Have You Received Bad Marriage Counseling?

Back when our marriage was firmly planted in a pit of despair, we sought counseling. We tried marriage counseling three different times—not a single appointment, but an extended effort.

Likewise, I’ve often encouraged people to seek Christian counseling for their marriages or themselves, but I admit to worrying sometimes what they’ll get. Because our experience was a mixed bag, and some things said were sadly unhelpful.

None of our counselors was uncaring or incompetent or ungodly. Rather, our poor experiences simply weren’t what we needed, so our marriage didn’t improve and I sank further into despair. I thought: If we’re giving our marriage everything we’ve got, including Christian counseling, and it still isn’t working … maybe we should just call it quits.

With no disrespect to those people who tried to help our marriage, I want to share some “bad marriage counseling” approaches and give tips on how to recognize a good counselor for your marriage.

1. “I know what your problem is.”

Counselors see a lot of the same circumstances again and again. It’s true that for most people who have shared sexual problems with me on this blog or through email, someone else has shared a similar problem. So I can see how that would happen. It’s an easy stretch then to have a counselor spend an hour with a couple and think, “I’ve got this.” They announce, “I know what your problem is,” then describe the issues and prescribe a solution.

More than once, we had a counselor announce what our problem was—and they were off-base. They ascribed stereotypical gender roles or family back stories or internal motives that didn’t apply.

You wouldn’t trust a physician to diagnose strep without a throat culture, would you? Or cancer without a biopsy? Likewise, a good counselor needs to gather information about what you two are actually facing to be able to diagnose the problem and give specific solutions.

Look for someone who asks more questions than gives answers in the first few sessions. That’s not to say a good counselor won’t have insight and good advice—in fact, it’s a great idea for them to give you some obvious tips to get a few “quick wins”—but they should also take time seeing how your issues match common scenarios and how your relationship is different.

2. “Just work the program.” 

Two of our three counselors preferred a specific program to helping marriages. One used a particular book, which we were asked to purchase and read, and the other had his own canned approach. The message both gave was clear: You work the program, and your marriage will work.

I’m not knocking the books or programs people promote to help marriages. I’ve benefited a lot from specific perspectives like Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages and Emerson Eggerichs’s Love and Respect. But I grow concerned when we treat such programs like these, and His Needs, Her Needs by Willard T. Harley, as magic bullets for whatever ails your marriage. What if you work the program and the marriage still doesn’t work? If it’s not the fault of the program, it must be your marriage. Right?

Not right.

On my blog, I try to address specific sexual intimacy issues while returning again and again to principles that apply across marriages (like 3 G-Words to Improve Your Marriage and The Gospel in the Bedroom). Look, I don’t have a magic bullet, and change is hard. Your marriage has its own specific problems, and while the ultimate answer is Jesus, how Jesus works in your marriage is specific to your situation.

Your marriage has its own specific problems, and while the ultimate answer is Jesus, how Jesus works in your marriage is specific to your situation. via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

Marriage counseling should be tailored to where a specific couple is and what they’re dealing with. Principles from programs can be helpful, but the program shouldn’t be the focus of healing the relationship. Just open up the Gospel and tell me if Jesus dealt with every person He encountered in the same way. Of course not! Are there principles He followed? Absolutely. But He tailored His approach to the specific person.

3. “It’s all his/her fault.”

Actually, the problem is a counselor letting a spouse get away with this attitude. I’d venture a guess that in 90% of counseling cases, one spouse thinks all the problems would go away if the other one would just change already. And some of those times, a counselor agrees.

Sure, there are situations in which one spouse is largely to blame—like with a serial adulterer, an ongoing addict, or an abuser. But the majority of marriages are two-to-tango in their dysfunction. Even if one person started the mess, something the other did enabled or escalated problems. Our reactions to our spouse’s bad behaviors make a real difference in whether it’s a blip in the marriage or a dynamic that takes hold.

