The Trouble with Couples Therapy: Why it may not work, and how to set yourself up for success- Part 1

coaching vs. therapy finding the right support improvement tips Apr 03, 2023
back of  female therapist facing female and male couple on couch. Couple appears frustrated and defeated.

Couples therapy is the go-to choice for most couples who are struggling in their relationship, but I'm not so sure it should be. There are some drawbacks with the couples therapy approach, and knowing how important it is to get support that actually can help, it's time we start talking about what those drawbacks are, why couples therapy may not be the best choice for you, and how you can set yourself up for success in finding support that is right for you. 


I know, because I’m one of them


I want to start by saying that I am, or at least I have been, a couples therapist. I have both a Masters and a PhD in Couple and Family therapy. I’ve supported hundreds of couples as a therapist for over a decade, supervised, mentored, and consulted with dozens of emerging couples therapists, was adjunct faculty in a couple and family therapy Master's program, and even co-owned a therapy group practice.


I’ve been in the work. And while I respect and honor the healing power of therapy and the outstanding work that many clinicians are doing in the world, I gotta say– the typical approach to couples therapy, in particular, leaves much to be desired.


The feedback was heartbreaking


Over the years, I have heard far too many stories about how clients have not had positive experiences in couples therapy, and how it left them feeling even more hopeless and confused about their relationship. Worse, I’ve heard numerous stories from clients whose therapists responded in ways that did more harm than good. 


And even while I considered myself “one of the good ones,” (and heard as much from my clients,) I still felt like something was missing. My clients weren’t changing– not in any meaningful or lasting way. Their relationship got better, but only incrementally. Improvement was slow and often painful. And more often than I care to admit, I felt like sessions left couples feeling worse than they did when they came in to see me. 


Awareness is power


I believe that awareness gives us choices, and choices empower us. After stepping away from the role of couples therapist and critically examining that experience and my own relationship, which Calvin and I were able to COMPLETELY transform without a therapist of our own, and I began to see where some of the problems were. 

And I want to share them with you, because I’m all about informed and conscious choices. I know therapy is the default solution for most people when it comes to trying to improve or even save their relationship. But I also know how freaking important relationships are to people’s well-being, and when they are struggling… it affects EVERYTHING. And breaking up or getting a divorce is a really big deal, which is to say that if people are going to look for a solution– for someone to help them with perhaps the most important thing in their lives– they deserve to have a more full picture.


So, I’ve decided to do this blog mini-series on the trouble with couples therapy. Let’s dive in, shall we?


Trouble #1: Most couples therapists don’t really know what they are doing


The field of therapy started with a very individual and medical-model focus, and much of it continues that way. Most clinicians are trained primarily to work with individuals and receive little to no training at all on working with couples.


Clinicians in the field of Couple and Family Therapy (CFT, also known by it’s former title Marriage and Family Therapy, or MFT) receive a different sort of training that, at least, helps them to look beyond the individual to the impact of the larger system. In couples work, this translates into recognizing that no one person is the problem and that the couple engages in patterns of interaction that are mutually influencing. 


Yet even then, most Couple and Family Therapists only get one class on working with couples during their education. Most of the education that we receive helps clinicians to learn different theories, most of which are family-systems based. 


The real learning happens during an internship, where CFTs are required to ensure that half of their clinical hours are relational– but that doesn’t necessarily mean they work with couples. Their relationship hours may be far more kids and families than couples. And as a supervisor, there is only so much we can do to help ensure that clinicians are learning what they need to learn to be the best couples therapist when they have a lot of other kinds of clients to focus on as well.


After internship, and before full licensure, the rest of a clinician’s supervised hours may be achieved working with any kind of client. And in my experience, it’s a rare breed of folx who actually want to and enjoy working with couples. This means, of course, that there is no guarantee that just because you are working with a licensed CFT/MFT, they have any kind of real experience working with couples. 


(And don’t even get me started on the lack of training, experience, and supervision around marginalized identity locations. If you’re queer, trans, polyam, or even BIPOC, the chances of finding a GOOD couples therapist who gets your unique identities and relationship dynamics are even slimmer!) 


What makes things still more challenging is that couples therapy is rather difficult and intense! You’ve got two people in the room, both of whom are carrying a lot of really big feelings, and whose way of managing or expressing those feelings tends to trigger the other partner’s stuff! It can be difficult for a clinician to interrupt an argument, not get pulled into taking sides, or even keep their focus when both people are talking about equally painful, complicated, and valid things! Couples therapy can be overwhelming, even for the most talented and experienced of clinicians. 


With all of the learning about different theories and frameworks, most new therapists understandably start their work without a solid foundation in a single one- thus leaving them with no clear path for helping couples to get from where they are to where they want to be. A lot of therapy, then, tends to unfold in a rather intuitive way, with clinicians flying by the seat of their pants, pulling from a number of theories and ideas for how they might help. 


And while that has a kind of magic to that, the truth is that that having a clear path, a solid theory and framework for how to make sense of problems, what it takes to reach solutions, and exactly how to lead couples there– is a GAME CHANGER! It makes a HUGE difference in whether therapy is successful, and how long it takes before sustainable changes are made in the relationship. 


Make sure your support has a clear path


I’ll admit, when I was practicing as a couples therapist, I did not have a clear path to guide couples along on. I was working from a lot of different theories. And while I had some thoughts and ideas that became more clear the longer I practiced, it was never formalized in my mind or in my work. Until now. 


Now, as a relationship transformation coach, I have a clear path. I have come to understand what is really at the root and heart of most couple’s struggles (hint, it’s NOT communication!), and I have a clear framework and pathway for supporting couples along their journey back into reconnection, love, and happiness. And the couples that Calvin and I have been working with using our approach have benefitted SO MUCH more (and more quickly) than any I’d worked with in my role as a couples therapist. 


Now, I can confidently say that I know what I’m doing. I know how to help, and I DO. 


What you can do


I hope it goes without saying that if you are struggling in your relationship, Calvin and I would love to connect and explore whether we might be the right fit. We offer a FREE 90-minute coaching session, that we call a Relationship Empowerment Call. We use that time to more deeply understand where you are, where you want to go, and whether we think we can actually help. We know how important the right fit is, and we want to empower you to find it. If you're interested, you can schedule that call here


But regardless of who you go to for support, we recommend that you have a conversation with them first and ask them how they help couples achieve the healing and changes that they are looking for. If your support person doesn’t have a clear and understandable answer, if they can’t describe the path forward, then consider looking elsewhere. 


Remember, you DESERVE the best kind of support possible, and so does your relationship. It’s too important and too special to waste any more time, energy, and money on support that’s not going to help in sustainable ways. 


Stay tuned next week for another look at why couples therapy may not work for you. 



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