5 Warning Signs Therapy May Be Hazardous to Your Marriage

Person in background sits on sofa with arms crossed looking away from upset person in foreground who has head in handsPeople who are unhappy in their marriages may turn to mental health professionals for help, unaware therapy could in fact make things worse. I’m not talking about bad couples therapy, although therapists who lack training in effective couples therapy certainly can do more harm than good. What I’m referring to is bad individual therapy when the focus of treatment is an unhappy relationship.

There are some good reasons people in an unhappy relationship might seek individual therapy. Sometimes a partner may be unwilling to come to couples therapy, leaving individual therapy as the best available option. Some people may feel too frightened or unsafe to speak openly in front of a partner. By beginning with individual therapy, they may develop more self-confidence and feel better prepared for couples therapy. And for some people who are uncertain about whether to continue working on their relationship, individual therapy can provide a safe, private place to talk through their feelings and concerns.

However, while some therapists help unhappy partners gain a new perspective that can help both themselves and their relationship, others—especially therapists with no training in couples or family therapy—may further undermine shaky marriages. Many unhappy partners are influenced, either inadvertently or purposely, toward ending a marriage that could be improved with effective couples therapy.

How do you know if your therapist may be harming your marriage? Here are five warning signs:

  1. Your therapist allows you to focus almost exclusively on your partner’s flaws, with little attempt to help you understand your role in your unhappy relationship. Regardless of your partner’s shortcomings, every relationship is the result of a pattern created by two people reacting to one another. When the focus of therapy is only on what your partner does, you may feel increasingly hopeless about the relationship and powerless to change it. If you do decide to end your marriage, you will also have lost an important opportunity to learn from this experience and avoid repeating ineffective patterns in the future.
  2. Your therapist labels, diagnoses, or criticizes your partner without ever meeting them. Any well-trained couples therapist knows each partner has a unique perspective, and a full understanding of a relationship requires knowledge of both partners’ experiences and perspectives. Even objectively indefensible behavior such as name-calling, shaming, and threatening can usually be addressed much more effectively by understanding and addressing the underlying feelings and dynamics than by labeling the person who has behaved this way.
  3. Your therapist does not help you understand your partner’s “bad” behavior in context. There is a world of difference between a partner who purposely uses name-calling, shaming, and threatening to manipulate or control, and a partner who erupts in anger and then feels ashamed or remorseful for losing control. Sometimes the partner on the receiving end may have a difficult time distinguishing between these two very different patterns—another reason therapists should avoid judging or labeling people, especially those they haven’t met.
  4. Your therapist clearly prioritizes your individual needs over the marriage and family. While no one should tolerate a relationship in which their own needs are ignored or dismissed, neither should they expect to have a healthy marriage and family if they don’t also attend to the needs of others. An individual therapist who focuses only on the feelings and needs of the person in the room may implicitly discourage the kind of compromise and interdependence that characterize healthy families.
  5. Your therapist encourages you to end your relationship for any reason, other than to protect your physical safety, without an adequate trial of couples therapy. Many serious relationship problems can be addressed with the help of a well-trained couples therapist. Therapists who do not recognize this possibility do a disservice to couples and families who may never get the help available to them. It can even be helpful for you and your partner to discuss such “deal-breakers” as a serious, active addiction or an ongoing affair with the help of a skilled therapist before making a final decision to end a relationship.

How to Avoid These Pitfalls in Individual Therapy

If you are unhappy in your relationship and are seeking individual therapy, either because your partner is unwilling to come with you or you are not ready to talk with your partner, there are several steps you can take to minimize the chances of further damage to your relationship:

Many unhappy partners are influenced, either inadvertently or purposely, toward ending a marriage that could be improved with effective couples therapy.

  1. Choose an individual therapist who is also trained in an effective model of couples therapy, such as emotionally focused therapy. Most trained couples therapists also practice individual therapy, and they can use their understanding of couples dynamics to help you gain a clearer perspective on your marriage. If you have been unable to get your partner to come with you to therapy, a therapist who understands couples dynamics may also have suggestions for new ways to approach your partner without putting them on the defensive.
  2. Ask your therapist directly for help in understanding your partner’s perspective. Your therapist may feel a primary responsibility to be supportive of your feelings and needs, and thus may be reluctant to bring up your partner’s experience. By directly asking for this input, you give your therapist permission to help you understand your relationship from a broader perspective, including how you may unknowingly trigger unwanted reactions in your partner.
  3. Focus your individual therapy on your personal growth rather than on your partner’s shortcomings. Focusing on changes you want to make for yourself is the most constructive way to use your time in individual therapy. As it turns out, it is also often the most helpful thing one partner can do to improve a relationship. And if the relationship ends, your increased self-knowledge will help you move forward in healthier ways.

