Does marriage counseling really work?

A lot of experts say no. Here's why

There are some things in life that can be difficult but beautiful, like raising a child. The joys certainly outweigh the challenges in most cases, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

Chasing a dream or a goal is another example. Sometimes a person may feel like quitting, but if he keeps fighting, he may get what he wants -- or at least a smaller version of it.

Marriage falls into this category too. In many cases working through the diffuculties can really be worth it. Most married couples will face a few troubles at some point, but clearly there are benefits to dealing with those difficulties instead of ignoring them or simply giving up on the relationship.

Bad advice

Mort Fertel, author of "Marriage Fitness" and the creator of the Marriage Fitness Tele-Boot Camp, says a lot of the advice couples get in counseling is no good.

"Much of the advice people get about their marriage problems is wrong," he said. "It sounds good. It makes sense. The problem is: it usually doesn't work. Reconciling a broken marriage is tricky. The process is not intuitive. You really have to be careful that the advice you're following has proved to achieve the outcome you're looking for."

Mort Fertel

William Doherty, professor and director of the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota and author of several family counseling books including "Take Back Your Marriage," says a lot of marriage counselors have no idea what they're doing.

"Couples therapy may be the hardest form of thereapy and most therapists aren't good at it," wrote Doherty in the Psychotherapy Networker, a professional journal.

"Surveys indicate that about 80% of therapists in private practice do couples therapy. Where they got their training is a mystery because most therapists practicing today never took a course in couple's therapy and never did their internships under supervision from someone who'd mastered the art," Doherty said.

"From a consumer's point of view, going in for couples therapy is like having your broken leg set by a doctor who skipped orthopedics medical school," he wrote.

This may sound a little radical, but statistics tend to back up Doherty's claim.  The relationship site cites studies showing that 25% to 50% of couples who attended marriage counseling ended up in divorce. 

Mixed agenda

Of course, that's not to say it's always the therapist's fault if counseling doesn't work It may simply be that one person in the relationship is done with the marriage, Doherty said.

"Around 30% of couples coming into marriage counseling are mixed agenda couples," he said. "Divorce is on the table for one of the parties. Traditional marriage counseling has no way to deal with those people," he explained.

Fertel says much of the advice couples get from therapists look good on paper but won't work in real life. When it comes to marriage counseling, one size clearly doesn't fit all, he says.

"A lot of the advice people get is logical, but it's not psychological," said Fertel. "It's ineffective because it doesn't take into account the unique dynamics that occur between a husband and wife who are emotionally disconnected."

Couples become disconnected emotionally all the time, say experts, as passion and excitement can easily creep out of a marriage while boredom and monotony creep in. It happened to Kelly, who wrote this on the site

"I decided to call it quits because I felt like I'm living with a roommate not a husband," she wrote. "After we got married his true skin shed the truth."

What to do

So what can married couples do if they're having some difficulties?

Fertel says one person in the marriage doesn't have to wait for the other to start working on the union. One person's efforts could initiate positive changes in the marriage, so don't wait.

Additionally, Fertel says to stop asking yourself if you've married the right person.

"That's the wrong question. The key to succeeding in marriage is not finding the right person; it's learning to love the person you found," he said.

"Just as there are physical laws of the universe -- like gravity, which governs flight -- there are also relationship laws that, depending on your behavior, dictate the outcome of your marriage. You don't have to be 'lucky in love.' It's not luck; it's choice."

Fertel says to ignore the saying, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."

He feels the saying might be true in junior high, when you often don't have a choice in being away from your mate -- but in a marriage, absence can cause a lot of problems.

And don't get your hopes up about marriage counseling, says Fertel. He believes it won't work in most cases. Moreover, don't go gabbing to your friends about your marital problems. If you do, you'll be breaking an unwritten code of privacy.

"One of the most important values in a marriage is privacy," says Fertel. 

"Therefore, it's a mistake to talk about your marriage or your spouse to family or friends. It's a violation of your spouse's privacy and it's wrong."

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