Marital Therapy…Alone? When a Spouse Refuses Counseling

Debi Mitchell, MS, LMFT

September 11, 2019

“The more you invest in your marriage, the more valuable it becomes.” ~unknown

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." ~ Dr. Seuss

Many people greatly desire to improve or save their marriages. But, they know traditional marital therapy with both partners won’t occur, so eventually, the question echoes: “Will marriage therapy help if my spouse won’t come?” Any successful therapy depends on multiple factors. Individual marital therapy’s success increases significantly when we choose to have a committed will, concentrated thoughts, and changed behaviors.

Committed will

We tend to judge our spouses’ commitment by their willingness to attend counseling. There can be circumstances in which a spouse might be committed to the marriage but unwilling or unable to attend counseling. Generally, though, the failure to attend counseling shows a limited commitment to the marriage when it is in trouble. As a couple you might have two differing levels of commitment, one confined and limited and the other full and courageous.

Google dictionary gives many synonyms for commitment, including dedication, devotion, loyalty, and faithfulness. Full commitment runs deep and takes courage. Do we dedicate ourselves to our marriage and spouse--spirit, soul, and body--even when we are unhappy? Do we faithfully demonstrate loyalty to our spouse even when others make fun of traits we don’t even like? Some might consider this commitment level silly, but I consider it courageous. In the story of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-34), courage describes Peter stepping out of the boat. Peter ignored the storm to walk on water; I imagine the other disciples thought Peter’s level of commitment was foolish. Marital therapy works best when both commit courageously to the marriage and each other, even when only one attends.

But some couples are mismatched in commitment. One spouse may courageously commit while the other's commitment remains confined and limited. Confined commitment affects our spouse’s will and supplies little motivation to work. We cannot control our spouse, but can focus on what we can do. We can hope our courageous commitment will inspire a less-committed spouse, slowly helping our spouse increase both the belief in and the will to work on our marriage.

Concentration of thought

According to, “concentrate” means “to focus one’s thoughts.” In the card game Concentration, two people take turns flipping pairs of cards, hoping to find a match. Players have to focus on the placement of each card and remember where a match might be found. Our moves affect our partner's moves and vice-versa, but we cannot control which cards our opponent will choose to flip. Marital interactions imitate that game--our actions impact one another, but we do not control the partner.

Peter began walking on water by focusing on Jesus. He ignored the storm and howling winds. Like Peter, though, we begin to sink when we change our focus from our calling to the crashing waves surrounding us.

Individual marital therapy focuses on what WE can control, namely our own thoughts and behaviors that contribute to the marital problems. Complaining and blaming our partner wastes time on things we can't fix. Focusing on our own healthy choices focuses on things we can change. In his book Messed up Men of the Bible, Dave Samples noted, “After…thirty years of marriage, I've concluded that the only thing I can control is my attitude. Everything else is fantasy…A sure sign of when I'm trying to control things, people, or circumstances is that I get frustrated, develop a bad attitude, and usually end up angry.”

Individual marital therapy works when focusing on accountability and self-change because we control only ourselves.

Change of behavior

Our actions generally begin for good reasons. Yet as the world changes around us, we continue to respond the same way. Our old choices and habits gradually become dysfunctional in new situations. For example, a one-year-old might point and babble or even tantrum when they want something. But when a ten-year-old does the same, we've definitely got a problem.

We can commit to our marriages, concentrate on our own contributions to the problems, and still not change. Peter changed, at least a little. He lived because he realized his error, refocused on his solution, and then did something. He called out to Jesus.

Change occurs when we practice what we've learned in therapy at home, and I do mean practice. We practice change much like exercise. Few walk into a gym and bench press 200 pounds the first workout. Complete, consistent change occurs with God’s guidance and help on a gradual basis--unless God intervenes with a miracle. Changing behaviors and habits is work. The Bible gives a multitude of reasons and areas for work (Corinthians 4:12-13, 7:32-24; Galatians 6:9; James 1:2-4). A few of these areas include:

  • Demonstrating love (1 Corinthians 13:1, 1 Peter 4:8)
  • Practicing forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13, 19; 1 Corinthians 13:5)
  • Building good communication (Proverbs 12:18, 15:1, 18:21; Ephesians 4:15; James 1:19)

Individual marital therapy succeeds because we practice the behaviors learned: how to love more unconditionally, forgive more fully, and communicate more effectively. And, with God’s help, we do these through commitment, concentration, and change.

Warning: after successful Individual marital therapy.

Individual marital therapy’s success creates its own issue. When we fail to maintain our self-focus, we can believe our spouses reap the benefits of our efforts. If we allow this belief to fester, resentment builds and gains strength. Courageous commitment can be resentment building when we feel we are doing all the work. And it's true, it takes two to make a marriage work. Remember that in the end, you both had to commit, concentrate, and change to reap the benefits. But even if your spouse remains poorly committed, your hard work will help you to be healthy in any case.

Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it (Ezra 10:4)

About the author — Debi Mitchell, MS, LMFT

Debi Mitchell is an Indiana Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Chicago Christian Counseling Center. Debi has extensive experience working with adolescent behavioral and emotional issues, family counseling, grief/loss, trauma, depression, anxiety, and working through difficult adjustments to life changes. Her greatest desire is to reflect the light of Christ in the midst of life’s dark moments.

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