Is There Such Thing as “Too Late” for Couples Therapy?

Is There Such Thing as “Too Late” for Couples Therapy?

As licensed couple and family therapists, clinicians at Lindsey Hoskins & Associates frequently support couples whose relationships have broken down to the point of desperation. Too often, couples start the process of therapy after months — or even years — of communication breakdowns, unresolved conflicts, unmet needs, and emotional and physical disconnection. It’s not uncommon for these clients to ask, “do you think it’s too late for couples therapy to be helpful?”

I’ll be honest with you. The answer is: Maybe. There are a few things that make it very difficult for couples therapy to positively impact a relationship dynamic. Below, I’ve described the ones I think are most important, as well as offered my thoughts for how to put your best foot forward on each of them.

  1. Lack of motivation. Or, willingness to do the very hard work of meaningfully engaging in therapy. Here’s the thing: good, effective therapy is hard work. If you’re going to therapy and you’re not working hard, I would argue that there are probably some things going on in your life that aren’t being fully addressed on that couch. We frequently observe couple who come in for therapy and at least one of them are there not so much to work hard, but to “check the box” and be able to say that they “tried everything” before calling it quits. This will almost certainly end in relationship dissolution. Put your best foot forward by working on your own readiness to engage before you start couples therapy. This may mean finding an individual therapist with whom you can do some preparatory work first; or requesting a clinician who can lead you through the process of Discernment Counseling, in which an ambivalent partner can work through their emotions and doubt and both partners can be supported in deciding whether meaningful couples therapy is possible.
  2. Unrealistic expectations. For relationships in dire straits, progress can be slow and setbacks are not uncommon. So, if partners come in thinking that things are going to change quickly and easily, they are likely to get frustrated and give up when met with reality. To use one of my favorite (gross) metaphors, therapy is sometimes like cleaning out an old wound that was never appropriately disinfected. It can be a slow and painstaking process to pick every little yucky thing out of that wound, but if you don’t do it, you’ll be unlikely to fully heal. Put your best foot forward by doing an honest self-assessment of your ability and willingness to stick it out through this process. Prepare yourself for some tough conversations, as well as the possibility that things could feel worse before they feel better. After all, that process of cleaning out that wound is not an easy or painless.
  3. Unwillingness to put it all on the table. You might be surprised to hear that many couples come to therapy having decided beforehand that they won’t discuss certain things–I’ve been treating couples for over 18 years and it still surprises me when this happens! Usually, these things do come out eventually — often when one partner discloses that the other refuses to talk about a certain topic — but this is often after several sessions have elapsed, and can require a significant change to the clinician’s treatment plan. In short, this can really get in the way. Put your best foot forward by making a list, either independently or together, of all the things that you struggle with in your relationship and agree that everything is fair game for discussion. During your early sessions when your therapist is working hard to get to know you and understand your situation, answer honestly and fully.
  4. Lack of accountability. Relationships are systems, and when systems slide into dysfunction, each element has played a role in that breakdown. This means, obviously, that each element has a role in the solution. Couples therapy cannot be effective unless both partners are willing to thoughtfully and critically consider their contribution to the problem. Put your best foot forward by spending some time focusing not on what your partner has done wrong, but what you can do better. Bring that attitude and that willingness to self-reflect, grow, and change the way you do things, to every. single. session. (This obviously only works if both partners do it!)
  5. Dishonesty. It should go without saying that couples therapy requires full honesty, but dishonesty shows up in the therapy room often enough that it merits a mention here. If you find yourself thinking about how you can spin a story to make yourself look better or your partner look worse in session, or if betrayal is a part of the relationship history, dishonest could easily derail your therapy or exacerbate old wounds rather than ready them for healing. Put your best foot forward by reminding yourself that what you want — successful couples therapy that results in reconnection and relationship security — is only available on the other side of honest conversations. Remember that your therapist is not judging you, that therapy is not a competition between partners, and that your therapist is well-equipped to help you handle whatever the honest truth is.

Please note that the above assumes that a few basic things are present: agreement between partners that therapy is desired; and, of course, safety. In cases where one partner is “dragging” the other to therapy against her/his will, or where abuse is present, therapy is both ineffective and inappropriate.

If you are considering starting couples therapy, I hope the list above is helpful in assessing both your personal and collectiveness readiness for that process. Good couples therapy in which both partners are meaningfully and willingly engaged can be truly transformative, and nothing makes a couples therapist happier than watching that transformation occur.

Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, L(C)MFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both our downtown Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices, as well as virtually to those located in Maryland and Virginia. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Lindsey!