Many of us feel uncomfortable interviewing therapists before choosing them. It’s hard enough right now to find a therapist with the capacity to see new patients. So, when we finally find one “in-network”, we dive in head first. That’s not the wisest thing to do. Have you ever wondered, “Can couples therapy make things worse?” It can.
It can be very difficult for people in high-conflict, troubled relationshps to find the right counselor to help them.
In this article, we explain why this is so, give the top signs that therapy isn’t working, and offer you 6 key questions you should ask any therapist before agreeing to engage them to help you with your relationship.
Ready? Let’s go.
How Do You Know When It’s Time for Therapy?
So often, the honeymoon phase of any relationship is cut short. What appeared idyllic becomes confusing, stressful, and painful.
You’ll know it’s time for relationship therapy of some sort if you are feeling or experiencing any of the following:
- Heightened levels of stress, insecurity, anxiety, and self-doubt
- Fear when in the same physical space as your partner
- Fear when sharing your concerns or emotions with your partner
- Deep confusion which makes you feel as if you’re going ‘crazy’
- Heightened emotions (frustration, anger, rage, or even hysteria) that are not your norm
- Isolated or depressed
- Incredibly lonely even though you’re supposed to be romantic partners
- Your partner often blames you for problems or withholds their affection from you
- Your partner is frequently defensive
- Physical exhaustion and adrenal fatigue, indicating your health is being compromised
- A lack of self-control stemming from extreme frustration resulting in your partner always blaming you for all conflicts
- A lack of empathy or appreciation of your perspective from your partner
- Arguments between you take so many twists and turns you no longer remember how they started
- Your partner rarely accepts responsibility or makes superficial apologies that don’t result in healthy change
If any of these resonate with you, it’s time to get professional help.
Why A Counselor With Experience in Narcissism or Domestic Abuse Is So Important
If you want a healthy relationship, this is an important requirement for your counselor to meet.
Many people use covert or overt behaviors that are harmful to their partners, even when the relationship isn’t technically “abusive”. That doesn’t mean those behaviors are any less damaging.
Therefore, finding a therapist who is savvy in identifying and confronting their clients in the therapy session about those behaviors is essential to ending their destructive effect on your relationship.
The Hidden Forms are Just as Damaging
More importantly, there are forms of hidden emotional abuse that are extremely difficult to understand and almost impossible to detect without the proper education and training. Many victims in covert emotionally abusive relationships do not realize they are experiencing a form of abuse and it takes a very long time for them to gain sufficient clarity on their relationship problems to recognize they are victims.
Yet, the hidden, or covert, forms of emotional abuse are just as damaging as other forms of abuse and among the most destructive to children.1 In fact, even one emotionally abusive behavior repeated is enough to be destructive to a relationship. Consider repeated lying, false accusations, or blame-shifting as a few examples of what would seriously undermine emotional safety in the relationship.
A Warning About Couples Therapy
Another reason it’s important to know whether abuse is at the root of your relationship problems is that most abuse experts consider couple therapy to be strictly contraindicated for couples in actively abusive relationships. Instead, it’s important that individual therapy for each person takes place first.
Why is that so? The couple therapy room can easily turn into a war room which emboldens your partner to manipulate and confuse you further. For example, after you communicate your feelings vulnerably within therapy, it’s not uncommon for abusive partners or narcissists to exploit that by shaming you in deeply hurtful ways. Or, the untrained therapist minimizes the problem making things worse for the victim. This form of misdirected therapy can be highly traumatizing for you.
Countless couples have spent years in therapy with multiple therapists to no avail because the therapist failed to identify the primary issue: covert emotional abuse.
Shop Around To Find the Right Therapist
You have permission to shop for the right therapist before making a long term commitment to the process. It’s important to recognize that not all therapists are equipped with the skills to handle the particulars of your relationship issues. You wouldn’t go to a highly acclaimed tax lawyer to handle a personal injury lawsuit, would you? Of course not. The same is true for relationship counseling.
So, where do you begin? If relationship therapy is covered by your health insurance, start your research online in the list of clinical psychologists or therapists for relationships that are in your health insurance network.
