When Couples Counseling is the Wrong Answer…

Years ago, I worked for a non-profit organization that was part of a national research study. The study was trying to determine if providing couples with healthy communication skills and techniques in the early stages of parenthood – a very stressful time in all relationships – would improve their chances of staying intact as a family. The work was both inspiring and brutal.

When Couples Counseling Is The Wrong Answer - #staymarriedPart of my particular role in the study was to interview the couples and put them through a random selection process. I knew every time there was a fifty-fifty chance they would be accepted into the program or not. Except, the reality is that the chances were not exactly fifty-fifty. You see, the couples first had to qualify and it was part of my job to determine whether or not they did.

During the first part of the interview the couple sat together and answered questions. During the second part, the couple was separated into two rooms. One person was set up with a packet and pen to answer more questions on their own, and the other was in a room with me answering more of my scripted questions. In this private room, I did what I was trained to do: ask questions to determine if there was domestic violence occurring in the relationship.

Most of the time there was no sign of domestic violence. Phew! We could move on to the rest of the interview and allow them to participate in the random selection. Because, if I found that there was domestic violence happening, I had to automatically (and discreetly) disqualify the couple from receiving our services.

I remember the face of each of the women who were disqualified for this reason. I remember them because they looked like me. They looked like my friends. They looked like my mom.

I hated to disqualify them. Everything in me wanted to wrap my arms around them and HELP THEM. But, I learned in my training that when a couple is experiencing domestic violence, any kind of intervention like couples counseling or communication training could actually make the situation worse. It was counterintuitive, but the research was there to back it up. So, by disqualifying them, I had to believe that I was helping them, even though I felt like I had abandoned them. I always sent the women away with a little piece of paper that I had scribbled a phone number onto – no words or names, just a phone number. The number was for the Domestic Violence Hotline, and all I could do was hope they called it.

Why We Write

When Couples Counseling Is The Wrong Answer - #staymarriedWhen Tony and I prepare the posts we share with you here at #staymarried, we imagine that you are a lot like us. We imagine that you love each other and want to do the work it takes to have a healthy and long-lasting relationship. We picture you disagreeing and arguing, just like us, and we imagine you want to learn healthy ways to navigate conflict. We think you might have children like we do, and that your children bring you joy and wear you out and sometimes cause you to forget about each other as husband and wife. We figure you are navigating your finances and careers and whether to rent or buy a home and that you want to do all of that as a team. We write about the things that affect our marriage, the everyday joy and the everyday struggles, and we hope you find something helpful and relatable. Like Dr. John Gottman, we believe the death of love is a tragedy and we are rooting for all couples to prevail.

We are not therapists or trained in any real way, we are just doing what we can to offer hope. Sometimes, in this pursuit to offer hope, I realize we may have taken on something that is way beyond what we can handle. It’s in these times that we defer to the professionals and we often recommend couples counseling. However, there is one situation where we don’t.

Some of you are struggling through relationship complexities and devastations that we could never relate to. Some of you have been hurt and betrayed deeply. Some of you have been hit or pushed or physically violated and threatened by the person you committed your love and life to. You are reading #staymarried to figure out what you can do to make your situation better. I know because you have emailed me or sent me your story and asked for my advice.

The thing is, if you are experiencing this kind of violence, my little words and anecdotes won’t do much to help. We are simply not equipped to navigate these issues and we certainly don’t want to make light of them. Just like the women I had to disqualify from that research program so many years ago, I want to wrap my arms around you and keep you safe. I can’t and it crushes me. But, there is something I can do…

Get What You Need

When Couples Counseling Is The Wrong Answer - #staymarriedIf you’ve read this far and you are NOT experiencing domestic violence in your relationship, I am so glad! Chances are, however, that someone you know is living in an unsafe relationship and doing everything they can to make things seem normal and maybe even cover for their partner. They need you. They need you to be your real raw self so that they can feel safe to be their own real raw selves, let their guard down, and tell someone what is really going on. As Glennon Doyle Melton says, “Sometimes, people who need help look nothing like people who need help.” Sometimes they don’t know that they need help. Sometimes they do, but they have no idea where or how to get it.

Do You Need Help?

