Marriage counselors aren’t magicians. They can’t put every relationship back together, and sometimes, they know right away that one isn’t going to work.
Here are the stories of 15 marriage counselors who’ve dealt with couples that were heading inevitably towards a split – and how they knew.
1. “This is what I’ve learned: You cannot have higher expectations for someone than what they have for themselves. And vice versa. I’ve had clients that frustrated the heck out of me because I set the bar too high, so I thought we weren’t getting anywhere. Conversely, I remember one couple I saw where I thought that there was no hope, but somehow they made it work. The bottom line is that going in with pre-conceived notions is rarely helpful – people are always surprising.”
2. “If I notice that a spouse is pulling away and marriage counseling will not work, I will meet with the spouse that is clinging to the marriage and tell them to prepare themselves for a divorce or separation. I usually have that spouse work on making themselves happy and building a life where their happiness is not dependent on someone else. After all is said and done I refer my clients, as needed, to individual counseling.”
3. “I try not to think of this issue in terms of ‘can I help them’ as much as ‘will they do what is necessary to repair this relationship.’ It is often immediately clear that discrepancies exist in motivation, and this usually holds true upon further assessment. Here are the couples I see that I’m less optimistic about. 1. Couples who refuse to participate in counseling. I give all kinds of homework, usually related to enhancing communication and building connection. Couples who come back after the first few sessions and report zero effort to do any homework are usually couples who have checked out. 2. Heterosexual couples where men refuse to accept that their female partners have anything valuable to say. 3. Couples who want me to be a referee.”
4. “From the couples I’ve dealt with, in order for the therapy to be anything productive, both people in the relationship have to have wanted to go to therapy to work on their relationship. Sadly, a lot of people wait too long to ask for help and when they do actually seek it out, it’s only because they both know it’s over, and it’s a last ditch effort to keep the relationship going for as long as possible.”
5. “My ex and I went to see a marriage counselor. After seeing us a couple times, he had me in for a private session and said, ‘Honey, some people are better off not married. Your not-yet-ex has a personality disorder and there’s nothing you can do; he doesn’t want to change. Get out, get out now.’ I was stunned. ‘But you’re a marriage counselor, you’re supposed to help us fix our marriage!’ Well, I was stubborn and kept trying to make it work for a bit longer, but eventually I took the professional advice. I should have left way sooner than I did.”
6. “My cousin is a marriage counselor, and she said that most couples visiting her have one person who is trying to rebuild the relationship, and the other one has already mentally packed up and left. The sessions usually turn into grief counseling for the one who hasn’t figured out it’s over already.”
7. “My marriage counselor told me in a private session (after we’d decided to move on with our lives separately) that as soon as she met both of us, she knew her job was going to help us both transition apart as smoothly as possible. She did; and I really respect her for that. I also respect the hell out of my ex-wife and wish her all the happiness in the world.”
8. “Our marriage counselor turned into my counselor when my ex-wife decided to show up to 2 of the 10 sessions. When she did show up it was less then constructive. It was an hour long session of her railing on me and telling the counselor how terrible I was.”
9. “Often, the person who is ‘checked-out’ might suggest counseling to a) break the ice for the topic of divorce and have a mediator or b) provide support for the spouse; they may be ready for divorce, but they know their partner will need, as you put it, grief counseling to make it through. The trick to it is having appropriate goals. I.e. is the goal to help the couple stay together? Or is it an amiable break up? And a lot of the work might be helping them realize what their goals are.”
10. “My friend was trying to save her marriage. Her husband flipped off the counselor and then challenged him to a staring contest to see who was more ‘alpha.’ I wish I was joking about that. At a session the following week, the counselor told my friend ‘file for divorce; this is not a situation that is going to get fixed.’
11. “Often, people feel pressured to ‘try to fix it’ by doing professional couples work, when in reality they’re just doing it so they can look back after the divorce and be able to say they’ve done everything they could. If I get that sense, I often ask them if I’m there to help them repair their marriage, or if my job will be to facilitate a healthy divorce process or co-parenting plan. Many couples seem relieved when this comes up, as pretending to do the work of couples therapy is, in that case, just delaying the inevitable.”
12. “Folks who are trapped in an ideological box that tells them they don’t need to do any work are usually not ready for help.”
13. “My parents went to counseling for a while. My mom wanted to fix their relationship, and my dad wanted the counselor to convince his wife to get in line. The counselor ended up snapping at my dad for his overwhelmingly callous attitude towards my mom. She was sitting there crying, and my dad was laughing at her and calling her a lying bitch. That was their last session.”
14. “When I deliver couples counseling, I always tell the couple from the onset that my job is to help the relationship, but helping the relationship could mean helping the couple end it. It’s a lot easier for all involved (me included) to accept the relationship ending as a realistic outcome – they don’t get frustrated with each other when things don’t get ‘better’ and I don’t get frustrated if I don’t ‘fix’ the relationship.”
15. “I can’t help couples who are actively violent – especially if there’s power involved (only one of the partners is violent towards the other, rather than both getting physical with each other). For that, I suggest they separate until the violent one can get some coping skills and be safe.”
All posts have been edited from Reddit for length and clarity.