What Are Common Challenges in Marriage Counseling?


    What Are Common Challenges in Marriage Counseling?

    Navigating the complexities of marital relationships, we've gathered insights from experienced licensed Marriage and Family Therapists on common challenges they face in counseling. From maintaining neutrality with empathy to addressing emotional caretaking and boundaries, here are five key strategies these professionals employ to support couples through their difficulties.

    • Maintain Neutrality with Empathy
    • Intervene in Negative Patterns
    • Clarify Mutual Relationship Goals
    • Foster Insight to Break Blame Cycles
    • Address Emotional Caretaking and Boundaries

    Maintain Neutrality with Empathy

    A common challenge I encounter in marriage counseling is how to remain neutral when one partner is clearly the problem (even though I'd never say that). I usually approach this situation by giving myself a pep talk before their session, and reminding myself how I'd feel if I were in his or her shoes. By thinking in this way, it allows me to enter the therapeutic space with genuine neutrality, and helps me increase empathy for them.

    Azia Carter
    Azia CarterLicensed Marriage and Family Therapist

    Intervene in Negative Patterns

    A common challenge I've encountered in marriage counseling is when couples aren't immediately receptive to the therapist's interventions due to being 'stuck' in negative interactional patterns.

    In the first stage of therapy, couples can argue and take up time in sessions by staying in their own emotions and lens. While it's helpful to observe the couples' dynamics for a time, it is also important to intervene when negative patterns continue in session.

    Just today, I had this happen and I interrupted, stating, 'Okay, let's pause. I know you both have expressed you want healthy changes in your conflict resolution and communication, so I want to help you experience something different. Are you both ready to try something new, or is this status quo working for you?' They responded with how exhausted they are of arguing and talking over each other.

    We practiced active and reflective listening along with validation, and they began to experience each other differently. The session took a positive turn, and both left with an uplifted mood and reported feeling encouraged.

    Rachel Stiff
    Rachel StiffLicensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Life and Health Coach, Restoring Relationships, LLC

    Clarify Mutual Relationship Goals

    Marriage counseling is a dynamic experience for both the couple and the clinician, and as we work together within that dynamic, it is not unusual to encounter some challenges. We may even encounter several challenges as we work toward improving communication, healing the hurts that have been caused by traumas–such as infidelity and other stressful life events–and as we work toward strengthening the relationship between two partners.

    One common challenge that I have faced in my marriage counseling sessions is a lack of asking and answering the following fundamental question: What does each partner want from their marriage as they enter couples counseling? We need to know whether they both want to work toward strengthening the marriage and staying together, or whether they want to find an amicable way out of the marriage.

    We need to clarify what each partner wants from the marital relationship, so that the couple can understand and invest in the idea that they are both on the same team, working toward the same goal. We must make sure not to skip over the crucial step of identifying a concrete, mutually agreed-upon goal for the couple to work toward.

    When the primary goal, and additional goals, are identified and understood by both partners, we can gently remind ourselves and each other that we are working together. We can then spend our sessions identifying and practicing healthy coping strategies, including active communication skills, positive conflict resolution skills, and other relationship-building, emotionally focused skills.

    Inez Salcido-Kasteiner
    Inez Salcido-KasteinerLicensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Soultenders, Inc.

    Foster Insight to Break Blame Cycles

    People frequently come into marriage counseling expecting me to fix their partner; very rarely do they start therapy ready to change themselves. As a result, much of the early sessions are spent with each partner trying to get me to see their side of the story. Their hope is that I will side with them, so we can gang up on their partner and finally get the change they have been seeking during those knockout fights they've been having.

    I counter these moves by continually stating in early sessions, "This cycle y'all are stuck in with each other is neither one of your fault, and you both are contributing to it." Then I highlight how they are contributing to it right there in the session.

    This strategy I use removes me from being a pawn in their fight, and also fosters insight for the couple. I also intend for it to diffuse blame, making it easier for both partners to take an interest in changing their piece of the cycle. When this shift in each person occurs, therapy can begin!

    Amanda Averbeck
    Amanda AverbeckMarriage and Family Therapist Associate, Authentically Rooted Counseling

    Address Emotional Caretaking and Boundaries

    A common challenge I've come across in couples’ therapy between two partners is emotional caretaking. One partner will engage in this with the other, which looks like prioritizing another person's wants, needs, and feelings before one's own. This type of behavior is rooted in fear and insecurity, and can be traced back to childhood.

    Caretaking can be challenging in the context of romantic relationships, as the one partner engaging in the behavior begins to neglect their own needs. This leads to feelings of resentment when this isn't being reciprocated, prevents authenticity–and therefore connection–and more. Ultimately, the lack of boundaries unbalances the relationship as a whole.

    I typically approach this by providing education on the subject, learning about how this behavior developed for one partner, and understanding the fears or insecurities they would experience in refraining from caretaking for their partner. From here, we learn how to establish and maintain healthier boundaries in the relationship.

    Alexandra OnoratoLicensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Thriving Center of Psychology