Agony Aunts: Why Free Couples Counseling Is A Bad Idea
Updated January 20, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Chante’ Gamby, LCSW
Everybody needs someone to talk to about their thoughts and feelings. Typically these conversations occur with your significant other. But when the discussion is about your significant other or that your relationship seems to be going off track, it is natural to turn to friends and family members. There's nothing wrong with this - but we should remember that venting your emotions and asking for credible advice are very different things. Almost everybody feels better once they've expressed how they feel in their own words, but it is in helping you figure out the next step that free couples counseling often falls short.
People And Preconceptions
It may just be that your mother, your best friend from college, or what's-his-name from the gym has a great deal of experience in life and love. Maybe they understand who you are and what you're looking for in a partner, knows your partner well enough to represent their thoughts and perspectives about what you're saying. They might even know when it is time for them to speak and how to say what's on their mind, all without a bias leaning towards you or your significant other. It's possible, but it's far from likely.
More likely is a similar scenario but not quite - maybe they know you very well but don't know your partner that well. Perhaps they've only ever been in toxic relationships, and this clouds their perception of your situation. Maybe they've only ever been in one relationship with someone with whom they rarely fight, resolved conflicts well, and may not have experience working through something as significant as what you're talking to them about. The more they resemble the perfect person to talk to, the more dangerous it can potentially be.
Almost everyone we interact with in daily life has their share of emotional baggage and doubtful opinions. Also, people and couples are too different for anyone to say that there is one true road to romantic happiness. Even if some approach or philosophy has worked out well for the person giving the advice, there's no guarantee that it's suitable for your situation. In fact, plenty of friends and relatives will feel obligated to tell you what you should do even if they haven't the faintest idea and will probably end up parroting something they saw on a blog or in a movie.
Making The Best Use Of Free Couples Counseling
Whether your relationship is in actual dire straits or is just getting a little wobbly (or even if there isn't a pressing issue at hand), there is no substitute for legitimate, professional couples counseling. However, you may not want to go there for various reasons, and we all talk about our partners with friends and family anyway.
Couples counseling from a certified therapist can get quite expensive, and not everyone can afford to spend hundreds of dollars for their services. There is also still, unfortunately, a stigma surrounding participating in couples' therapy. Many people believe that seeing a marital therapist is a sign that the relationship is already doomed. Perhaps scheduling is tight, and one or both of you don't want to or feel the need to spend what little free time you have together in counseling. For any of these reasons or any others, you might decide you're better off just referring to friends and family members when you feel the need to discuss issues with your relationship.
However, as well-meaning as these people might be, there is a mental trap involved here - namely, coming to believe that you can somehow transfer part of the responsibility for how you think and act to them. When stated like that, it's evident that this is not just impossible but undesirable. When a person is feeling lost and unsure of themselves, it can easily be tempting to accept whatever another person says as fact:
"He's not good enough for you."
"I don't think the cultural fit is quite right."
"She'll get over it; women always do."
This kind of advice is unfair to your partner if they are not present to offer their side of the story. By this same token, it is not fair to you either - getting advice that either does not apply or is not relevant to the particulars of your situation with the misconception that you are getting great advice can exacerbate issues rather than solve them.
When the person you're confiding in stops being supportive and starts offering their opinions, please take a moment to think about how well they actually know you and your partner and how much they understand about the place you're both in. The chances are that they're assuming more than they know or drawing parallels with other couples that have nothing in common with you.
What these couples counselors do provide is a sounding board for your thoughts and feelings. They can help you gain clarity about your mind, but they're not supposed to make it up for you. Even if you are speaking to a professional, the goal should not be to obtain direct answers in most cases - it should still be about communicating with your partner and developing the tools to resolve conflicts, should they arise.
But if you're talking out your thoughts on an issue in your marriage with a friend or family member and they start definitively telling you what you should or shouldn't do or say, remember that it's your relationship, not theirs. This is not to say their opinions are without value; it just means that you have to maintain the understanding that their views are just that - their opinions, not facts.