There are, of course, many other signs of questionable therapy, as well as indicators you’ve found a good therapist. If you decide to reach out to a therapist, be sure to ask plenty of questions based on what you’ve read to help you determine which side of the spectrum they fall on.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ruth Jampol, PhD, Couples and Marriage Counseling Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Millie

    January 12th, 2017 at 7:08 AM

    I know that most of us would always want to talk to someone who is validating our own thoughts and feelings but not when it comes to marriage therapy. You can’t have a therapist who openly takes sides because the one who feels beat up on is of course going to be very resistant to hearing that. If this is something that you would like to pursue then you need to make sure that it is with someone who is willing to be open to hearing both sides and who will not allow ganging up on the other partner.

  • bo

    January 13th, 2017 at 7:48 AM

    Personal growth should always be the goal, i agree

  • Louise

    January 14th, 2017 at 12:27 PM

    Seriously those who are about causing more harm than good? They shouldn’t be allowed to practice.

  • case

    January 16th, 2017 at 7:10 AM

    ummm shouldn’t you always get something useful from the whole therapeutic experience
    so i guess that someone who is wrapped up in themselves if they find a therapist who will then feed into that then they will think that this is the useful thing that they should be searching for when no, that’s not the point of that at all

  • LOgan

    January 18th, 2017 at 7:57 AM

    Therapy should be useful, used to increase your knowledge and help you grow. It should never be anything that you should have to look back on and determine how much harm it is doing to your life.

  • Jimmy

    January 18th, 2017 at 8:04 AM

    Great article! As a clinician, I couldn’t agree more about not diagnosing or labeling the person not in the room. Finding that balance between empowering the individual in the context of self and relationship is an essential element of effective treatment.

  • rebecca

    January 19th, 2017 at 11:14 AM

    so make the therapy a joint venture!

  • Lissa P

    January 24th, 2017 at 12:07 AM

    A great article. I find the element of looking for how your client is contributing to the situation (not focusing on absent partners faults) particularly relevant. Usually, you can glean their at-home reactions to situations by having them narrate events that have happened, and then focus on what they can do, but not always. Sometimes the partner ‘seems’ to be creating issues for personal emotional gain and the client ‘seems’ to be reacting sensibly. More than once, I’ve known, if it was a friend I was talking to and not a client, I would have given them some strong advice.

  • Elle

    October 2nd, 2018 at 7:25 PM

    Marriage therapists prolong bad marriages. The sooner you call it quits the better.

  • lo

    January 29th, 2020 at 1:58 PM

    This is currently happening in my marriage. My husband and I hit a rough spot and went to individual therapists despite my attempts to get him to go to marriage counseling. His therapist has been utilizing all 5 of these tactics in his treatment (my husband has shared examples with me) and as a result, my husband has gone from confidently believing we could work through our issues (which are typical communication issues) to wanting to file for a divorce. No one has been able to get through to him to help him to understand that this is what is occurring. His parents, friends and I have all tried. I am at my wits end.
    This is unethical and frankly I feel this therapist should not be practicing!

  • Free Spirit

    July 4th, 2020 at 4:50 AM

    If you are serious about your marriage, it’s important to recognize that the only way to do this is through communication.
    You will have negative thoughts and emotions, but try to put these aside and allow yourself to feel the love you originally felt for your partner.

    There is nothing wrong with disliking many aspects about your spouse and still love them.
    You will both need to be flexible and willing to compromise on certain issues to be able to work through your differences.

    At the same time you also need to give each other space, to help process what you have discussed and deal with any negative emotions.

  • John

    July 27th, 2020 at 1:48 PM

    That actually to my wife. The therapist only took 3 or 4 sessions to come up with this conclusion.
    So she will end a 25 year marriage although I tried everything. Now I just want to get it over with.
    I agree with Lo, such therapists should not be practicing!

