Marriage Counseling: Can It Save A Marriage On The Brink?

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Dear Terry,

Rick and I have been married for eight years and things are going downhill. I’ve tried everything to make things work but nothing seems to be helping. There were a lot of red flags when we were dating but I ignored them because we have such good chemistry. But after all these years, it’s becoming more obvious that we’re just not compatible. We argue over little things and our five-year old daughter, Megan, is starting to show signs of distress like crying a lot or hiding in her room.

Before Megan was born, we already had problems but things started getting worse because we don’t spend time together and I have a stressful new teaching job. Rick comes from a very traditional background and thinks that I should do most of the household chores, plus discipline and take care of Megan. It’s getting to the point where I feel resentful and don’t even want to have sex with him anymore. I know plenty of couples who both work full-time and share responsibilities.

I was raised by a single mom so I’m very independent but it doesn’t feel fair that I can barely relax or even go to the gym because I’m so busy. Don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with Megan and she is a loving child, but our marriage seems totally one-sided! To make matters worse, Rick always wins when we have an argument – he’s a lawyer and very logical and I tend to give in because I’m a people pleaser. It’s true that Rick works more hours than I do outside the home, but I’d still like to see him more involved in chores and spending time with Megan.

Rick’s also an introvert and I’m very outgoing so we don’t share many common interests. He prefers to hang out at home and watch movies or go on-line, whereas I like to go to the park, shopping, or out to eat. I’d love to entertain, but don’t relish the idea of doing all of the work because Rick’s usually not up for it. We can’t even seem to plan a family vacation the last few years because we disagree about where to go.

Is it possible for opposites like us to work things out? We share the same values and beliefs about how to raise Megan and I still love Rick, but we’re polar opposites in most ways. I brought up going to counseling to Rick but he thinks that it won’t help us. What do you think?




Dear Kristin,

Yours is a common problem. What makes for a happy, fulfilled relationship? While this is a complex question that doesn’t lend itself to a quick answer, there are aspects of successful and lasting relationships that have been studied by experts and many approaches to pick from. The good news is you are looking for solutions and there are some simple things you can do – positive behaviors – that can make your relationship better if you and Rick are motivated to make some changes.

One of the main factors that can determine the effectiveness of marriage counseling is the motivation level of both partners. For some couples, marriage counseling is really divorce counseling because they’ve already thrown in the towel. For instance, one or both partners may have already decided to end the marriage and he/she uses the counseling as a way to announce this to their partner. Sometimes, the problems in a marriage can be too ingrained and longstanding for the counseling to be effective. For others, they haven’t taken the time to choose a therapist who is a good fit for them. Hopefully, these issues do not pertain to your situation.

All relationships have ups and downs and work stress can have a negative impact on a marriage. You mention that you’re more stressed recently due to your new job and this could be putting more stain on your relationship. Since you just started a new job, this may not be the best time to make a decision about ending your marriage.

You also mentioned that you’d like Rick to do more chores and spend time with Megan. Recent research on working fathers indicates that they’re the ones experiencing the most pressure in a family. Since you grew up in a single parent family, it’s possible that you’re naturally self-reliant and he’s not aware that your current arrangement is causing you so much stress – especially with your new teaching position. Perhaps if you discuss your work hours and responsibilities, you can come up with an arrangement that seems fair for both of you.

Let’s review what the experts say about whether polar opposites can stay together. In the Huffington Post article ‘Opposites Attract’ Or Birds Of A Feather,’ Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D. posits that while opposites often have an intense attraction, these matches don’t always last. Since Pillemer’s landmark study is comprised of over 500 people married over 40 years, his findings are worthy of note. He writes, “The research findings are quite clear: marriages that are homogenous in terms of economic background, religion, and closeness in age are the most stable and tend to be happier. Sharing core values has also been found to promote marital stability and happiness.”

In my opinion, the take away from Pillemer’s research is that you don’t necessarily have to avoid marrying someone who appears to be your opposite.  But you need to recognize that if you marry someone with drastically different values, you will face complex issues that could put you more at risk for divorce. In your case, you said that you and Rick share similar beliefs and values about child rearing and you have good chemistry.  This is a good sign and indicates that you have a chance to work things out and that counseling could help if you are both motivated.

Author Sandy Weiner explains that chemistry is essential for a relationship to last, because without it, you have a nice friendship. However, Weiner concludes that it’s important to have both chemistry and compatibility. She writes, “This is about common values and life goals, whether you feel comfortable with each other, have fun together, share common experiences, and pretty much “get” each other.  Compatibility is essential for a relationship to last.”

