Save or Sabotage: Can Couples Therapy Make Things Worse?

Everyone deserves a joyful, loving relationship with their partner or spouse. When that isn’t the case, couples therapy can be a great tool for reigniting the flame. But what if it makes things worse?

Counseling isn’t not only for those who are ready to call it quits. In fact, healthy couples seek therapy as a resource for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Diffuse specific problems or argument
  • Improve communication in the relationship and family
  • Work toward a common goal
  • Navigate big life changes (e.g. blended family, deployment, illness)
  • Reconciliation from separation or divorce
  • Overcome infidelity or an affair
  • Get out of a rut

No matter the initial reason, couples counseling helps find possible solutions.

Couples Therapy Works (For Most)

A study from the American Association of Marriage and Family found 97% of couples benefitted from couples therapy.

Even better, 82% of couples spent less than a year in couples counseling, according to a survey by MidAmerica Nazarene University. The odds are in your favor for a short and successful counseling outcome. But there’s a caveat. If couples therapy isn’t productive or the whole team doesn’t show up to play the game, it can go downhill fast.

When Couples Therapy Makes Things Worse

Both partners aren’t all-in

There’s no “I” in “team,” and there’s definitely no “I” in “successful couples therapy.” Joint counseling involves two people to be successful. If one or both partners aren’t showing up or giving their best contributions to therapy sessions, it will fail.

This doesn’t mean you have to want to be there or enjoy doing the homework. Counseling and the treatment steps that come from it isn’t easy or always fun. But it’s important to try. Showing up is the hardest part.

If your spouse is unwilling to attend therapy with you for whatever reason, it can cause more strain in the relationship. They may feel the problems will work themselves out, or figure out a DIY approach to connecting. In particular, men are less likely to seek therapy or mental health services. But they may benefit the most from it.

Should you seek counseling alone for marital problems? It depends. Healing won’t come if both people don’t put in the effort. It can also lead to more issues when therapy focuses on one-sided accounts. Discuss these dynamics with your therapist if you’re concerned about getting your partner on board.

Abusive Relationships

Using a certified third party to work through issues is usually a great idea. However, when done in the context of an abusive relationship, it can fuel the fire.

Abusers are not mentally well. People with toxic thoughts and actions don’t sit down and work out their emotions, let alone practice healing techniques. An emotional abuser may use what is said in a session against you, often as soon as on the ride home.

Going to therapy with an abusive partner can put you at risk. Go alone instead of joint counseling to discuss how to deal with or escape from your partner’s aggressive behaviors. Try online counseling for discreet and convenient sessions that won’t draw attention. If you are in an abusive relationship where you fear for your safety, seek help immediately.

Set on Separation

Couples therapy may not be helpful for couples who are already separated or filing for divorce. If your mind is already made up about a major life decision, it’s hard to change it. All of the nice words and discussion of feelings in the world may not change the course of your relationship. And that’s okay.

Discernment counseling can help couples who are in this boat, whether one or both have one foot out of the door. A therapist will work through options on the best course of action for your relationship, even if it’s divorce.

Some couples are better apart, even after trying everything. A counselor will never shame you into staying in a harmful marriage or relationship. We want you to be happy and live life to the fullest.

A bad therapist

The cause for bad therapy can come down to having a bad therapist. But how do you know a good therapist from a not-so-good one?

First, ensure your counselor has the right credentials, such as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. Find their listing on reputable online directories such as Psychology Today, where you can see their practice and license information. Once you’re in the session, you’ll be able to see how the counselor interacts with you as a couple. Are they providing a safe space for both partners, not siding with one or the other? Is there HIPAA-compliant practices in place, such as privacy and client confidentiality?

An inexperienced or harmful therapist can cost you thousands in counseling fees, and ultimately, your marriage.

Types of Couples Therapy


Taking your counseling online may be a great option for many couples, especially during the pandemic. Besides being more convenient, online therapy allows flexibility when choosing a certified therapist.

Virtual counseling isn’t for everyone. Opt for in-person if either or both partners aren’t comfortable using technology or are wary about internet-based discussions.

A certified therapist will ensure compliance with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and create a safe environment on and offline.

Premarital Counseling

Doves are chirping and bells are ringing in the distance — you’re engaged! Even if you’ve met the one who checks all the boxes on your perfect partner list, committing to forever isn’t something to take lightly. Before you say “I do,” visit a family or premarital counselor to talk through some of the biggest ongoing issues for married couples.

Topics you may cover in premarital counseling include:

  • Religious beliefs and values
  • Money
  • Sex
  • Children
  • In-laws

Many officiants in religious settings, such as a pastor or priest, will offer premarital counseling as part of your wedding prep.

Sex Therapy

Not all couples therapy is created equal. In fact, one major area of couseling that is often overlooked is sex therapy. This approach focuses on intimacy in and out of the bedroom, which affects everything else in your life. Read more about what to expect in sex therapy and why it’s important.

Individual vs. Couples Counseling

Most relationship problems should occur within a joint counseling environment. In fact, going alone for marital problems increases the chance of divorce. It’s not surprising when the spouse’s account is one-sided.

That being said, some issues are better explored in individual therapy, including if you’re in an abusive relationship, exploring your sexual identity, or struggling with depression and anxiety.

Celebrate Couples Therapy

The stigma for getting mental health services is still very real. Millennials and Gen Z are helping normalize therapy, but there’s still a long way to go. Getting help for yourself or your relationship is never something to be ashamed about. With such high success rates, couples therapy can aid in the restoration and happiness of your marriage. That’s something to celebrate.

Don’t let things get worse before checking in with your partner in a relaxed, safe, and controlled space. A licensed counselor like Dr. Michael Stokes with Rhode Island Sex Therapy can help you build your happily ever after.

Book an appointment online today!

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