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Why is there still a stigma against marriage counseling?

If I can’t figure out my own taxes, I call an accountant. If my water heater is broken, I call the plumber. If I have a sore throat, I see the doctor. Why is seeing an expert in these other areas totally acceptable, and yet it’s taboo to consult (or admit to visiting) a counselor to fix a malfunctioning marriage?

I’m going to be bold here and admit to you that Jim and I have seen a therapist. And yes, I asked his permission to divulge our secret before I posted it here on the blog. He and I feel the same way: as long as there is shame surrounding the idea of getting help to strengthen our marriages, many of us won’t give counseling a try. We think that we have a strong relationship. We are best friends. We adore each other and want to stick it out for the long haul. And yet…

…a few years ago, we had hit an impasse in our communication and we were arguing a lot. We loved each other desperately, but were unhappy and couldn’t figure out how to resolve our troubles without help. We were just sick over this. We know other couples who stay together even though they clearly can’t stand one another, but that didn’t suit us. We knew that our relationship should not endure as it was because it wasn’t healthy for either one of us.

Interestingly, if Jim and I were still dating, rather than married during that dark time, I’m certain I would have broken up with him instead of seeking outside help. But I just didn’t want it to end without trying everything I could to make it work. Luckily, Jim felt the same.

So we did some research online (we didn’t ask for our friends’ advice because, at that time, we were fearful they might judge us…none of them had ever mentioned they had been to counseling, after all) and found a fabulous relationship therapist in Chicago. We saw her for several months – maybe even a year – and worked our butts off. Counseling can help to end a fruitless relationship or strengthen a faltering one. It assists in redefining and clarifying roles and goals. Our therapist offered us a neutral sounding board and a safe place to air grievances and admit faults. I’m so grateful we took the plunge, swallowed our pride, and made our first appointment many years ago. And you know, I would definitely consider going back if we feel the need in the future. We feel like our marriage is better than ever, cracks sealed, communication improved.

I think there is an expectation out there that a good marriage never falters – that it doesn’t require outside help to remain vital and healthy. Romantic movies end with “happily-ever-after.” They rarely include an epilogue that shows the couples’ woes over finances, religion, family, sex, and career. Our trip to the alter was a mere blip on the timeline of our marriage. It takes energy and desire to stay together while flying on autopilot just causes fatal relationship crashes (or snowballing resentment, dissatisfaction, and stultifying boredom).

I think seeing a marriage counselor for an overhaul or a tuneup is just as important as going to the dentist for a check-up and cleaning…or getting that rotten tooth yanked out once and for all.

-Robyn Okrant



Your comments

  1. Betsy says:

    I completely agree. I’m the first to mention it as a suggestion to others (my sister is a therapist after all) and to admit we’ve gone. However, I’d be more likely to go with a specific topic in mind than for no reason.

    I thought this article was very interesting (and discusses what can happen):
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/magazine/06marriage-t.html?_r=1

    I think there is a stigma associated with counseling. And that in most people’s minds they associate therapy with earth-shattering relationship-ending disclosures (think cheating, violence, etc) instead of improving communication or other aspects of a relationship.

  2. robyn okrant says:

    Betsy – I agree with you that it appears to the outside eye that if a couple goes to counseling, it means something horrible is happening. Great point. Thanks for chiming in!

  3. ellenpie says:

    There seems to be a stigma with counseling – married or single, which is a shame. Speaking as someone who went as a singleton, it may very well be the best investment I’ve ever made in my own mental health. It gave me a completely new perspective about how to deal with many things, inlcuding how I am in relationships.

    That you chose to go as a married couple reflects the level of committment you both bring to your relationship, and it’s awesome. And I do think that going to counseling generally implies something must be “broken” – but even if it is (or slightly off track), so what? It’s how you approach it that counts. We are human, after all, and cannot expect to have all of the answers all of the time. And trying to always get the anwers from a romantic partner, be it boy/girl friend or spouse puts a tremendous amount of strain on a relationship. (Interesting note though about the level of committment to finding a solution increasing because you were married.)

    Objectivity can be a rejuvenating breath of fresh air, and to me a counselor is much better than your friends or family, who really aren’t all that objective – that can get very messy. (Says the girl who finally had to de-tangle herself from the middle of her friend’s divorce and say “you need to talk to your therapist about this stuff” – I am too involved here…)

  4. I think people see marriage counseling as the last lifeboat on an already sinking ship, the end to the dream of happily ever after, instead of an opening for deeper love and understanding. If we were raised with fairytales that depict the painful times in relationships as magical doorways opening to journeys of self love and deeper understanding, instead of the one kiss that leads to happily ever after, the fear of seeking the village shaman would be a lot less!!! As a marriage counselor, one of the first things I do is to normalize the fact that the couple is actually having issues. Of course they’re having issues. They’re human. Marriage is a growth path and like any growth path there are growing pains but those pains, as in the labor of childbirth, can lead to such to such beauty and connection.

    • cathleen carr says:

      Thank you Terry! Mackenzie speaks so highly of you. Please continue to share your valuable insights! Maybe I will meet you in Sarasota!

  5. living savvy says:

    I use my relationship with a psychologist as an opportunity to spring clean the mind and the soul to fine tune aspects in my life. It works really well for me.
    Unfortunately as Terry says, people do often go to counselling when they come to the time of asking “What haven’t we tried?”.

    A few years back I went back to my psychologist to discuss some issues I was having in my relationship. My “husband” refused to go (he’s Australian we are not big talkers over here) and that was OK. I was aware that he had not changed but my responses, reactions had being influenced by the significant changes to our (my) life that having a young family brings. When I was discussing where we were at as a couple – the psychologist listened and said “what you are wanting from your relationship is something that will come after decades together, your relationship of a decade is only young when you thinking of the years stretching before you”. Simply she said that my tendencies towards perfectionism combined with my impatience was putting unnecessary pressure on us both…..she encouraged me to be patient acknowledge and celebrate the strong foundations that we shared and to build on those with my partner. I treasured this message.

  6. cathleen carr says:

    Robyn, thank you so much for your beautifully honest post! You are the best!

  7. Kate says:

    What kind of confuses me is that I have found that people aren’t concerned with their own decision to not seek counseling. They aren’t open to it, never even considered it, or decided it wasn’t for them. What really gets me is their reaction to someone else seeking counseling and all the things they feel it says about the person or couple. I think they’re so uncomfortable with someone else looking for help with things that they themselves stuff down inside and ignore and consider that dealing with it.

    I think there’s also big misconception out there about what goes on in that little office behind closed doors. I have friends who think it’s all a load of crap about dwelling on the past when in reality it’s nothing like that. My experience is that it’s someone sitting across the room from you holding up a mirror with no judgement attached so that you can safely see what’s really going on.

    So many of our actions and reactions are automatic and a result of something not even related to the situation at hand and many of us need someone to help us sort that out. It’s hard to see what you can’t see, you can simply be too close to it to see the whole picture and you need someone to help you step back.

  8. [...] to Comments I’m really touched by the emails and calls I’ve gotten as a result of the marriage counseling post. Thanks y’all. I love reading your experiences and feelings on utilizing therapy as part of a [...]