Our reactions to our spouse's bad behaviors make a real difference in whether it's a blip in the marriage or a dynamic that takes hold. via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

On the other hand, one of our counselors had a different message that seemed just as destructive to me: It’s all your fault if you let your spouse’s bad behavior affect you. This is the notion that you’re to blame for your reactions, so if you feel negative about something your spouse has done, that’s on you.

Whoa, wait a minute. So if my husband cheats on me, and I’m mad about it, I chose that emotion so it’s my fault? Um, no! There are reasonable reactions to certain behaviors in marriage, and we should not beat up a spouse for having those emotions. If your spouse woos the heck out of you, you’ll probably be happy about that. If your spouse pooh-poohs all your date plans for the night, you’ll probably be unhappy about that. That’s called caring about your relationship.

If you’re in couples counseling, your counselor should address where each of you can improve. They should intervene when one starts blaming the other too much or tries to shut down reasonable negative reactions to bad behavior. This is really just the application of the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

4. “That’s not important.” 

When you bring up something that matters to you in a couples counseling session, and the counselor says, “That doesn’t matter,” it feels like they just said that you don’t matter. Maybe they don’t say it quite that way; rather, they might try to steer the conversation away with something like, “Well, that’s a small thing, and we need to tackle the bigger issues here.” That sounds great, but if you brought up the way he refolds his clothes after you already did it, I’m guessing that issue stands for something bigger in the relationship.

This hasn’t happened to us much, but I’ve heard it from readers quite a bit—especially when it comes to sexual intimacy. The scenario is often this one: The higher-drive spouse brings up a lack of sex in the marriage, and the counselor dismisses that as a physical need that isn’t as important as “high-minded” issues like emotional connection and communication. Well, hello! God created sex to be one form of emotional connection and communication in a marriage.

If your core issues are not being addressed, find another counselor who will listen. Again, this would be like going to a doctor and saying, “My knee hurts every time I bend it”; if they said, “Well, that doesn’t matter. I just want to look at your throat,” you’d be annoyed that they didn’t care about your health. If your marital ache is your husband never doing a chore in the house, or your wife rolling her eyes when you talk, or your spouse neglecting sexual intimacy, find a counselor who’ll address it. Along with your spouse’s concerns, which also matter.

But how do you find a good Christian counselor?

You can Google search for a counselor in your area, and you can look into local churches. Larger churches often have a counselor on site or support a counseling practice in your area. But one of the best ways is word-of-mouth. For that, don’t just look for that person who goes to counseling all the time, but the one who has shown improvement. Who do you know that used to struggle with X and is doing much better now? Who did they see?

At your first appointment, ask questions about what kind of approach they take. They should be interviewing you about your situation, but this is also your opportunity to interview them to see if your goals and personalities will work together. Be open-minded and willing to hear tough stuff—that’s part of counseling—but look for someone who listens, gets along with both of you, and seems to be for your marriage.

And be willing to try more than one counselor if the first one or two aren’t a good fit. It’s okay to move on from someone who isn’t helping you to someone you might be able to. Seriously, you’d do that much for a car that the first mechanic wasn’t able to fix, so why wouldn’t you do it for your marriage?

Have you ever been to marriage counseling, and if so, what was your experience? What advice would you give for finding a good Christian counselor?

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17 thoughts on “Have You Received Bad Marriage Counseling?

  1. Mike

    I received counseling myself 3 times. One session each, and they worked well for me. I changed and as a result our marriage improved.

    I have counseled others and have had mixed results. Most of the time I am offering suggestions in a shotgun manner and I say, if something hits you then take it. If it misses the mark, let it go and pay no attention. I am not perfect and I don’t know your situation exactly. Most of the time people come back and say that they were really helped.

