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

A couples counselor shares her insider perspective on what really happens when therapy only seems to make things worse.

mixed race couple embracing, she looks sad, he looks away Bricolage / shutterstock

Couples come to therapy with great hopes for their relationship. Partners have specific outcomes in mind like learning to fight better, having the kind of intimacy they’ve always dreamed of, resolving a hot issue, or healing old wounds between them.

While couples therapy is an excellent tool for achieving these goals, and often the best shot at success, it doesn’t always work.

As a couples therapist, I’d love to tell you that therapy is 100% effective at getting couples what they want, but sadly, that’s not the case. Some couples leave therapy disillusioned because it didn’t create the transformation they desired.


So, what makes couples therapy unsuccessful? There are several reasons that might explain why the desired outcome wasn’t achieved.

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8 reasons couples therapy failed:

1. Lack of willingness

Therapy is unlikely to reignite your relationship if one or both of you has already decided that the relationship is over or that change is impossible. If you are checked out and just going through the motions, you may hit a dead end.


To make lasting changes in a relationship, both partners must be willing to try out new thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. While ‘all-in’ enthusiasm is not required, some amount of genuine willingness is—and as things improve in the relationship, that willingness can grow.

When couples come to therapy after years of distress, the willingness that was once there may have burnt out.

Often a willing partner brings an unwilling partner to therapy but is unable to change their mind. Some couples think they are willing to do whatever it takes, but when they see the work ahead of them, their willingness quickly evaporates.

Low willingness shows up as a lack of participation and commitment in therapy. Without a willingness to work on the relationship, therapy may become grief work—either to help couples accept that their relationship is unlikely to change, or to facilitate a breakup.


2. Blaming your partner for everything

Therapy is unlikely to be successful if you think your partner is to blame for all your relationship problems and that they need to do all the changing. In reality, both of you are likely to be contributing to your issues, which means you both have a role to play in making things better.

Couples therapy works best when each partner takes charge of their own growth and makes a consistent effort to be the best partner they can be.

If each of you is unable to recognize and own your parts in the dynamic, then couples therapy may fail. There’s only so much change one person can drive on their own before the effort imbalance starts to spur resentment and demotivation.

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3. Limited work between sessions

Relying on one session a week of couples therapy to transform your relationship is unrealistic.

If you don’t apply what you learn in therapy to everyday interactions, progress will be slow, and when you stop therapy, you may revert to old destructive habits.

While you may have some game-changing insights and experiences in the therapy room, the bigger gains will come from practicing your newly acquired skills (like self-regulation and effective communication) outside of sessions, often in the form of homework set by your therapist.

4. Using therapy content in arguments

If what partners say in the therapy room becomes fodder for their arguments, therapy won’t be successful.


When therapy content is weaponized, partners will cease to speak freely in session and may stop going to therapy altogether.

It’s vulnerable to share thoughts, feelings, and past experiences in therapy, and anything disclosed must be handled with care. It’s helpful if partners are extra kind and respectful to one another throughout the therapy process.

5. Major breaches of trust

Couples therapy is likely to fail if you’re being deceitful in therapy. Successful therapy requires openness and honesty to understand each other better and rebuild trust between you. This can’t be done amidst ongoing lies and betrayals.

First, you need to be honest with yourself. Ask yourself what lines you are crossing that may be harming the trust and connection in your relationship.


If you’re not ready to be honest with your partner, have a transparent conversation with your couples therapist individually, if necessary. They can help you figure out how to proceed. If your therapist doesn’t know what’s going on and is missing key information, they are working with one arm tied behind their back.

Couples therapy is a great way to repair trust in a relationship, but it is a lengthy process that requires sensitivity and patience. If one or both of you aren’t willing to do this, or if trust has been shattered beyond repair, couples therapy may not be able to save your relationship.

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6. Fundamentally different preferences

In a relationship, some decisions don’t lend themselves well to compromise, like having kids or not, or monogamy versus non-monogamy. When partners have a major clash in preferences, there is a limit to how much therapy can help.


While couples therapy provides useful frameworks for managing different preferences, sometimes partners can’t find a solution that works for each of them.

When one or both partners feel that they are compromising too much of themselves to reach an agreement, or if the outcome is just too painful, things may not work out.

Saying “yes” to a solution that’s misaligned with you and your values isn’t advisable, as this can generate resentment, and you may end up reverting to your original preference down the line, causing further issues.

7. Unaddressed mental health or substance abuse issues

Unaddressed mental health or substance abuse issues hinder the effectiveness of couples therapy when full engagement with the process isn’t possible.


It’s important to raise any concerns with your therapist, so they can recommend specialized support prior to or parallel with couples therapy, such as individual therapy, addiction resources, specialized programs, or psychiatric intervention.

Ideally, your therapist will be able to collaborate with other providers, to coordinate support.

In cases of domestic violence, couples therapy is not advisable because it can do more harm than good, and other interventions that facilitate safety should be prioritized.


8. Therapist skills and fit

The therapist you choose to work with will impact the outcome of your couples therapy. Continuing with a therapist you don’t like is unlikely to set you up for success.

Look for a therapist with relevant expertise in the issues you’re facing (ask them about this before setting up a session). When checking to make sure you are a fit for one another, consider the therapist’s style and personality, and whether you trust and feel safe with them. The first therapist you meet may not be the one you end up working with, and it can take a few sessions to decipher whether it’s a match.

While finding the right couples therapist can be a short-term hassle, it can create positive long-term gains for your relationship.

Though couples therapy can fail, don’t let it deter you from going. Research suggests that couples therapy positively impacts 70% of couples receiving treatment. Knowing the potential pitfalls outlined in this article can help you navigate the process and increase your chances of success.


Sometimes the therapy process goes well, and couples still break up.

Partners may come to the realization that staying together is not the best outcome for them. Being in couples therapy during a breakup has benefits. Your therapist can help you separate amicably by supporting with everything from practical next steps to grieving and honoring the relationship.

Even if couples therapy doesn’t lead to your desired outcome, remember that you still get to move forward with the valuable insights and growth you gained from the process.

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Talia Litman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. She can also be found on Instagram