What To Do When Couples Therapy Just Isn't Working

It’s not just couples who find this frustrating. The therapists do, too.

Couples therapy not the right fit Polina Zimmerman, PeopleImages | Canva

Unhappy couples invest a lot of time, money, and energy into couples therapy, often with mixed results. They may notice progress and have fewer fights and better communication. Or, they may attend sessions week after week for years with no changes but a growing sense of hopelessness or bitterness. Sometimes, the relationship gets worse when a major life event increases stress.

It’s not just couples who find this frustrating. The therapists do, too.


They seek out endless training, supervision, peer support, and other resources to help the most desperately unhappy couples. Despite all that work on both sides, if there hasn’t been much progress, the couple or the therapist calls it quits.

In many cases, couples therapy has dragged on longer than necessary. Couples need to ask if the therapy is working and how to know it’s time to move on.

RELATED: 5 Scenarios Where You Should Definitely NOT Go To Couples Therapy


Three things you can do on your own, when it feels like therapy isn't working

1. Assess your own behavior

Couples therapy usually starts with a detailed assessment of your relationship, the ups and downs you’ve been through, how you got where you are now, and what you want to work on. Within the first handful of sessions, you should have some clarity about your role in the relationship’s problems. Hopefully, both of you are committed to taking responsibility for your part.

Then, you set goals for communication, conflict style, emotional connection, and other factors. After a few months of therapy, review your goals and assess what changes you have noticed, if any.

For example, if you tend to avoid conflict but then explode with rage when it gets to be too much, reflect on how you’re doing with this after a few months of therapy. Do you still avoid conflict or can you think of a few times when you brought up an issue directly? How did it go? If it’s still challenging to bring up conflict, but you have made some progress, couples therapy is helping. Bit by bit, you are making progress towards your goals and becoming the partner you want to be.

But maybe your behavior hasn’t changed at all towards each other. You both still get caught in ugly cycles of criticism and defensiveness. A little bit of change would provide hope, but with absolutely no change, couples therapy may not be helping. Whether or not that’s because of you, your partner, or the couple's therapist, it’s worth talking more about.

If you didn’t set goals at the beginning of therapy, it’s hard to know if couples therapy is helping. You may want to bring this up with the therapist and reflect on what you want from couples therapy and your commitment to growth.

2. Assess your feelings objectively 

You look forward to couples therapy as the therapist has created a safe space for you and your partner to connect. It’s a sacred time you’ve carved out of your busy weeks to ensure you have an uninterrupted hour to focus on each other. It’s hard to find that kind of time without this commitment.

By committing to couples therapy for an hour a week, you’ve improved your relationship satisfaction because it’s like making a big deposit into your emotional bank account. If this is true for you, couples therapy sounds like it’s helping. Over time, you might consider making an hourly relationship check-in date on your calendar whether or not you and your partner plan to meet with your therapist.


Ideally, couples therapy becomes unnecessary as you two have the skills to continue nurturing your relationship.

On the other hand, maybe you dread going to couples therapy as you know you both will re-hash the latest fight (which is some version of fights you’ve been having since the beginning of your relationship). Instead of feeling like therapy is a safe space, you feel like you need to come with armor on for the inevitable battle with your partner. Or even worse, you feel judged by the therapist and afraid to bring up what you think and feel.

In any case, it’s important to bring up your feelings of dread or hopelessness with the therapist and talk about why you feel that way. You may benefit from addressing those feelings directly. Perhaps your feelings are telling you couples therapy isn’t doing much good.

RELATED: 8 Sad Reasons Couples Therapy Failed (According To A Licensed Therapist)

3. Ask yourself two questions

What did you want from couples therapy? What do you want from it now? Asking yourself those two questions can help you decide whether to continue investing in it or to consider ending your time in therapy. Perhaps you came to couples therapy simply because you wanted to understand your partner better or prepare for big life decisions like moving in together, getting married, or having a baby.


Over time, you have learned more about areas that you two can improve on, like open communication or building purpose and meaning in your relationship. At this point, you enjoy couples therapy because it’s a space to keep getting to know and accept yourself and your partner. In this case, you had a clear understanding of what you wanted from therapy originally (you got what you wanted,) and you have a clear understanding of what you currently want from it (which has changed as your relationship has grown). If you know what you want from couples therapy while getting some of your needs met, then sticking with it might be fruitful.

Or maybe you came to couples therapy hoping the therapist would be able to fix your partner. Over time, you realize the only person you can control is you, and you start to take more responsibility for yourself in the relationship. Still, your partner has some behaviors you absolutely can’t tolerate, like a habit of infidelity or an unwillingness to take your point of view into account.

At this point, you might have to accept you will never get what you originally wanted (the therapist can’t change your partner). You may have to make a tough decision about continuing or not — with couples therapy and with the relationship itself. If your partner is not willing to make any changes, you may want to consider ending couple therapy and focusing on individual therapy for yourself.

Couples therapy that isn’t working is demoralizing. If you have assessed your behavioral goals, checked in with your feelings, asked yourself those two questions, and realized it’s not working, there are several options you have for moving forward.

RELATED: 5 Daily Habits That Are Better For Your Marriage Than Couple's Counseling

Three possible next steps to take when couples therapy just isn't working

1. Talk to the couples therapist and your partner about the problem.

Let them know you aren’t seeing the progress you were hoping for, and explore what may be getting in the way. Sometimes, talking about this openly in therapy can open up new ways of looking at the problem and help shift the dynamic. Simply getting clear about your goals and objectives can make a positive difference. But if that doesn’t help…


2. Consider a second opinion.

If you’ve worked with one couples therapist for six months and it’s not working, you could try meeting someone who uses a different approach. Not every couples therapist is the right fit for every couple. There is chemistry between people that can make therapy more effective, and it can take time to feel that out.

On the other hand, if you’ve already tried two or more couples therapists with no success, you may want to consider quitting. As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

3. Accept the relationship for what it is.

When we can’t change something despite trying our best, we must practice radical acceptance. That doesn’t mean approval; it doesn’t mean you’re suddenly happy with your relationship. But you may need to accept that the relationship is not better, at least now. If you radically accept the relationship is the way it is, you still have choices about what to do with that information.


In the case of a relationship, you can either stay or end it. Facing reality, even if it’s ugly, will help you make your decision.

RELATED: 3 Signs To Look For If You Think It's Time To Go To Couples Therapy

Susanna Guarino, LMHC is a couples therapy expert licensed in NY, RI, FL and AZ focused on helping couples go from being at odds to close and connected. She can be found at Good Earth Counseling.