How To Succeed At Last-Ditch Couples Therapy (With Really Trying, But Trying Effectively)

By Dr. Bonnie Ray Kennan, MFT


Another relationship bites the dust. It is an occupational hazard for a couples therapist, sad, nonetheless. Despite my best efforts to help people negotiate the choppy waters of relationship distress, many of them simply don’t make it.


It goes something like this:


“I am calling for couples counseling. We have a problem with communication. “


So, we set an appointment and begin the process. The specific problems are wide ranging. There is no limit to the variations on this age old theme.


Most couples come to therapy six years later than is ideal (Gottman), so the cleanup effort is difficult. Even still, it is worth a serious try. If this is you, go for it. Jump right in and give it all you have. Here are some things you can do to be a wise consumer of couples therapy.


1) Find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable. Interview three or four before you make a decision. (Specifically, read FAQ in the blog section at You are going to be taking a journey together. Choose someone you trust and then listen to them.


2) Find out before you begin if the therapist is “marriage-friendly” or if he/she is completely neutral about marriage, as an institution. You will ultimately make the decision to stay in or leave your relationship, but you are going to be influenced by the biases of this person, so make sure you are choosing biases that fit with yours. Your therapist may have a big impact on this major life choice.


3) Search your soul before you begin. Do you want to fight for this relationship even when it is painful, challenges you, and is profoundly uncomfortable? Know that it will be difficult.


4) Set limits with your friends. Ask them to support you in a way that is truly supportive. Tell them that it is not helpful for them to give you a list of reasons why you are better off without him. They will not be there to warm the bed at night when this is all over.


5) If you are 100% certain that you want to end the relationship when you start therapy, tell your therapist. This will redefine “successful therapy” and improve your chances of being successful. Then you will work to end a relationship well, rather than to repair and continue the relationship. You can still tell your friends and family you tried couples counseling, but you will avoid a great deal of frustration for you, your partner, and the therapist.


6) Understand that it is valid to go to therapy if you are 99% sure you want to end your relationship. This means that a tiny part of you is open to the possibility of changes that might come as a result of good intervention. There will be plenty of time for divorce and all it entails if you shift to 100% certainty. For now, you need to stay open to the process and new possibilities.


7) In AA they say: “Don’t leave before the miracle.” The same applies to couples therapy.


If you are calling a couples therapist, chances are pretty good that you have lived for some time without the deeply satisfying comfort of a secure, respectful, attached relationship. In good therapy, you will have glimpses of that experience very early on. It will be frightening and will activate all kinds of emotional upheaval. Remember this: Intimacy is what you say you want. Intimacy is good for your soul. It is a noble desire to want to love and be loved deeply.


Romantic relationships are a bit like sky-diving. You have to do the work and prepare yourself for the moment of freefall. Then you have to jump out of the plane, pull the ripcord, and trust. You can’t have the joy and the rush if you aren’t willing to have that moment when you are not absolutely certain your parachute will open.


In sum, ask yourself: Do I really want to fly? If the answer is “Yes!,” do the work earnestly and wholeheartedly. Then, take breath, thank God, and jump out of the damn plane! Don’t look back.