the rainbow.

What’s wrong with marriage counseling?

I don’t think there’s anything particularly “wrong” with marriage counseling. (If I did, I wouldn’t still be offering it to Orange County couples on the brink of separation.)

The problem with traditional marriage counseling isn’t related to the therapy itself, or the way it’s delivered. The problem with marriage counseling involves when it’s delivered.

All too often, however, both parties aren’t fully committed to their partner and the relationship.

In situations like the one described below, even the most skilled therapist and well-planned program doesn’t stand a chance!

Meet Michael and Suzanne

Michael and Suzanne came to a regular marriage counselor following discovery that Michael had been having an emotional affair at work. Suzanne wanted to work on the marriage but Michael said he was out of love and had absolutely no energy to work on it.

Michael was convinced that he and Suzanne were basically incompatible. Because of this, he said that no feelings were left for her. The relationship had been more about raising the children than paying attention to each other. He felt disconnection, emptiness, and loneliness. Suzanne, for her part, still loved Michael and desperately wanted to try to repair things before filing for divorce. 

In this case, Suzanne was more motivated for marriage counseling because she had at least one very strong reason (among others) to want the marriage to work: she still loved Michael. But, why would he want marriage counseling to improve communication in a marriage that he thought ultimately was doomed because of core incompatibility? From his point of view, this was akin to going through the pain of cancer treatment when the outcome was bleak to begin with. He had to decide if it was worth it or not.

Mixed-agenda couples

Michael and Suzanne were a mixed-agenda couple. They were not committed to divorce, but they weren’t equally committed to working on the marriage either. Many couples are in this category. They often seek marriage counseling with disappointing results.

Research shows that mixed-agenda couples represent a meaningful subset—up to 30%–of couples presenting for therapy. Mixed-agenda couples respond differently to therapeutic interventions than couples who both want to work on the relationship.

Yet, until now, there has been a lack of treatment protocols in standard marriage counseling to work with these couples. As a result, mixed-agenda couples remain at high risk for divorce.

Leaning-in versus Leaning-out

The partner who is highly motivated to work things out is described as “leaning in”. In our example, this would be Suzanne. She was willing to forgive Michael and examine her role in the demise of their marriage.

Michael, however, viewed her as over-controlling, needy, and critical. Suzanne made him feel like a scolded child in his home. This was theoretically fixable! As a leaning-in partner Suzanne was ready to start therapy to stabilize her rocky marriage.

Michael, was the “leaning-out” partner. Like many leaning-out partners, Michael was almost “out the door” emotionally, but was hanging in there basically for the children. On the brink, he wasn’t sure what to do. He was miserable and confused; he saw no hope or possibility for change on the part of Suzanne. He feared that his feelings for Suzanne were gone, especially when compared them to the swelling of feelings stirred up in him when interacting with his peer at work with whom he was having an emotional affair. Simply put, Michael was resistant to therapy.

Leaning Out partners need a reason to want to participate in traditional marriage counseling. But, often they have lost their emotional energy to engage in the process of marriage counseling. They no longer want their partner enough to personally go through the pain of counseling – even though they don’t want to lose their family.

With such low motivation, traditional marriage counseling is doomed to failure, frustrating both the clients and the therapist.

Each partner needs their own reason to participate

For any chance of success, mixed-agenda couples first need a process wherein each partner individually (instead of together which often occur in regular marriage counseling) can be helped to understand their different contributions to the marital dysfunction.

They also need to explore and see more possibilities of ways each might change to give the marriage hope for survival. They need to try and change their attitudes and perspective of change itself….and the possibilities that might bring.

As a leaning-In partner, Suzanne’s motivation to participate in successful marriage counseling would obviously be to save her marriage which she still values. She still loves her husband and has a lot of hope that things can turn around.

Michael, on the other hand, as the leaning-out partner would need a lot of work to be convinced that there are reasons for him to put forth effort to save his marriage. This would be done individually and would involve helping him see the potential for change. He would be asked to consider his role or contribution to the emotional distancing that had developed between him and Suzanne over the years.  

Michael would need to explore ways he could change those things and see that it may be possible to do so. He would also need to explore what he may have overlooked through the years in terms of ways that he and Suzanne might develop more common interests instead of just focusing on incompatibilities.

Discernment counseling before marriage counseling

Recently, after years of research, Dr. William Doherty, at the University of Minnesota, has developed a process called Discernment Counseling.

Discernment Counseling is a highly-focused, short-term (1 to 5 session) protocol that paves the way for successful marriage therapy.

Its goal is to help both partners decide with increased clarify and confidence what direction they, as a couple, should take. It also increases each partner’s understanding of their own role or contribution to the state of their marriage.

Once these issues have been dealt with, it is easier for couples on the verge of breakup to decide which path they should take regarding the future of their marriage: intense marriage counseling is just one of the paths.

Three paths mixed-agenda couples can take

Discernment Counseling helps couples make better decisions in less time, with fewer angry sessions. There are three possible outcomes to Discernment Counseling:

  • Path 1 – Keep things as they are. Few couples who come to counseling take this path. Some, however, see it as a temporary solution until they are able to “get their ducks” in a row. They declare a truce until the kids graduate from high school, home price values increase, or a job promotion comes through, etc. Research shows that the average person filing for divorce waits 3 years after their decision before actually doing so.
  • Path 2 – Divorce or Separate: About 40 percent of couples who start discernment counseling ultimately choose this path. This path is not seen as a failure, as long as they both have increased clarity and confidence in their decision. They now have a better understanding as to what went wrong in terms of each partner’s contribution.
  • Path 3 – Commit to a period of time (usually 6 months) of intensive marital counseling and/or other work (like anger management training or parenting classes) with DIVORCE OFF THE TABLE. Going down this path, the couple could receive traditional marriage therapy. But now therapy would seem to have a much better chance of succeeding. Therapy can be done by the discernment counselor or by another marital therapist familiar with the process.