couple talking with therapist

Horror Stories: Marriage Counseling is not Addiction Counseling

I hear a lot of out-of-the-ordinary things as a trauma and addiction coach. As a recovering addict and someone who worked through a lot of trauma, my story has its share of drama. No shame and no judgment, but there are so many people who have been through worse than me. Disturbingly worse. The people who talk to me often seek more “traditional” forms of therapy before approaching a coach like me. And when it comes to those who have been through marriage counseling, I’ve heard some disturbing horror stories.

I mean this in the nicest way possible: Far too often, marriage counselors go way beyond their area of expertise by providing toxic, damaging advice in the service of “bringing people together.” This includes being told by multiple clients, and having heard from others along the way that they have sat with marriage counselors who have suggested things like: “Maybe one of the solutions is that you need to have more sex” or “Have you tried mutual masturbation?” or my jaw-dropping favorite, “You should consider watching porn together.”

Any marriage counselor who is reading this and has ever suggested any of those ideas should be ashamed. ASHAMED. No shame and no judgment to my clients, but SHAME AND JUDGMENT toward you for making such asinine, dangerous suggestions. You are out of your element with trauma and addiction. Don’t collect a co-pay at the risk of someone’s health.

What Does Marriage Counseling Fix?

I don’t want to paint all marriage counselors or marriage and family therapists with the same paintbrush. I have shared my concerns with several friends who have these job titles and they were equally as disgusted as I was by the feedback some of their colleagues provided. These are the true professionals.

My wife and I went to marriage counseling twice while I was an an active addict and thankfully, neither of them wanted to talk about my addictions. They also didn’t get too into my sex life, which was not an issue by most healthy people’s standards at the time. Normalcy in bed, despite not part of any secrecy strategy, did throw my wife off the porn addiction scent for a decade. Our marriage counselors were good at getting to some core issues of responsibility we both felt the other was shirking, but they didn’t start practicing outside of their lane.

The No. 1 reason divorce happens in North America is not infidelity. It’s an inability to get on the same page with finances. I was there with my wife and while the basic fixes (have you tried writing out a budget?) had all been exhausted, the very basic answer of splitting our finances was the secret to our last 15 years being drama-free. It felt like a taboo to separate things, but it forced each of us to be more accountable. I wouldn’t have tried it without the pushing of that second marriage counselor. But they had no idea I was an alcoholic much less a porn addict.

Unintentionally dangerous suggestions

I constantly remind my clients my job is that of a brainstormer and someone to bounce ideas off. I won’t be doing any diagnosis, and before I offer much, I get as much of their history as possible.

A new client of mine has a video game addiction that is part of a larger addictive personality (yes, I coach for more than porn addiction and betrayal trauma) we’re trying to address. His wife has some serious resentment toward the video games. They take him away from her and the kids. We’re getting to the root of the problem. We know the motivation and how it serves as a crutch, but don’t have an exact origin yet. It’s going to involve digging into the past, as all addiction work does if you’re going to do it right.

The one thing I would never suggest is that she should just pull up next to his gaming chair and start to shoot zombies or race cars or whatever he does in his games. The thing that is causing her resentment, anxiety and what sounds like PTSD and/or betrayal trauma symptoms, is the last thing that I’d tell her to embrace if I was counseling the both of them. Embracing video games is not the solution to save this marriage. Even if he were to deny his addiction, I wouldn’t suggest embracing something that clearly caused her so much pain as the solution.

Marriage Counseling Will Never Fix Anything, You Will

It’s just like any kind of counseling or coaching. Before this explosion of mental health coaches in the last couple years, we mostly only knew the word “coaching” from sports. It makes sense though. A baseball coach can instruct a batter on how to hit or a pitcher on how to throw, but it’s still up to the athlete to get the work done. In my coaching, I’ve had to adjust my control issues because I can’t operate my clients like puppets. They are the masters of their lives. Any change that comes is from them. A marriage counselor won’t fix you, an addiction coach won’t fix you, and a baseball coach won’t fix you. You’re not broken. You just need some tweaking. Truly broken people never seek help.

Please, marriage counselors, do not venture into areas you have no business. Saving a relationship by further traumatizing one of the members is a toxic outcome of your “counseling.” If you haven’t thought through your suggested solutions, don’t offer them. My clients will often see me struggle for words. It’s because I’m trying to say something the right way to get a point across. Maybe it’s all those years as a writer, but I understand the power of words. It’s words that start wars, not bombs. Words spread ideas, are the genesis for innovation… and can be mighty destructive.

If part of your job is marriage counseling, and either of your clients uses the word “addiction” and you know you’re out of your element, contact a colleague. Hell, contact me. Do not unintentionally, and recklessly inflict more damage. I know that’s not the goal, but it can be the outcome when you’re out of your league. Even baseball coaches can tell you that.

Lead Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

4 thoughts on “Horror Stories: Marriage Counseling is not Addiction Counseling

  1. I know that this bad advice/ therapist induced trauma can come from any counselor, but from a partner perspective it seems to very often stem from “counseling” offered by a church or faith leader. That seems to be especially true when sex or porn addiction are involved. There have been so many partners who have passed through the blogosphere who were told by ministers or pastors or lay leaders of their church some variation of the theme that if they were better at performing their “wifely duties” that their husbands wouldn’t stray/ watch porn/ act out and all their problems would all be solved. Talk about blaming the victim…

    1. Well, victim blaming is what a lot of “therapists” do, too. That’s why it’s best to have a therapist or coach who has some personal experience in that area. You can describe emotions, but you can only feel them if you’ve been there. If you could pray away a condition nobody would have cancer. If you could fuck away a condition there would be no wars. But if those are your only two options, you’d better pray, because you’re fucked.

  2. From what you’re sharing it seems folks are always looking for someone else to “fix” what’s wrong with them and/or their marriage. The last thing they want to do is to do the hard work it takes to change themselves or their behaviors. Am I right?

    1. You can’t fix a marriage until one or both of the broken people are fixed. Broken people create broken marriages. Grateful my wife stuck by my side until I was ready to do the hard work of fixing myself and harder work of being the husband and co-parent she deserved.

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