8 Experts Reveal The Problems That Can't Be Fixed In Couple's Counseling

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couple talking to counselor

If you're married long enough, conflict is inevitable. Many married couples seek professional counseling to help them work through their issues if possible.

Sometimes therapy works and the marriage goes on. Sometimes it doesn't work and the marriage ends.

What determines the outcome of marriage therapy? The renowned relationship researcher, John Gottman, contends that married people who actually like each other have a better chance for therapy to work because they are more willing to conduct open, honest conversations — and they know better how to communicate with each other.

It also is vital for both parties in the struggling marriage to share the desire to stay together. If one partner is determined to walk away, there's not much any therapist can do to fix it.

We were curious about what issues are simply not able to be solved through marriage counseling, so we asked a panel of YourTango experts to share their insights.

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Here are eight problems that might not be solvable with couple's counseling

1. Undiagnosed or untreated mental illness 

An issue that marriage therapy may not be able to fix is untreated mental illness. If one or both partners are struggling with untreated mental health issues such as personality disorders, severe anxiety, or depression, it may be difficult to make progress in therapy until these underlying issues are addressed.

It's important to recognize the impact of untreated mental illness on a relationship and seek professional help to address these issues. In some cases, individual therapy or medication may be necessary before progress can be made in couples therapy.

Claire Waismann, Waismann Method and Domus Retreat founder

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2. An unwillingness to make it work

Marriage therapy can work wonders but it isn’t magic. It can not replace the desire to make it work. You have to want to work things out. If you’re going through the motions and deep down hoping for a fresh start with someone new, wasting your partner's time with therapy might not be the best bet.

There is a difference between genuinely checking out and just losing momentum. When you picture yourself happy who is with you? Is it your partner? Do you look forward to them leaving for a work trip or a night out so you don’t have to be around them?

These are things that show a lack of willingness to work through it and no amount of forced dialogue can refuel your desire to put in work. I’m not suggesting you should be looking forward to uncomfortable conversations with a neutral third party but you should want it to work out.

You could be dealing with infidelity, lies, or trauma, but if your partner is a part of your vision when you think of a happy future, marriage therapy could work for you.

Erika Jordan, love coach, NLP practitioner

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3. An unwillingness to change

One thing that marital therapy cannot fix is one's willingness to change. While therapy can help with addressing communication breakdowns and lack of effective coping techniques, one must be open to accepting accountability and making efforts to make changes when needed.

Miki Anderson, licensed clinical mental health counselor 

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4. A lack of commitment or holding on to the past

Psychotherapy is a wonderful way for couples to work through ongoing problems. But there are some problems that marriage therapy can’t fix.

Therapy can’t make people change who don’t want to. Therapy is a lot of work — it takes commitment, effort, and an internal desire to change. If one or both people in a committed relationship don’t want change, no therapist can make them.

Therapy also can’t erase the past. A good therapist can help people work through painful past experiences that are negatively affecting a marriage — everything from infidelity to parenting struggles to difficult life transitions. It’s an opportunity to transform and grow. That said, therapists can’t change the past or erase difficult experiences from someone’s history.

Finally, therapy simply can’t save all marriages. If both people in a relationship are committed to staying together, there’s a lot for a therapist to work with to help a couple evolve in healthy ways. That said, sometimes people go to therapy as a last-ditch effort to save a marriage that one person no longer wants to be a part of. If that happens, it’s unlikely that the marriage will last.

Dr. Cortney Warren, board-certified clinical psychologist, adjunct psychologist, UNLV School of Medicine

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5. Major differences in values or goals

Couples therapy cannot change “deal-breakers” or absolute differences in values and vision. For example: One partner wants to have children and the other doesn’t. One partner wants to live in Tahiti and the other in Antarctica. One wants monogamy the other wants polyamory. The fear of losing a relationship can make partners avoid reality, best to deal with these differences upfront.

Eva Van Prooyen, marriage and family therapist, relationship specialist

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6. Loss of trust because of cheating

Sometimes infidelity causes wounds that are just too deep and hurtful to fix. Sometimes an illness in the family or a very sick child will also lead to such hurt between the couple that couple therapy becomes useless. However, I think couples therapy is always worth a try as many couples survive serious happenings as a therapist has been able to help them make peace with the realities of life together and it is still worth being married to each other.

Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein, positive psychologist, author, filmmaker

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7. Different visions for married life

No amount of therapy or coaching will ever align a couple without shared values and vision. This means that if you do not do the proper vetting before becoming a couple then you will most likely discover that you are not on the same page and perhaps not even in the same book or library. Sad but often true.

Many couples get together with drastically different visions for life and do not find out till massive commitments and responsibilities are before them. It's highly important to understand that dating is not about having fun with someone, but instead about vetting them for a relationship and future partnership. This means getting real with them and asking plenty of hard questions about what matters most, such as life vision.

Rene Schooler, relationship, love, and intimacy master coach

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8. Personalities are too much in conflict

There are many issues that marriage therapy can’t fix. Among them are when basic values conflict, when trust is at a low ebb, when the willingness to engage by one party does not exist, or when one party is mean-spirited.

It also is difficult to achieve a positive result with marriage counseling if one or both parties are alexithymic, which is difficulty identifying and describing subjective feelings, limited fantasy life and a style of thinking that focuses on external stimuli as opposed to internal states.

I would add that a lack of sense of humor and playfulness as well as courage can stymie progress.

Ruth Schimel, Ph.D., career & life management consultant, author

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Carter Gaddis is the senior editor for Experts and Wellness with YourTango.