Can couples counseling be harmful?

I was recently asked the above question. I answered with my best knowledge, but decided it was worth more research, as it certainly is an important question.  Could getting couples counseling, “rock the boat“, possibly making a situation worse?

The quickest answer to this question being posed is that, although marriage counseling works in most instances, there is no guarantee. A counselor is not a miracle worker, as much as some of us wish we could be. There is no quick fix for any situation.  Also, as I learned in my studies, both partners have to want to work towards the same goal.

As far as couples counseling being effective, that is related to the motivation level of both partners. Do both of you want to seek out counseling?  What is the timing like?  Some couples may reach out when their relationship has reached a point where divorce is already on the table, and might be using counseling as a way to convey this to their partner. At those times, problems within a marriage have been ingrained into the relationship. 

Research indicates that the average couple is unhappy for six years before seeking couples counseling.  With that information, if you are seeking out couples counseling before that time, my hypothesis is that there is a better chance of effectiveness.  Also an educated guess is, if the problems that have made you think of getting couples counseling are rather new, there would then be less of a chance of couples counseling possibly worsening a situation that would lead to the end of your relationship.

This does not mean there would be absolutely no effectiveness, or reason, to seek out couples counseling for longer standing problems.  Working through what is going on for you and your partner just may be more of a challenge, and may need more time to work through. Everyone’s situation  is always different.

Sometimes, when the issues at hand are being discussed in sessions, past issues can come up, which could harm the relationship. However, in order to have a healthy relationship going forward, past issues can benefit from being addressed. Unfortunately, sometimes one partner or the other is not able to get past the issue at hand. If there is good communication, some couples may be able to work out their problems on their own. Then choosing to visit a professional could cause confusion.

So, how do you decide if you should seek out couples counseling?  Here are some common relationship struggles I’ve encountered that cause couples to seek out therapy.  Hopefully these questions will help to get you started in figuring out the answer that’s right for you.

Is domestic violence involved? When asked the question that brought about this blog, my first answer was an example I had through co-facilitating a Batterer’s Intervention Program involving domestic violence.  Until abuse is addressed, treated, and the abuser has taken responsibility, couples counseling is not appropriate.  If abuse of any kind is still present in your relationship, it could put the partner of the abuser in a very vulnerable position.  My ex clinical supervisor that ran the program I co-facilitated alongside him would not engage in couples counseling until domestic violence situations proved to be treated. 

Is addiction involved?  One comment I will always remember is, you cannot have a healthy relationship when substances are involved.  Substance abuse or addiction counseling is important to be addressed first.  If you remember the movie, 28 Days with Sandra Bullock, one of the strong suggestions of the treatment program was, upon completion, to not get into a romantic relationship for one year.  That concept is in line with what I have learned throughout my years of providing substance abuse and addiction counseling.  You have to take care of you first, in order to be a partner in a healthy relationship. 

Are you or your partner depressed?  Depression, whether chronic or situational, is very common.  Humans have a need for love and belonging.  Many of us want that within a romantic relationship.  If one or both of you are depressed, you most likely turn to your partner, your closest attachment figure, for reassurance that they will be there for you and care for you, no matter what, for better or worse.

If there is a cycle of depression within your relationship, and either you or your partner is struggling to keep a connection maintained during times of depression, it can make one or both of you feel worse, lonely, or trapped in a relationship that you are committed to, but may not see any hope for.  Are you willing to move forward with counseling as a couple, identifying and understanding your own, or your partners, cycle of depression for the benefit of your relationship?

Are you or your partner bipolar?  Bipolar is one of the most over-diagnosed conditions.  Studies show that to qualify as having a bipolar disorder of any kind is very rare, and occurs in less than 1% of the population.  This does not mean that you will not experience your partner seeming to be fine one minute, and in a fit of rage the next.  One approach in couples counseling would be to investigate if you might be struggling with ineffective ways to connect with your partner.  Are you both willing to work on more effective ways to connect and communicate?

What could be going on with my partner? When your relationship is in distress, you often wonder what is making your partner act the way they are.  If you or your partner feel you cannot trust each other when you need each other the most, you may start to, “shut down”, or get angry. You may come off as cold, selfish, or begin to appear, “out for yourself.”  In counseling, we would start by looking at if you are feeling lonely, and are finding it tough to ask for what you need.  Getting counseling can help you figure out what is really going on.

Is infidelity involved?  When infidelity of any kind is discovered within your relationship, someone is faced with their feelings and questions about what could’ve happened.  This event is often what leads couples to seek out counseling, though the problem may have been there long before.  Unfortunately, infidelity is often the result of an already suffering relationship, where one partner makes a poor choice about how to satisfy their need for connection.

Counseling will mean helping both of you better understand how things came to this point.  It also will require, for your relationship to be in repair, that the affair or cheating has completely stopped, and your partner is fully committed to you and your relationship.  The original issues that led to this type of injury to the relationship can be addressed throughout the course of therapy.

Relationships are not easy, and problems do happen. If you are having issues within your relationship, and it seems like there's no outlet, please feel free to reach out, and don’t give up.  If you are both willing to work for the benefit of your relationship, a counselor could be the answer for you.


1.   Is domestic violence involved?

2.   Is addiction involved? 

3.   Are you or your partner depressed? 

4.   Are you or your partner bipolar? 

5.   What could be going on with my partner?

6.   Is infidelity involved?