If this tends to happen when the topic comes up, it is helpful to establish some boundaries, so they'll know that they spoke out of turn. Perhaps you need to state outright that you aren't looking for answers, but just support and the opportunity to be heard and have your emotions validated.
Nobody else can solve problems in your relationship at the end of the day except you and your partner. All the complaining and analysis in the world won't help if you're not willing to discuss the same issues with your significant other.
Free Couples Counseling
As mentioned, there are many advantages to having a sounding board, but the advice is likely to be less than ideal when the person with whom you're speaking is only hearing your side. While there are advantages to getting support from loved ones, perhaps the best way to make use of a friend, family member, or anyone else who is willing to help and you feel is reasonably qualified to offer amateur assistance to your relationship is to have them act as a third party. Because both partners are present, the third party has a better chance of adding benefit to the situation.
Doing this, you and your spouse should essentially have a conversation much like you would if the third person was not in the room. The only reason they should be involved is to help mediate by identifying the points at which communication between you and your partner turns from productive to counterproductive or malicious.
Perhaps they can even hear what each of you is saying and what either of you is missing from your partner's message. It does not take a degree and tons of experience to identify that a discussion about making time to spend with each other may not be addressing the issue. The same is true for how you and your partner feel about it in certain situations, such as how you were disrespectful that one time your partner was on a date and you were flirting with the server at dinner, for example. The third person could interject to bring awareness to you and your partner that the discussion has gone off the rails and that it might be beneficial to stick to one topic at a time.
Proceed With Caution
Even if you are going to employ this practice, you run the same risks as speaking one on one with someone outside the relationship. This probably will not be very productive if the third person has a much higher interest in your partner or your partner.
If the third person is your partner's best friend, you run the risk of feeling ganged upon. This will create a whole new dynamic where it seems like progress is being made because it looks like it has become established that you were in the wrong and your partner was in the right, even though it only seems this way because you were outgunned.
Typically with the addition of a third-party mediator who is not a professional, less is more. They should only be there to keep the conversation civil and on track. If both you and your partner agree that you can trust the third party to interject if they see that you're both talking across points, this can be allowed but should have boundaries established from the very beginning.
For example, you might ask that if the third person is going to insert themselves into the conversation, they ask if it is an appropriate time to do so. If you are both willing to allow them to try to clear up cross-talk, you might want to request that if they phrase their perspective in the form of something like, "It sounds like you're saying this, is this accurate?"
Let's say you express that you would like your partner to make more of an effort to spend time together. Your partner says, "Well, you never want to go to the movies whenever I ask," only for you to reply, "I hate going to the movies!" It doesn't take years of training for a third party to recognize that it sounds like both of you do want to spend time with each other, but that going to the movies is not the best way to do that.
The third-party might then say, "Is it okay if I step in for a moment?" and if given the go-ahead, "It sounds like both of you do want to spend time with each other, but that going to the movies is not the best way to do that. It also sounds like the suggestion to go to the movies is turned down, which makes your partner feel that you don't want to spend time together since you turn it down whenever going to the movies is suggested. Is that accurate?"
If this is how the amateur mediation unfolds, there could certainly be some progress made on a particular issue. But ultimately, there is not much else the third party should be trusted to do in terms of what to do to fix the problem. Even if their mediation helps facilitate productive conversation - which can be great in its own right - they are still no more equipped than any other Tom, Dick, and Harry to offer advice beyond that.
You Get What You Pay For
While friends and family can help in limited ways in a limited scope of scenarios, to truly make the best use of your time and energy, there is no substitute for meeting with a trained professional who is certified to help you and your partner work out your issues.
These people have gone through learning about patterns of behavior, relationship dynamics, and common causes for issues, allowing you to get insight into why certain things trigger disagreements and communication tools and coping skills that you can use without the therapist having to be present. They can offer advice on exercises to practice that is most likely to improve the relationship's foundation and provide long term results.
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