It is not always easy to know what an abusive relationship looks like when you are in the middle of one. Take a look at these questions below from The Hotline

What does an abusive relationship look like? - #staymarried

If you answered ‘yes’ to even one of these questions, you may be in an unhealthy, unsafe, or abusive relationship. The Domestic Violence Hotline is a free and confidential resource that you can take advantage of right now. They are available to chat with you online or by phone at 1-800-799-SAFE [7233]. If anything you read raises a red flag about your own relationship or that of someone you know, please call.

Is It Someone You Know?

I want to say again, it may not be you, but someone you know might be afraid and living with this secret. It is not so easy to decide whether to stay or leave. All relationships are complicated which is just another reason we want to practice being loving and supportive and not judgmental.

What I have loved about our #staymarried Community is our collective desire to be transparent. Today I am asking for your help to share this post. People who look up to you are reading what you post on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. By sharing, you don’t have to confront anyone specifically or ask direct questions they may be afraid to answer. Your bravery in sharing this post could be enough to encourage them to reach out to you or to call this hotline and get the help they need. A quick share could save them and their children from further violence.

#staymarried has always intended to provide hope, but that doesn’t mean we will shy away from the tough and scary realities of married life. We believe that before you can work to #staymarried, you must stay safe!

Michelle Peterson #staymarried

The #staymarried blog was created to offer hope, stories, and resources for couples who want to stay married. I was raised in a single-parent home and brought a ton of baggage into my own marriage. The stats are not in our favor, but my husband and I are determined and optimistic that our story will be different. If you’re NEW HERE, check out our About Page and read a little more about my own background on our first post. You can also find us on the socials: PinterestTwitterFacebook, and Instagram. I’d love to connect on any of your favorite platforms.

Thank you ever so much for reading, sharing, and being a part of this #staymarried community!

~ Michelle


7 thoughts on “When Couples Counseling is the Wrong Answer…

  1. Thank you for this blog! I was in an abusive marriage for over five years, and when I finally was able to get away, I was so relieved and angry all at the same time. It is brutal, painful, hard work to come out of it – and I’m carrying around massive amounts of baggage that will take time to go through and work on. I am a lucky lady that my second husband is so supportive and so patient and compassionate about our situation. He is my rock – and we find your blog so inspiring!

    1. Rebecca! Thank YOU! I am so glad you were able to leave and find real love. Everyone has baggage. Isn’t it incredible to find someone who will help us unpack 🙂

  2. Good post. Yes, there are some situations where the best help is to not help.

    Actually, one of the reasons I became a Marriage Coach is that traditional counseling seems to be failing in a lot of situation. There is a 96% failure rate for couples that go to counseling.

    Marriage Coaching is too new of a field to have reliable statistics in, but the preliminary results are promising. That’s why, when I wanted to see how I could help couples the most, I chose the become a Coach instead of a Counselor.

    1. James, I respectfully disagree with your claim that “there is a 96% failure rate for couples that go to counseling.” Could you share where you got that statistic? I tried to dig it up myself without luck. I feel it is wise not to make sweeping statements like that without further clarification, because you never know who you could be steering away from something that might actually be very helpful for them. In trying to find backing for your statement, I did come across this article, and would encourage anyone considering couples counseling but concerned about the failure rate to read it: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erica-manfred/why-marriage-counseling-d_b_860493.html

      I am certainly not against marriage coaching as I work for a company that does relationship education and utilizes facilitators to help couples, however I think it’s worth pointing out that coaches have no one regulating them whereas counselors generally must meet certain standards for ethics, education and licensure. Whichever route people choose to pursue, I encourage them to make an informed decision and find someone that feels like a good fit for their personality and situation.

      1. Thank you for chiming in Sherilyn! You’ve pointed to a great article and I can personally attest to the invaluable help and life improvement I’ve received from participating in therapy.

    2. My sincerest apologies. I’m not sure what happened there. The stat is 82%. I’m not quite sure how 96% came out.

      And in case you are wondering, the reference for the 82% comes from John Gottman’s work. Paragraph 35 of chapter 1 of “The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy”. Dr. Gottman states that a year after therapy only 18% of couples retain any significant improvement in their marriage.

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