Marriage Counseling Becomes Divorce Counseling If You Wait Too Long

It's easy to come up with excuses not to go.

by John Mihaly
A couple sitting on the couch at marriage counseling with an hourglass between them

According to research conducted by the Gottman Institute, the average couple waits six years before seeking help (in the form of therapy) for marital issues. Additionally, half of all marriages that do end do so in the first seven years. What those numbers add up to is the fact that waiting too long before discussing, seeking out, and embracing therapy or marriage counseling for small problems is a recipe for divorce.

So what’s preventing couples from taking those next steps to repairing their relationship? Plenty, actually.

“There’s often a stigma attached to seeking help, particularly therapeutic help,” says Zach Brittle, MA, LMHC, a Certified Gottman Therapist, author, teacher, and speaker. “No one wants to admit that they’re in trouble.” Socially, we don’t want anyone to find out that our marriage is failing.

“We’re conditioned from an early age, from our own family history and relationships, that when we bump up against problems, we feel like we should be able to solve them on our own,” offers Neil Venketramen, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist for The Family Institute at Northwestern University. “It’s too scary for us to admit we need help.”

What Prevents Couples From Seeking Marriage Counseling?

Fear, embarrassment, and societal pressures aren’t the only roadblocks standing in the way of repairing marital discord. Venketramen says that a fixed or open mindset also plays a huge role and that having rigid or specific core beliefs or a very specific view of the world makes it very difficult to make that transition to get help. In other words? Stubbornness.

Biology can also play a part in why marriage counseling is often a non-starter. If one partner is dealing with depression, that condition can easily stop them from seeking any help for marital issues. It may seem impossible for them to do anything other than get through that condition at that moment.

Unsurprisingly, insurance is another potential roadblock that might keep couples from seeking a therapist. Some insurance providers simply do not deem marriage therapy as medically necessary, and many couples do not have the financial means to pay the deductible or co-pay let alone out of pocket. According to Venketramen, “Couples in therapy will often ask, ‘What diagnosis are you going to be coding us in the session and is my employer going to find out?’” Fortunately, HIPAA laws prevent any confidential information from being shared.

Then there’s the internet, which has become a safe place for couples to seek out “pseudo-help” from the privacy of their home where no one is going to find out. One can always go incognito and clear your browser history. However, no matter the quality or quantity of information available, it’s not going to be enough to actually help a couple through their situation. It will only extend the cycle of them getting help.

What Are the Signs That Couples Seek Marriage Counseling?

Red flags can be challenging for couples to spot because they might not be looking for them or they might be caught in the shadow that they cast. What’s more, some warnings are not as obvious because they can feel more like a slow burn.

The latter are what therapists would qualify as micro-level changes — perhaps the honeymoon period is over, there’s less curiosity in the relationship, sex isn’t as novel, and one-charming quirks become irritating. Another important indicator is when the negative interactions in your relationship begin to exceed the level of positive interactions on a day-to-day basis. Having the self-awareness to see that these behaviors are going off the track will be the key to seeking therapy.

Then there are macro-level changes. These are specific events that are new to someone’s life that can cause distress. Dealing with aging parents, a death in the family, a move, financial stress, a developing substance abuse problem, or diagnosed depression all qualify as a macro-level changes and triggers for seeking therapy. “As human beings, we are not conditioned to deal with all of these things,” Venketramen says. “We don’t have the tools and support, so there’s nothing wrong in seeking help when something new comes along.”

There is one thing missing from that list, the most significant macro-level change of all: having a child. The Gottman Institute estimates that 67 percent of new parents experience a drop in couple satisfaction in the first three years of a baby’s life. That time period, is “time to start paying the most attention to your relationship because it’s the easiest time not to,” Brittle cautions.

So, When Should Couples Go to Marriage Counseling?

When couples wait too long, they usually lose the motivation for change. So, ideally, when should a couple seek therapy?

“To me, that’s like asking when should a couple have a family dentist, a financial advisor, or a handyman. Always,” says Brittle. “You should always have someone you trust to help you navigate the things you don’t know.” If you are emotionally intelligent enough to recognize that there are some things that you just don’t know how to do, Brittle adds, it makes sense to ask someone to help you to do those things.

When Is It Too Late to Seek Marriage Counseling or Therapy?

The Gottman Institute points to their “Four Horsemen” of traits in a marriage that predict divorce: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. When a couple begins to show these signs, if there’s a level of disrespect, ridicule, name-calling, or even attacking each other both verbally and physically, then that couple is going to have a tough time solving their problems. When you’ve reached this level of contempt, it’s far too late to be going into therapy.

The Big Truth About Marriage Counseling or Therapy

There is absolutely no reason to fear marriage counseling or therapy. You take your car into the shop when a lot of mileage is on the odometer, so why wouldn’t you do the same for your relationship?

However, there is one big thing couples should keep in mind about therapy. “A lot of couples want to resolve issues, and they don’t understand that these issues are not, in fact, resolvable. They are baked into the relationship,” Brittle says. In fact, Gottman research shows that 69 percent of conflict in relationships is about unresolvable, perpetual problems. That refers to issues that are based on personality traits, genders, families of origin, geographic locations, or even where the individual grew up. These issues are very likely, never going to change.

Trying to resolve the unresolveable can feel like banging one’s head against the wall. That’s why repair is more important than resolve.

“By repair I mean, is there kindness, regard, and respect present in the relationship? If not, you can’t resolve anything,” Brittle says. “Resolve is often wasted effort, particularly if the repair has not been achieved. I’m constantly pressing couples toward the repair.”

Remember that thinking about, discussing, seeking out, or embracing marital therapy does not mean your marriage has failed. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s the best chance you have to create the best relationship you can — or save one in need of help.