Is It Too Late for Couples Therapy?

A Look at What Matters Most When You Want to Save a Marriage

Couple talking to a therapist

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Are you wondering if it's too late for couples therapy? One way to work on a marriage is by using a couples counselor. The unbiased nature of this kind of counseling helps partners work through problems and provides an outside perspective. Many relationships can be saved, but a few signs might suggest it is too late for counseling.

If you've been feeling frustrated by the same problems in your relationship and you're beginning to lose faith, that could be a sign. If partners find that they are withdrawing from one another, that could also be a sign. And if there have been several attempts at repairing things that ended up in communication breakdown, that could be a sign.

But, unfortunately, if one or all of these are true for you, it may be too late to get couples therapy.

However, if your marriage is on the verge of collapse, it may be worthwhile to visit a therapist regardless. They can help you negotiate terms that are best for both parties involved. They may even help you work out if there's any hope left in saving the relationship. An unbiased third party can always provide a new perspective on your relationship.

This article explores the things that matter most when you're trying to salvage a relationship before it's too late.

Motivation

Marriage counseling is unhelpful if one person is not interested or willing to work out any issues. Unfortunately, marriage counseling is divorce counseling for some couples because they've already thrown in the towel.

If either one of you shows a lack of motivation to attend counseling, it's much less likely to be effective.

A counselor's role can be crucial at these times. They must act with objectivity when one person has made up their mind, but another still hopes that things will change. If you aren't sure, seeking individual counseling to discuss your concerns could be an option.

Timing

The Gottman Institute, a marriage expert group and creator of "The Art and Science of Love," found that most couples wait six years before seeking help for marital issues. Sadly, an average couple has at least a 50% chance of divorcing within their first seven years together. This statistic says it all: waiting too long to address minor problems in your relationship can lead you down the path towards divorce.

The sooner you enter couples counseling, the better your odds are that you can resolve your issues.

In contrast, the longer you wait, the harder it will be to fix the problems. So while you might feel like it's already too late, making a decision now (either way) is the best course of action.

Communication

Biting your tongue and swallowing the pain is not always the best option. Michele Weiner Davis, author of The Divorce Remedy, insists that avoiding conflict in intimate relationships can backfire as resentment builds up over time. Similarly, even if you attend couples counseling, there needs to be an expectation that things won't always be perfect.

You can't expect a successful relationship if you don't give your partner the opportunity to change or improve their behavior. One of the secrets of keeping a marriage alive is learning how to choose which battles are worth fighting.

Distinguish between petty issues, like what TV show you want on in the evening, and important ones, such as having children.

Expectations 

One of the first things you should know about counseling is that changes won't happen overnight. It might even take years to see a significant change in your marriage. However, with persistence and dedication, there's always hope. Therapy takes time which means clients must have patience.

How willing are you to put in sustained effort over the long term? Are you and your partner looking for a bandaid solution or a quick fix, or are you truly dedicated to each other and the relationship?

Ask yourself these questions to try and assess your expectations and those of your partner. Going to counseling with unrealistic expectations means that you'll probably end up dropping out.

Being Open to New Ideas

With the help of a therapist, motivated couples can learn different approaches to conflict resolution and how they may start functioning as one unit. For example, couples are often unaware that their own behavior causes an issue rather than external factors.

The tools presented by therapists will allow you to explore obstacles from another perspective for both partners to feel heard.

If you aren't willing to be open to hearing about new ways to resolve old problems, then it may be too late for couples counseling. This can happen if you're convinced that your partner is the problem and you take no ownership over what happens in the relationship. This can also be the case if one or both of you is too stubborn or unwilling to make changes.

Trust

A partnership is the foundation for any successful relationship. The key ingredient here is building trust through open dialogue. If one or both of you is unwilling to be open and honest during couples counseling, it isn't likely to help. If one or both of you betrayed the other's trust in the past, unwillingness on the part of one partner to share could open up those old wounds.

Choosing to go to couples counseling requires that both partners are ready to share and be transparent when necessary. If trust is an issue between you, that can also be part of what you work on. However, if one partner chooses to continue being untrustworthy or has personality issues that create a situation of distrust, this could be a sign it's too late for counseling.

Respect

The Gottman Institute has found that there are four key factors of a marriage that can predict whether or not it will end in divorce: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These signs start to show when couples begin taking more time away from each other than they spend together. This is usually an indicator that the level of respect for one another's feelings has started to decline.

When both spouses have reached their breaking point with each other and started showing mocking behavior towards one another, such as attacking verbally and physically, then therapy may be ineffective at helping them work through problems.

Safety

In cases of domestic violence, individual counseling for both partners is appropriate. Counseling can provide a safe space to talk about the issues and work through them with someone trained in abuse dynamics who understands what it's like on either side of such an abusive relationship. In situations involving abuse, safety always takes precedence.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Couples are faced with a decision when their marriage begins to go sour. Some couples will choose to rebuild the relationship, others may make a renewed commitment, and some might decide to end the union.

Couples who have begun to feel that things aren't going well in their marriages often face difficult decisions about what steps should be taken next. Rebuilding means bringing back love into your heart for one another. This includes both parties taking responsibility for mistakes made during the time spent married so far. When it's too late for this to happen, this often results in divorce.

The end of a relationship is always difficult. If one or both partners have given up, there's nothing that can save the union at this point. However, individual counseling may be appropriate and instrumental in helping you and your partner work through your loss so you can move forward with life in different directions.

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  1. The Gottman Institute. Timing Is Everything When It Comes to Marriage Counseling.

  2. Davis M. 10 Steps to Avoiding Divorce.

  3. The Gottman Institute. The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.