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Why Couples' Therapy Doesn't Always Work — From A Couples' Therapist

Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
September 8, 2023
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
By Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Linda Carroll is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981.
Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy
September 8, 2023

Frequently, couples' therapy doesn't work because the participants think they are seeking it to improve their communication skills. However, what they are really (and usually unconsciously) trying to do is convince their partner to be more like them. Often, what is actually a preference feels like being right, and our partner's different ideas seem definitely wrong.

In other words, maybe therapy can help convince the other to see things "my way."

The problem of clashing egos in couples' therapy

I once worked with a couple who met when they were "WWOOFers" in New Zealand. These are people who travel around the world working on organic farms. This couple was united by their commitment to organic foods, sustainable practices, and creating a community of like-minded people. They felt they were soulmates meant to be together. 

When we first meet someone—especially when in the temporary glow of surging love hormones—we are primed to notice all the ways we are alike, which creates a confirmation bias. We look for evidence to support this bias. We read the same favorite books as kids, have the same favorite films, and even both prefer New York–style pizza—certainly a "sign." All soulmate proof, for sure.

What this couple didn't talk about was how they wanted to live in the country, how the vegetables, herbs, and flowers would be arranged, and the ways they were going to manage the farm. They each had a different image in their heads, while speaking of what seemed a common dream.

By the time they came to my office, they were arguing about everything. Where they had once seen only similarities, all they saw were differences in pest management strategies and how to improve the soil. She wanted a farm where all the flowers, fruits, and vegetables intertwined ("intercropping") and were planted among one another; he wanted strong lines separating each crop from the other.

This divide showed up when they started to create their dream and discovered how different it looked to each of them. She had imagined working in a day job nearby and employing local people to do a lot of the labor; he saw them each in their overalls digging in the dirt together, dreamily watching the tomatoes grow and the bees buzz happily.

They came to counseling to communicate better, but what each was really looking for was a chance to prove that their way was the right one. They each admitted to feeling misled by their partner in their early dreaming, but it wasn't betrayal.

It's OK to have differences

"Let's live on an organic farm" created different pictures for this couple in each of their minds, which they assumed were the same, not checking out possible differences.

After I listened to each of them, this couple was surprised (and disappointed) to hear me say, "I think you are both right. The problem here is not that one of you is wrong; it's that you are not listening to one another and giving the other any validity that their point of view has merit." 

Besides this power struggle, in which each clutched their position with righteous indignation, they were no longer nourishing the parts of the relationship on which they agreed. This struggle and insistence that the other had betrayed them in the beginning stages created much mutual withdrawal; their sexual and intimate life barely existed, and each admitted spending energy pointing out other ways their partner was in the wrong.

I asked them, "Is one of you actually wrong about how you want to manage this, or is it that you are different from each other?"

Although a bit grudgingly, they each acknowledged that this was about a difference rather than one being right and the other wrong. 

I changed the focus then and asked them to tell me their relationship story and what they noticed and liked about the other. As each spoke and listened to the other, humor came into the conversation, then a little warmth, and suddenly, they were not sitting so stiffly apart. 

"Do you want to be right? Or do you want to be married?"

When I suggested they put aside the conversation about how to manage their farm and spend the next several weeks focusing on doing the things together that actually worked well, they readily agreed and decided to put off making any decision about the farm while they built on what they actually liked about one another and agreed on.

Certainly, there are things we are right about: not intentionally hurting people, not caring for pets or kids, or willful deception.

But most of the time, we simply differ on how we wash dishes, think about sex and what turns us on, or manage money.

In any of your relationships, has righteous indignation shuttered your heart because you feel the other's opinion is wrong? Could it simply be that it's inconvenient, annoying, or harder to work out than if you totally agreed?

I remember something we read out at our wedding: "Do you want to be right, or do you want to be married?" I think that might be a good question we can ask ourselves when we find ourselves harboring resentment about someone doing something differently than we do.

Couples' counseling works when people are curious to understand what is blocking the ease of connection and especially when they are brave enough to wonder how they are each contributing to the trouble rather than to focus on what their partner is doing "wrong."

A difference of opinion can turn into a possibility about how to do things neither person has considered when people are able to manage their flight-or-fight responses to allow for "real listening" and to express some empathy and understanding for their partner's viewpoint even if it isn't theirs.

The takeaway

We all crave connection and expect we will be respected and appreciated with our partner most of all. When we don't feel that, the disappointment and even isolation causes us to shut down emotionally, and our protective stance is often to dig deeper into justifying our righteous position.

To truly improve communication, we need to learn how to listen with respect and curiosity even when what we are hearing is an opinion that is different from our own. Letting go of our position, we can find a solution we hadn't thought of before.

That's when the magic can really happen. 

Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT author page.
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.