  • Rose

    February 4th, 2021 at 9:00 AM

    This happened to me when my husband went into treatment for drugs. He started having an emotional based rehab romance and would tell his therapy team lies about me. His case worker told him, without even meeting me, that it sounded like I was very abusive and that he needed to have a safe exit plan. They told him it sounded like I was also abusing drugs, which I was not doing. I never even raise my voice when upset and usually am the one walking away or apologizing just to keep the peace even if I was the one wronged. She refused to even consider having me involved in family therapy when I emailed her and ask. She never even talked to me or had any kind of assessment to be able to conclude having any kind of suspicions about me. It has ruined our marriage that was once beautiful. I am heartbroken. My husbands rehab romance didn’t pan out and he came home last week, but he’s very distant now and won’t talk about much. I go to Al-anon, have learned boundaries, and learned about codependency so I am just practicing self care and applying the new principals I’ve learned. But I am disgusted with the unethical therapy that has left me feeling abandoned, blamed for no reason, and alone. If a therapies refuses to even meet a spouse, then they shouldn’t focus on the persons marriage. They should just focus on the person, period.

  • Sam

    March 31st, 2021 at 7:14 AM

    This is currently happening in my marriage. My husband went for mental health, then suddenly its all about our marriage and MY childhood. She told him that those things effect who I am in general and who I can be with him, that I have underlying issues just because I don’t like giving him a certain sexual act. (Never have and never will). For me it has nothing to do with my childhood, I’ve forgiven, moved on, I never even think about it anymore. But She has single handily ruined my marriage. Maybe she should of focused more on his continued need to rape me as his wife for years, instead of on me.
    And now it’s every like intimate time we have together is the next hot topic at therapy. Nothing is just between us as husband and wife anymore. I can’t stay in this marriage now because of this, and he refuses to see that continuing to see this “therapist” is and has damaged our marriage beyond repair. We have 8 children together, but he his more into what his therapist tells him, instead of fighting to keep our family together. Such a waste.

  • George

    June 1st, 2021 at 6:57 PM

    My wife wanted to go to a therapist for her ADHD and I said that’s great. After w or 3 sessions she said that she was not in love with me. 3 more sessions and she said she wanted a divorce because if she stayed any longer she would cheat on me. I was going to my room and heard her and her divorce/therapist talking. It wasn’t about her ADHD. It was all about me. The jerk therapist was coaching her on how to stay on point for Her divorce. Don’t go hiking with him. Don’t let him fix anything of yours. Don’t give him any false feelings. and in this state it takes 2 people to get married and it takes only1 to get divorced. This is a no fault divorce state. It’s easier to get a divorce than buy a beer. So this social worker thinks that the person is more important than a 28 year marriage. I can think of only one word I would call the social worker/therapist but I won’t say it hear. I find that this therapist business is destroying marriage and therapist are a dime a dozen and you might find a good one. 2 out of 50. I asked my wife to go to the “marriage place”. Just listen to the video and she said that “you wouldn’t go with me 10 years ago and I won’t go with you now. she thinks her social worker walks on water and listen to everything she says.

  • Forever Changed

    September 29th, 2021 at 3:47 PM

    My wife decided to seek out this marriage destroying advice. Now I am getting my Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and learning much more where all of my mistakes were. However, my discernment was on point when she was forcing me to see a counselor who labeled me before he met me, apparently validated the need for a divorce before he met me, and in essence I think did all the 5 things in this article you should not do if you really want to recover a marriage as your brochure says you do. Now we are divorced. I am happily remarried now. I decided that the hate she had was unstoppable except by God and God was not getting through to her. So that sealed the history in a box called “Lost Forever” and now I am forever changed in a way that I can say God is good even when your spouse is disturbed and uninterested in a true relationship even after nearly 3 decades. I am not the person the therapist labeled me. I have been studied by others and it turns out I am a flawed human, just like everyone else. God is good. However, avoid these therapists who prey on people like my ex. We never found that right therapist, if we had, maybe something could have worked, but I am not going to second guess what blessing God is doing in my life now and I will learn and grow and be a far better therapist than those who care about lining their pockets with the money from ill gotten gain of weak willed spouses. If you are the weak one, do yourself a favor…drop that therapist telling you want you want to hear and get someone who will challenge you and your spouse to be better to each other and yourselves. You can live in a joyful relationship and it is a matter of a series of choices and it is all within your reach if you both choose to dig deep and grow. Don’t assume the other one does not want to. They may be hurt in ways you have no clue about. That is why you both need help. Get it from a real therapist. You won’t regret it. Sometimes divorce is inevitable. I will go on a limb and say probably not 10 of 10 times. You may be that one that it does not need to happen even if today you don’t see a way out. There…just…might…be.

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