    Some couples are hopeless with me. In these cases I say that I cannot help them anymore. They have to find someone else with more wisdom.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      It appears that you may be a pastor, Mike? Sometimes that’s all a couple needs—a check-in with a good pastor. But I hope that if the couple needs additional assistance, you would suggest counseling by a licensed, Christian therapist. Thanks!

      Reply
  2. Anonymous

    These are excellent points J, especially number 3! I have met too many pastors who, too many times, takes the side of one spouse and not consider the wrongs of the other spouse. I know it is a trite saying but I think it is so true of many marriages…it takes TWO to tango!

    Reply
  3. JE

    My husband and I saw the same counselor off and on for many years. She was not listed as a Christian counselor but is a member of our church so I thought she’d be a good fit. We also sent our 17 year old son to see her at one point to help guide him through some issues. It was during that time frame that I was at a one-on-one session with her discussing my husband’s lack of interest in intimacy. The counselor very bluntly told me that I should seek out an affair. I was shocked! I went home, told my husband, then informed our son that he would no longer be receiving counseling from her because she was encouraging very un-Christian behaviors. My son then told me that she had told him that he SHOULD be having pre-marital sex and parents who discourage their kids from it are just being stupid. I informed our pastor of everything so that he would know to not recommend her. We have found some other Christian counselors who seem to be really good, but we are unable to afford their services as it isn’t covered under our healthcare sharing. Instead we have been doing a marriage Bible study with another couple who has come along side of us. It’s good, but I don’t feel like I can be as candid as with a counselor.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Oh my goodness! That’s so awful. I should say I’m surprised, but based on the master’s degree training I went through in a secular university’s counseling department, I’m really not. That’s why I think the Christian foundation is so important.

      Reply
  4. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Not marriage-counseling stuff, but I have had some really bad counseling advice.

    “You should be depressed,” he said,
    and pushed his glasses up his nose.
    “You should want to stay in bed,
    now death has come so close.”
    You don’t call your doc an idiot,
    at least not to his face,
    but what he said was hideous,
    and I put him in his place.
    “You want me to throw in the towel,
    but I still am in this fight,
    and when my voice goes I can growl,
    not gently to that good night.
    I may soon have to say good-bye,
    but I’ll wear a smile, my head held high.”

    Reply
  5. Tom S

    Two things separate good therapists from the great therapist:
    1. Their Investment in Your Wellness
    2. Their Skill Level
    Their Investment in Your Wellness means:
    This is someone who is relentless, they go to bat for you, and appeal insurance denials to get you care, and go to the ends of the earth to make sure that you get what you need.
    They will do their homework – researching new methods and always up to date to provide the best care.
    Wanting to genuinely know and connect with you as a *person* – and not seeing you as a number or “patient X”
    They have no ego and will refer you to specialists if they need to
    They are engaged. They don’t blow off your pain or symptoms, and take your struggles seriously
    They do not keep you as a client longer than necessary. They foster independence, not “dependence” on therapy, teaching you how to navigate more effectively on your own, and wanting to see you succeed.
    They treat you with the same respect and give you she sam standard of care no matter how rich or poor you are.
    Their Skill Level includes:
    Being a good diagnostician, so that they treat the right disorder from the start
    Knowing how to treat disorders with the most effective methods *for that disorder,*following specific scientific methods proven to help provide relief, not just listening & nodding their head
    Having clear and firm professional boundaries so cients know what to expect & feel safe. Therapy is never about “them,” but you.
    Knowing when to refer for specialty care (like with an eating disorder), increased level of care (hospitalization), or to explore other possible causes of the problem (neurologists and other medical issues)
    Being an expert & making it their mission to be on top of everything. Always knowing the newest research & breakthroughs and improving their own skills. Always reading studies in their off time, learning more, becoming more effective.
    Being good communicators who make you a part of the process. You always know what’s going on, you know your plan for treatment, and you know why it’s the plan.
    Knowing the importance of self-care themselves. Getting their own sleep, etc. co that they bring their best self to therapy – alert, attentive and focused. They are on their game.
    These are just some of the traits I’ve seen that differentiate the good therapists from the great ones.
    It might not be everything, but if you find a therapist with these traits – snag them up!

