'I'm a Marriage Therapist—There's a Hidden Reason Couples Therapy Can Fail'

I've been a couples therapist in California for more than two decades, and in that time I've noticed how different couples approach therapy. Some people come in with their sleeves rolled up because they want to get to work finding resolution to their problems and others have sleeves rolled up so they can wear a pair of metaphorical boxing gloves—each is focused on winning their argument. Those who want to find resolution are usually more emotionally mature, they have done prior inner work and they have issues that are less deep-seated.

The issues couples come to therapy with are most often what I'll call "Big P" reasons. The "P" here stands for problems, like an affair that just got uncovered, an addiction that is wreaking havoc or one person who wants to leave. These types of issues can be caused by underlying trauma but they can also cause trauma to one or both. The pandemic, in my mind, has been an example of this kind of "Big P" problem. COVID-19 has been like gas on the fire for many of those already experiencing marital problems. With one or both parents home all day—as well as kids out of school—the pandemic has put many couples' relationships to the test.

Although I have seen many couples work through their issues in my 25 plus years as a therapist, sadly there are some for whom therapy doesn't work. I find there are generally three reasons for this. Two are more widely understood: One or both has no interest in therapy; or one or both has interests outside the relationship. The third reason, people are often less aware of. This is where one or both have, what I call, impeded interests: they have deeper issues, such as trauma, that they have not yet addressed.

Common reasons couples therapy may not work

In my experience, "no interest" looks like one partner working on improving things and the other not. In heterosexual marriages, it's often the wife who initiates therapy. If her spouse is not invested in doing the work, he may show up to appointments and talk a good talk, but make no changes at home. Sometimes, this is because he may not care about having a higher quality of relationship. He may see no need to do more introspective work or to be more connected.

Examples of outside interests I have seen in couples are where there are addictions to drugs, alcohol, or shopping that one person can't or won't give up. Another is one spouse having an affair partner that she or he won't let go of. When one or both partners have one foot somewhere else, the relationship can't grow, even with the best of therapeutic interventions.

The "hidden" reason

The third scenario is one that often happens outside of people's awareness. It involves trauma. Because trauma is stored in a deeper part of the brain, typically talk therapy alone is not the most effective tool to resolve it.

For one couple I worked with, Rosemary* and Jim*, the pandemic lockdowns in 2020 were tremendously triggering. It sent Rosemary into a panic. Because the marriage was already faltering, the thought of being cooped up with her husband and the kids was more than she could bear. What unknowingly got triggered in Rosemary was the trauma she experienced from having a narcissist mother who was overly involved in her life.

Very early into the shelter-in-place orders in California, Rosemary told Jim that she wanted a divorce. Jim's childhood trauma of being bullied by his father was then set into motion. Both spouses had a parent who, rather than being their caretaker, had been the source of conflict and negative feelings.

Her fear of being overtaken emerged and his fear of abandonment flared up. The more she wanted out, the more he begged her to stay. Although they did not continue the marriage, understanding why each person was behaving the way they were did wonders to calm the situation and allowed them to find a more peaceful, respectful co-existence until the lockdown restrictions loosened and they could separate.

Another couple I worked with, Ilene* and Mary,* lost their third baby and, from then on, they struggled in their relationship. Ilene privately blamed Mary for the miscarriage, believing she had not taken good enough of herself during her pregnancy. Mary, on the other hand, felt isolated in her deep grief as the partner who had experienced the physical loss. She believed that Ilene could never understand her pain. Both were traumatized by the loss and neither could express her feelings in a healthy way. Instead, they pushed each other away with their blame, resentment and unresolved grief. Getting to the root causes of their pain, their beliefs about the loss, they were able to hear and acknowledge the other's perspective. In this instance, they were willing to work through the trauma that existed in their relationship. As a result, they could move past their pain and work together as parents rather than get a divorce.

Couples therapy can uncover other issues
Stock image. Getty/iStock

It's important to recognize that trauma is real and, even if it occurred a long time ago, trauma can and does impact present relationships. Talk therapy may not be the right solution in these instances.

If you've been in couples therapy and you feel it hasn't worked, consider whether one of you is not really interested in changing, whether there is an outside interest interfering, or whether trauma is impacting the relationship. If it's the latter then perhaps observe whether one or both of the couple could benefit from exploring ways to process trauma before addressing the problems in the relationship.

A final consideration for effective couples work is that having the right therapist matters. Not every therapist is a good match for you and your spouse. It is important to shop around for the right professional.

Not every relationship can—or should—be saved. But, if you have the right therapist, the right amount of interest and the right modality, counseling increases the likelihood that you will improve your own life and that, together, you can salvage the relationship.

Susan Pease Gadoua, L.C.S.W., is a licensed therapist based in the San Francisco Bay Area with an expertise in marriage and divorce. She is the author of the San Francisco Chronicle best-seller, Contemplating Divorce, A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether toStay or Go, The Parenting Marriage Workbook and co-author of The New I Do.

All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.

Edited from an interview with Jenny Haward.