Abuse, Church, Narcissism

Why Marriage Counseling Doesn’t Work

One of the things I knew from the outset was that I needed a counselor who understood the situation for what it was. While I realize that this can be said of any counseling situation, this one has a caveat. It appears that in Christian circles conflict between husband and wife is often relegated to being labeled as “marriage problems,” and when marriage problems arise, marriage counseling is prescribed. As such, the intent is to address each member’s failings and offenses. Husband and wife sit in front of a counselor and expound on their issues as equal partners in the both the marriage and the source of conflict. Each acknowledges their shortcomings and where they can improve and subsequent visits are for the purpose of accountability regarding the implementation of the game plan.

Now a commercial here. There is no one, NO ONE, who is not culpable for some level of conflict in a marriage. I am not purporting perfection. Every marriage will have normal marital conflict at times that is not related to deep psychological issues, but this can muddy the waters some. How does one differentiate between two fallible human beings living together with inevitable drama and a more deeply seeded psychological issue? Also, how does that psychological issue play into the normal melodrama of an average marital spat? It is a skilled counselor that can hear the facts and pick out components that don’t fall into the category of run-of-the-mill marital conflict.

First, I think it is imperative that they do not come into the situation with the mindset that all problems should be equally owned: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. One spouse offends and then an equally sinful response ensues. The counselor has to be able to see that what might appear to be normal conflict on the surface may merely be the external face of a deeper unhealthy disorder at work. This understanding is important for several reasons.

The counselor who understands this will not have joint counseling sessions. Though joint sessions may exist, the majority of the sessions will be separate. This shows a grasp of the situation because the counselor understands the dynamic at play. The victim (I use that word reluctantly) does not have the liberty to freely divulge all of the details without fear of repercussion. Also, because of  gas-lighting and other manipulation techniques, they know that many of their complaints will be turned back on them. They have grown accustomed to taking the path of least resistance. Frank and candid communication will be replaced by careful stone-stepping across a turbulent river.

There were times that all I needed was “the look” and I knew I had incurred his displeasure and it meant I was in for it. Sometimes even a sigh or change in posture was all that would take place for me to know I had crossed some pre-established invisible line. These subtle cues, that may not even be caught by the counselor, could mar any chance for full disclosure.

Another reason marriage counseling is not right for this situation is that it generally places culpability on an even playing field. Marriage counseling presumes both parties are acting in the overall best interest of the other party where one or the other lapses in and out of selfishness, thoughtlessness, meanness or some other damaging behavior. It also presupposes that both parties function as individuals that respect each other’s distinctiveness, where instead a narcissist will view his counterpart as an extension of himself, having the sole purpose of validating his self-image.

An attitude of entitlement exists in abusive situations. The “I prefer” becomes the “I deserve.” Entitlement places an obligation on the other party to meet the expectations of the entitled person. With unfulfilled expectations, consequences often ensue. Control and manipulation to get one’s way replace loving requests with the understanding that they may or may not be met.

A counselor who focuses on the marriage is going to focus on how both parties can improve the situation and likely miss a deeper underlying problem that will continue to plague every aspect of the marriage. An issue that unless identified and addressed will do nothing to repair the marriage but rather put a bandaid on a hemorrhagic bleed.

Couple’s counseling offers the abusive person an opportunity to discredit his spouse, something most abusers are quite gifted at. They are expert gas-lighters and counselors themselves may fall prey to this tactic. This mind game is effective at producing a confusion that causes the victim to doubt their own memory of the situation. Abusers are capable of manipulating even the best of counselors, a fact pointed out by my former husband himself. He said he could counsel circles around his counselor.

This brings me to the crux of this article. Abuse is not a marriage problem. Abuse causes problems in the marriage, yes, but it is not the source of the angst. Just as a doctor should not merely treat symptoms without also trying to identify the root cause, so treating the symptoms of abuse as if they are the problem produces no real healing. Behavior modification may temporarily eradicate the symptoms but the disease is not gone. It may manifest differently for a time but the cycle will reemerge. Like a hamster on a wheel, a couple could spend their entire marriage in counseling without ever fixing anything.

In summary, marriage counseling for abuse situations is a mistake. A counselor who focuses on the marriage will likely miss warning signs of the real issues. The abuser emerges mildly chastised and encouraged to make improvements which he will whole heartedly agree to do and the victim will find herself working harder on the marriage while the hole she is in grows deeper. Marriage counseling focuses on the symptoms not the problem.

You can’t treat cancer with an aspirin….

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  • Reply Becky AZ May 3, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    Well said. I do enjoy (can i enjoy your struggle?) reading this–because I rejoice that you are stronger, no more a victim, and have learned how damaging he was to you. A good counselor will see through his BS, and will see the manipulation going on in front of him. That may lead the counselor to begin working with the abused person in the relationship to strengthen them for the battle that is ahead, if the person wants to change the relational dynamic. But behavior therapy will do nothing for the narcissistic person, as you well know. Press on!

    • Reply Rebecca May 4, 2017 at 11:40 am


      It is ok if you “enjoy” my struggle. 😉 My goal is to be helpful so if my blog does that for you enjoy away! Sadly, I think not just many counselors are ill-equipped to deal with this manipulative type of personality but certainly many pastors are. The deacons at my former church wanted to take over counseling us. These are lay-people with absolutely no experience whatsoever. I shudder to think of the outcome, had I agreed to consider that a viable option! Another interesting dynamic is that these people (the deacons) believe that the only training you need is to know your Bible. I find this to be a topic for some potentially interesting discussion. My dad, who is a seminary trained pastor and has dealt with another similar situation in his church, even felt ill-equipped to deal with this. Thoughts?

  • Reply Lynn October 24, 2019 at 6:26 am

    I am searching for just such a counselor. You mentioned one in Michigan
    I would be willing to drive. Could you please share their contact info, asap. Thank you. ?

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