Don Edwards, Ph.D.

Couples often show up for counselling having reached a desperate and hopeless stage. Their distress is obvious but the reasons less so—at least to them. They may have believed they could solve their own problems, or wanted to avoid the “embarrassment” of seeking help from a stranger, but the delay has cost them value time as they further eroded their trust in each other and their hope for the relationship as destructive patterns become more entrenched and memories of past hurts more immutable. Some have seen many couples counsellors who failed to address their needs. Some—and this is very hard for a counsellor to face—are really not good for each other and are trying to preserve something that should end. This third scenario is the subject of this post.

Example 1

A and B were high school sweethearts with many friends in common and from similar backgrounds. They graduated and chose to attend different but proximate post-secondary schools. Their interests diverged as did their social circles. Though not formally engaged, the plan to marry upon graduation was an unquestioned principle reinforced by their families. Then B had a fling with C on a summer job placement in another city. Learning of it, A felt betrayed, especially when B claimed to find the experience enlivening and eye opening, not really expressing regret or apology to A, but not wanting to break off with A when C went back to a school on the other side of the country.

At this point, A and B seek professional help to “save” their relationship. The counsellor empathizes with A’s obvious distress and B’s perplexity, but after talking with them about their families, impressions of high school and college and aspirations for their respective futures, the counsellor could see that their relationship had been about adolescent merging rather than appreciating their differences as unique individuals. Their similar experiences made that an easy trap to fall into. Their relationship felt safe and daily proximity in the same high school held them together. It was not at all about seeing one another as different individuals with different interests and few life aspirations in common. They have come to counselling when, as Ellyn Bader puts it, the symbiotic stage of the relationship has begun to give way — at least for B — to the stage of differentiation when they realize there are two different people in in their relationship, and the past coziness is either shattered or is no longer enough. They really need space from each other for a time to “find themselves,” which may result in them reuniting, or, more likely, moving on—surely a tough message to deliver when the presenting demand to the counsellor is to “fix” their relationship.

Example 2

G and H have been married for decades and are new grand parents. Theirs has been a marriage with traditional gender roles. Though G shouldered all of the domestic tasks, G had become blindly inured to the inequity and H’s controlling nature. Their kids said nothing about it just accepting that their parents were stereotypes if not parodies of themselves. When it surfaced that H had had an affair, G reluctantly dragged H to counselling. Both said they wanted to find a way back to the “safety and tranquility” to their pre-affair married life. G’s codependence and H’s narcissism were glaringly obvious to the counsellor, but pointing that out might look like the counsellor was trying to break them up and taking sides.

In both of these examples, the counsellor may have assumptions, introjects about the role of the counselor or the counselor may have self-entrapping personal issues — all coming together when these kinds of couples present in a sort of verklempt counter-transference:

  • Counselors don’t take sides —> can’t call out inequities or unequal responsibility for the crisis.

  • The counselor’s task is to fight for the relationship.

  • fear of being held responsible for the breakup of the relationship

  • the counsellor suppresses awareness that the couple’s presenting issue because it is present in the counselor’s own relationship

  • avoidance of being called upon in a divorce proceeding

  • concern for the well-being of one or both of the partners and/or their children

  • The counselor must never upset either partner. The counselor’s conflict avoidance may arise from a general fear of confrontation or fear of a complaint to the regulatory college as might happen when one of the partners is narcissistic.

  • The longevity of the relationship trumps pathology or toxicity in the relationship. My parents generation never divorced no matter what.

  • Don’t dig below or beyond the current crisis—>leads to band aid therapy.

  • The crisis stems from the individuals (usually true) and therefore can be/ should be resolved through individual therapy (false because the crisis is relational). Referring out for individual work can be appropriate (e.g., one partner has an untreated addiction or untreated mental health problem), but sometimes it is a way for the counselor to avoid acknowledging their counter-transference that the couple or one partner scares the counselor.

  • not wanting to be seen as judgmental if a practice or dysfunctional agreement of the couple is called out.

  • the counselor does not admit that they simply do not like the couple well enough to wade into issues like the absence of any discernible, strong, love or mutuality, or any purpose beyond the day-to-day exigencies of cohabitation.

  • the counselor does not want to confront the power dynamic in the relationship fearing being triangulated or being turned upon. One partner may be out of control or one may be threateningly controlling. Or the power dynamic may be confusing to the counselor; e.g., an inverted power dynamic in which the partner who appears powerful because the make the most noise is actually in doing so to disguise the fact that they have very little leverage in the relationship.


There are occasions when the counselor has to table the possibility of breakup being in the best interest of one or both partners:

  • there has been a pattern of physical violence. The relationship is not safe for one of the partners.

  • with a chronically dysregulated couple, the counselor must assess whether the couple is too immature to be in a relationship. If one of both of them can only look after themselves, emotionally, psychologically or logistically, the interdependence and cooperation of a relationship may be beyond their current capacities.

  • unwittingly, the young couple was only experimenting when they meet, then felt they had “get serious” perhaps because of family or social pressure, but subsequently ran into difficulties trying to make the relationship work because there was never sufficient reason for them to be a couple – “just not enough there there.”

  • they are at different stages in their lives and need to be separate to pursue their ambitions, education, career or other goal that simply cannot be pursued having to continually factor in the demands of or agreements to a long-term partner.

  • there are unresolvable differences such as whether to have children, where to live, the relative priority of work versus the relationship, unwillingness to individuate from parents, etc.

  • one partner may have an addiction, personality disorder or other untreated mental health issue that interferes with or makes the relationship unworkable.

In these and similar situations, the counselor has to get over themselves and break the bad news that separation is the best way forward.

Examples in this post do not represent any particular case; they are an amalgam of various circumstances with which couples have presented.



Bader, E. and Pearson, P. (1988) In Quest of the Mythical Mate: A Developmental Approach To Diagnosis And Treatment In Couples Therapy. Florence, KY: Brunner/Mazel.