Unsurprisingly, when couples have vastly different core values and life goals this can make for a lot of friction in a relationship. But what about couples that share core values and life goals but simply have polar opposite personalities and interests? My advice is to weather the storms and use your differences to add spark to the relationship. In other words, since you’re outgoing and Rick is more introverted, try to use those differences to bring out each other’s strengths. Dr Pillemer notes that some differences can spice up a relationship. In other words, differences don’t necessarily have to tear you apart as long as you accept them, share core values, and maintain mutual respect.

The key is taking responsibility for your own behavior and honest communication with your partner. Renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman reminds us that friendship is the glue that can hold a marriage together: “Couples who “know each other intimately [and] are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams” are couples who make it.”

Here are tips that can help you deal with differences between you and your partner:

  • Don’t give up the things you love to do such as hobbies or interest. This will only breed resentment.
  • Support one another’s passions. Accept that you won’t always share the same interests. Respect your partner’s need for space if they want to go on a vacation without you, etc.
  • Resolve conflicts skillfully. Don’t put aside resentments that can destroy a relationship. Experiencing conflict is inevitable and couples who strive to avoid it are at the risk of developing stagnant relationships, according to author Kate McNulty.
  • Avoid the “blame game.” The next time you feel upset at your partner, check out what’s going on inside yourself and pause and reflect before you place the blame on them.

Keep in mind Dr. John Gottman’s guiding principle of adding more positive interactions – a five-to-one ratio. In other words, for every negative interaction with Rick, add five positive ones. Don’t take love for granted and adopt a mindset that differences can spark passion and interest. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own happiness.

After years of research, Gottman has revealed seven principles that will prevent a marriage from breaking up. After reviewing his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, I’ll highlight four principles that I’ve seen change the dynamic of a marriage in a positive way.

  1. Nurture fondness and admiration: Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities – even as you grapple with their flaws – and express your positive feelings out loud several times each day.
  2. Let your partner influence you: Search for common ground rather than insisting on getting your way when you have a disagreement. Listen to their point of view and avoid the blame game.
  3. Overcome a gridlock: Often perpetual conflicts go unresolved when we get stuck in negative patterns of relating such as the distance-pursuer pattern – a tug-of-war where one person actively tries to change the other person, and the other resists it.
  4. Create shared meaning together: Dr. Gottman found that couples who have an intentional sense of shared purpose, meaning, values; and customs for family life – such as rituals for holidays – are generally happier.

Married couples go through several stages in their relationship and you and Rick seem to be having difficulty integrating recent changes which can increase the conflict in your relationship. In his best -selling book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John M. Gottman, Ph.D., describes “marital masters” as “folks who are so good at handling conflict that they make marital squabbles look like fun.”  Gottman has published groundbreaking studies showing measurable differences between couples whose marriages were happy and those headed for misery and/or divorce court. In his book The Relationship Cure, he writes: “It’s not that these couples don’t get mad or disagree. It’s that when they disagree, they’re able to stay connected and engaged with each other. Rather than becoming defensive and hurtful, they pepper their disputes with flashes of affection, intense interest, and mutual respect.”

Further, Gottman coins the phrase “turning toward “one another to describe how  couples can learn to react in a positive way to another’s bids for attention rather than “turning away” – which generally involves ignoring a partner’s bid, or acting preoccupied. He writes, “turning toward one another is a kind of secret weapon against elements such as contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling – factors that can destroy any relationship.”

How can marriage counseling help couples?

  • A motivated couple can begin to explore their problems from a new perspective.
  • They can learn new ways to recognize and resolve conflicts as a result of the tools provided by the therapist.
  • Partners can improve communication that may have eroded the quality of their interactions. It’s common for couples to reach an impasse and lose the ability to be vulnerable and trusting of one another.
  • It can provide “neutral territory” to help couples work through tough issues or to put aside “baggage” that prevents the couple from moving on.
  • Couples can decide to rebuild their marriage and make a renewed commitment, or clarify the reasons why they need to separate or end the marriage.

In closing, focusing on developing shared experiences could help you and Rick rev up the love and passion in your marriage. For marriage counseling to be effective, you both need to be willing to take responsibility for your part in the problems, to accept each other’s faults, and be motivated to repair your relationship. It’s important for you to have realistic expectations because it takes more than a few sessions to shed light on the dynamics and to begin the process of change.

Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook.  She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).

Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be pre-ordered here.