It’s helpful to explore their websites and google their names to see what others say about them. Explore the list of specialties they boast. Make sure they are adept at addressing past trauma and current relationship trauma as a part of relationship counseling.
If you can’t find a qualified therapist locally you might consider online relationship counseling services with someone outside your area. Online therapy for your individual therapy or online relationship counseling for both of you might help you find a good therapist.
Many therapists will offer a free consultation. You won’t hurt a professional’s feelings if you ask for a phone consult before deciding to use them. Take advantage of it.
Six Questions To Ask Before Choosing a Therapist
Here is a small list of questions you will want to ask along with some reasons why:
1. What is your level of experience working with high-conflict relationships?
If your therapist tells you they have been working with couples successfully for many years, this does not necessarily mean they fully understand. If they don’t know how to discern when high conflict or stress in relationships is caused by hidden forms of abuse, then they won’t have the skills to help the relationship.
2. What professional training have you had in treating high-conflict relationships?
Depending on where you live, the graduate school requirements for units regarding troubled relationships or abuse vary. Students are rarely if ever required to take ANY courses regarding psychological abuse. This means they would not acquire the knowledge they need without taking continuing education courses designed to educate them on covert narcissism, emotional abuse, or intimate partner violence.
3. How much special training have you had on identifying or treating relationship abuse?
Many people don’t realize they’re in an abusive relationship and most people causing harm don’t see themselves as abusive. Couples often spend years in relationship counseling without the recurring covert abuse being identified.
Hidden toxic behaviors are exceedingly confusing for both the people within the relationship and those trying to help – unless they are specifically trained. You have nothing to lose by asking this question.
4. What forms of abuse are you experienced in identifying?
Physical? Sexual? Emotional? Financial? Hidden or not obvious forms of emotional abuse? If they are not trained in its hidden forms, they are not the right therapist for your complicated and painful relationship.
5. Ask the therapist if they feel hidden forms of abuse are a mutual responsibility problem?
When it comes to abuse, the one causing harm is 100% responsible. When therapists have the attitude that each person in the couple has shared responsibility, the one causing harm will use that to place 100% of the blame on the victim. It’s incredibly destructive when this happens. It’s essential the therapist holds the one causing harm through abuse responsible for their behavior.
6. When treating a couple together, what types of assessments do you give the couple in advance to ensure joint therapy is appropriate for them?
Some therapists might be surprised by this question, however, experts in the field and MEND too would love to see all relationship therapists implement a simple relationship abuse assessment tool before beginning with couple therapy.
Top Telltale Signs Relationship Therapy isn’t working
Our practical advice to you is: Admit when relationship counseling isn’t working and get out. Here are some of the telltale signs therapy isn’t helping you with your relationship issues:
- You dread going.
- Your partner uses vulnerabilities you share in therapy to mock, shame, attack or toembarrass you.
- You do not feel safe opening up during sessions.
- Your therapist does not confront your partner or hold them accountable for their toxic behavior.
- Therapy seems to repeatedly focus on topical aspects of harmful events rather than uncovering the pathology or patterns of destructive behaviors.
- You feel unsupported or betrayed by your therapists.
- They don’t firmly confront your partner for destructive behaviors they employ.
- Your relationship problems are not getting better.
Don’t languish in ineffective therapy. Otherwise good therapists might not have the skill set to help you address your relationship problems successfully.
If you see any of these telltale signs, take a break. If you are unsure, seek individual counseling or psychotherapy for yourself and your partner. That time apart will give you the clarity you need to make a final decision.
There is no bulletproof way to make sure you are well-paired with the best therapist for your situation. Our goal is to empower you to find the therapist who will give you and your relationship the best shot at uncovering the root of the problems and attaining a successful outcome.
We are here to support you through our groups for people in high-conflict relationships or in other ways. We can also help therapists who desire Continuing Education hours of training on the hidden forms of abuse.
Just reach out!
1Dye HL. Is Emotional Abuse As Harmful as Physical and/or Sexual Abuse? J Child Adolesc Trauma. 2019 Dec 10;13(4):399-407. doi: 10.1007/s40653-019-00292-y. PMID: 33269040; PMCID: PMC7683637.