Why don't people get marriage counseling when they need help?

When your stomach hurts, and the pain doesn't seem to be going away, you go to a physician. When your marriage hurts, marriage counseling may seem like the obvious answer. Yet studies have shown that when married couples have marriage problems, they wait an average of 7 years before seeking help. Why?

One reason is that going to a therapist takes time. Most marriage counselors conduct their sessions during standard weekday office hours, just the hours that most spouses need to be at work and/or taking care of their children. Finding a babysitter and/or missing work every week for an hour-long session, plus travel time back and forth, can be a hurdle that feels too high to overcome.

In addition to the time, marriage counseling can cost quite a bit of money. The therapists in my therapy office suite charge from $80 per session to over $300 per session, depending on their years of experience, levels of training, and other similar factors. Most therapy requires at least 10 to 20 weekly sessions to succeed. Insurance may, or may not help out with some of the cost. The price tag for full treatment however can put a significant strain on a couple's finances.

Who to trust? Finding a doctor whose advice you trust can be challenging, but most people fairly easily find medical professionals who they feel give them good advice. Finding a couples counselor, by contrast, leaves many couples feeling like they are groping in the dark. They are uncertain how to judge if the therapist is conducting good therapy, mediocre treatment, wasting their time, or maybe even doing them harm.

Lastly, if they do manage to choose a therapist, figure out how to find the money to pay for it, and free up time for the weekly appointments... many couples still find that marriage counseling makes things worse, not better. Sometimes couples counseling just encourage the kind of criticizing of each other that the couple has been doing at home. A therapist who encourages spouses to each tell the other what they are dissatisfied about is a poor therapist. That's only going to lead to more fighting and pain.

EAP (Employee Assistant Program) personnel who refer their clients to marriage and family therapists report that while most referrals for individual therapy prove to be satisfactory and helpful, an unfortunately high percentage of the clients that they refer for marriage counseling return with a report that the therapist was unhelpful. Perhaps the problem is that many people who call themselves marriage therapist are actually general therapists who have not been adequately trained in this specialty area. In addition, marriage therapy training programs often emphasize diagnosis of pathology rather than actually how to save a marriage, ie. how to coach couples in the skills they need for enjoying marriage success.

Certainly there are many excellent professionals who genuinely do help the couples they work with. At the same time, you might find yourself wondering if there is another option for getting help sooner, more easily, with less cost, and without the danger of getting a counselor who ends up causing more hurt than help?

What can I do?

Consider joining Power of Two Online and checking out the 3 Day Free Trial. Learn from home on your own schedule. It's affordable. It's private. You can start alone, and your partner can join you later if they're interested. You'll get personal attention from our relationship coaching team. And, it's way cheaper than counseling!

And most importantly... you can feel sure you're getting world-class advice from world-renowned authors Dr. Susan Heitler and Dr. Abigail Hirsch.

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Funding for this project was provided by the United States Department of Health Services, Administration for Children and Families, Grant 90-FE-0123. Any opinions, finding, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Department of Health and Human Servies, Administration for Children and Families.