Revised 1/6/20

When does couples therapy fail? What are the fluttering red flags that tell us there is trouble ahead?

Couples therapy can help you communicate with skill, understand and recruit conflict for greater intimacy, and enhance your intimacy and marital bond. Successful Science-based couples therapy is also different from the kind of couples therapy offered by poorly trained general practitioner therapists.

We do our best at Couples Therapy Inc. to screen potential clients couples to make sure we aren’t trying to do the impossible. Although we believe that it is never too late to save a marriage, we have a good idea about which potential clients to turn down.

Many couples face significant obstacles. They may have unrealistic assumptions about how therapy works. This can keep them mired in resentment and hopelessness.

Here are some of the red flags that might cause us to hesitate to take you on as a client.


  • Identifying your Partner as the Designated Patient

One of the first things we look for is what you tell us is the tipping point of change in your marriage. Because our client is not you, it’s your relationship.

We don’t side with one partner against the other.

We ask that both partners can take an honest look at how they’ve contributed to the conflict, and convince us that they hope to improve their marriage.

Both partners will need to change their attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors. Do they seem willing? When does couples therapy fail? When they’re telling us that their partner is, and always has been, 100% of the problem.

If in your mind, your partner is the designated patient, perhaps they belong in a psychiatric hospital… not in couples therapy.  We often see couples where one partner is responsible for a much larger share of the problem.

But we also know we can work more effectively with a couple if they both recognize and take responsibility for their contributions, however small they may be by comparison to their partner.

  •  Dodging Responsibility

A related obstacle is denying any liability for your marriage problems. It’s not unusual for couples therapists to see a competition to “win” the heart and mind of the therapist.  But if couples therapy is going to be effective, both spouses must enter what John Gottman calls “admitting mode.”

Therapists probe both spouses to gauge their ability to admit what they’re contributing to the problem. Couples therapists are painfully aware that if one of the partners can’t manage conflict, or see their negative contributions…couples therapy is going to be a tough, slow slog.


  • We Have Some Secrets

One of the problems in dealing with marital conflicts involving sex and money is spouses who keep secrets.

Spouses might hide material facts from the get-go. And they intend to keep hiding them. That’s why training to read micro-expressions is critical for a science-based couples therapist.

And this is an area where general practitioner therapists tend to fail. Secrets drain the lifeblood out of marriage. Secrets may become insurmountable barriers to the re-establishment of trust.

  • Failure to Engage

Science-based Couples Therapy can assess what is happening, present a comprehensive treatment plan, and help a couple acquire a tailor-made set of communication tools and interventions.

When does couples therapy fail? If you don’t use them, your progress will never commence. We may all agree on what needs to change in your relationship for it to improve, but if you don’t make a reasonable faith effort… nothing good will ever happen.

We know it’s not easy at first.

Applying effective fighting techniques during a heated argument can be challenging. That’s why we ask couples to say, “we’re doing it again.” 

We ask couples to slow down and make a softened start-up. It gets easier. It works if you work at it.

The key to overcoming this tendency toward homeostasis (staying the same) is for you to be positive, pro-active, and patient with each another and work as a united front against bickering and escalation.

Practice the behaviors you were taught in couples therapy. For example, take a 20-minute break before you get flooded or stonewall.

  • Death-Wish Couples Therapy

Do you see couples therapy as a near-death experience? Perhaps you waited too long. Science-based couples therapy is 70-90% effective. And that’s based on how couples in the USA typically present themselves in their first couples therapy session. Research tells us that they’ve been in an active state of distress for an average of six and a half years. Has it been longer for you?

However, it’s very likely that Couples therapy will work for you if you’re both motivated.

At Couples Therapy Inc., we are very skilled at what we call “Last-Shot” Couples Therapy. But some partners merely want to put on a theatrical production for their kids, family, and friends. When does couples therapy fail? When you have no sincere motivation to change.

They want to say, “look at how much money I spent on this intensive.” Then they leave their hurt and bewildered spouse and ride off into the sunset in their BMW with their affair partner.

We try our best to weed out any insincere potential clients during our initial phone interview. And we study the Big Big Books very carefully. We have been known to stop some couples therapy intensives before they start because these clients aren’t appropriate for couples therapy. But they might benefit from Discernment Counseling.

  • All-Purpose Therapy When a Specialist is Needed

When does couples therapy fail? When general practitioner therapists are perfectly comfortable doing “as-if” and “life-support” couples therapy. This might include some dubiously “therapeutic” interventions.

I will never forget the phone call from a wife who told me that a previous general-practitioner therapist offered to assist her and her husband in crafting a structured separation agreement…during their first couples therapy session.

We demure.

Couple Therapy Fails When There Are No Signs of Life

Dr. K says she’s like a rescue dog. She’s looking for signs of life. And that’s how we roll at Couples Therapy Inc.

We admire courageous couples who might feel helpless or hopeless, but deeply long to find some way to repair and connect once more. If you’ve been in emotional gridlock, and you want help, we are the help you need.

But if your only goal for couples therapy is to deceive your partner by putting on a show… or just want to put your marriage into a clinically-induced coma. Please consider going somewhere else. We’re probably not for you.

    Are You Longing to Repair and Connect Once More?

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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