    Reply
  6. Doug

    Great advice. Sadly, Christian leaders in general are poor models for a “hot, holy, humorous” marriage relationship. If I could add a point it would be to avoid a patriarchal counselor that will tend to affirm a husband that thinks submission from his wife will solve all.

    Reply
  7. Chris

    I’d recommend against seeking specifically “Christian counseling”. The reason is that the objective should rather be “good counseling” for a relationship worth saving or improving. If the counselor happens to be Christian, great, but starting with Christian as an initial selection criteria so limits the field to a very small subset that finding good counseling within that small subset will be far less probable.

    The two Christian counselors that I or my wife have seen both turned out to be unqualified and unhelpful (neither was good, and neither had ever been married). We’ve seen two others, and they were excellent. One of them happened to be Christian, the other not as far as I know.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Well, Christian counselors should be certified and thus qualified. Just for clarity, I’m not talking about “biblical counseling” but “Christian counseling” here, meaning someone with training and license to counsel.

      And I have heard far too many issues with secular counselors not approaching marriage the way God prescribes, so I feel it important that couples find a godly person to speak into their situation. Godly, but competent, well-suited, and solution-focused.

      Reply
  8. EEW

    As I former pastor, as well as parent of four married children, I think I can relate to some of these situations, J. One problem is the couple that sees a legalistic pastor for advice, only to be told that the problem is the wife’s failure to “submit.” That’s usually an approach from a powerful male pastor who assumes that any wife who complains is to blame, and this Pharisaical problem is at least as old as when, 1600 years ago, St. Jerome and St. Augustine theorized that women are primarily temptations, to blame for most human ills.

    The other is the ungodly, secular feminist counselor who sees men as about as useful as a bicycle to a fish, and tells the frustrated wife to divorce the guy.

    Both of these are unscriptural, one-size-fits-all approaches to marital discord.

    If a pastor understands that, male or female, we are all subject to temptation and pride leading to sin, then a couple may be on their way to help and recovery.

    Reply
  9. Kate

    I am curious what you mean by Christian counseling? Are you referring to biblical counseling which requires no state licensure, or a state licensed counselor who has a Christian approach? I know some biblical counselors don’t believe in secular mental health care/Western medicine approaches to conditions like depression. Since I have depression and take an antidepressant I am not sure biblical counseling would be for me. As an aside I know my depression has affected my marriage in the past, so if I were ever to consider marriage counseling it would be important for the counselor to understand my needs.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      No, I’m not talking about “biblical counseling,” with which I do have concerns. Rather, I’m speaking about trained Christian counselors. And I’m with you: If you have moderate to severe depression, you need intervention that deals with the physiological aspects.

      Reply
  10. KellyK

    When my husband cheated on me, I insisted that we go to marriage counseling. Found a local counselor whose office is located inside a church in our town. It was helpful. However, in the middle of it all, I found out I had cancer (I’m fine now), and so I didn’t go to my 1:1 session with her. Hubby was making comments about how she had told him some things that she felt were my ‘fault’ and he rubbed that in my face. I never went back. Never mind the fact that his elderly mother was also living with us at the time….HUGE issue right there….but I digress.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Oh my! I’d encourage you to get some help somewhere. And I’m glad you came through that cancer scare.

      Reply
  11. Mark

    Nice read.

    I think any who seeks Christian Counseling, the counselor needs to be licensed. Though I’m under the impression there aren’t enough counselors that have a counseling degree.

    When anyone seeks counseling, it is usually much deeper and requires a fair amount of time so the counselor can understand how individuals are mentally wired, to understand their sensitivities.

    I can see that those who seek Christian Counseling wants to stay within the perimeters of scripture and also a cost effective way to seek guidance.

    Reply
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