What’s The Difference Between A Personal Problem And A Marriage Issue?

Morning friends,

In preparing for my free webinar next Thursday (September 10th) on How Long do you Keep Trying and How do You know the Change Is Real? (Sign up here), I received a question from a subscriber who asked what’s the difference between a marriage problem and a personal sin problem?  

Answer: His question may have come from my statement that chronic addiction, chronic adultery, chronic abuse, and chronic deceit are not marriage problems, they cause marriage problems. However, unless the root issue around these marriage problems is identified and worked on (abuse, addiction, deceit, adultery) trust and safety in the marriage cannot be repaired.  

Why not? Because of the personal issues of lying, coupled with entitlement thinking never gets addressed. Individual counseling begins to address the attitude that believes, “I’m entitled to abuse someone when she doesn’t do what I want,” and “I’m entitled to cheat on my spouse with porn or other people with no consequences,” or “I should be able to do what I want, how I want, when I want with no negative feedback or marital impact.”

Most people like to think that when couples or individuals have problems in their marriage, joint counseling is always the best option. And for some marriage problems, that might be true. We know it takes two to tango and therefore most pastors and people helpers want both parties to be present in order to understand the dynamics of the relationship as well as work toward a godly solution.   

However, when trust and/or safety issues have been repeatedly shattered and one individual in the relationship does not feel safe or has been harmed by another’s sinful behaviors, marriage counseling as an initial treatment plan is ineffective and often harmful. Let me share three reasons why.  

1. The abused or betrayed or lied to wife (or husband) is afraid to speak or afraid to be honest during marital counseling. When you go to joint marital counseling, a counselor likes to hear both the husband’s and wife’s perspectives on how they see their problem. If one person continually lies, and the other protests or disagrees or calls the lies out, the counselor does not know who to believe and the one who tried to speak the truth is often in for more abuse after the session for “telling.”

Counseling of any kind, but especially marriage counseling cannot work when one person can’t speak freely or is afraid she has a price to pay when she does. Click To Tweet

2. When only one person is a “client” and the other is only there because he feels pressured or wants to manage his image with the counselor.  

When an abusive/destructive person goes to joint marital counseling it’s usually because he was pressured to do so by his spouse, by a pastor, or by painful consequences. He goes reluctantly, not with the idea of working on anything for himself, but to blame his spouse and get the counselor to see what a great guy he is and how wrong or crazy his wife is.  

There are no perfect relationships and so all marriages have issues. But what often happens is the one who has been deceitful, abusive, or cheated, is not truthful, or blames his spouse for his poor choices.  “She makes me so mad.” “She triggers me.”  “She pushes my buttons.”  “She’s a cold fish in the bedroom.” Meaning, it’s her fault that I do what I do. 

The abuser is not in counseling to do his own work or address his own sinful choices or attitudes. He deflects the responsibility to her.  She’s to be the perfect wife who never disappoints him, never frustrates him, never says no to him. He lies about what he does or if he admits it, it’s always her fault.  

This is tricky in marital counseling because there is no perfect wife. She will have flaws and sin too and the counselor may be tempted to address them. Yet she is NOT responsible for his sins, he is. However, in marital counseling, she often is more self-aware and willing to work on her own sins during therapy, but this hurts her when she does it in marital counseling.  Why?

It gives her false hope that if she works on these things, he won’t continue to harm her. That’s not true, because she isn’t in charge of him, he is.

It colludes with his belief that she’s the one who makes him act out and he doesn’t have to take responsibility for his own issues.

By admitting and working on her own things in front of him, she gives him more ammo to accuse and attack her at home.  That only causes more pain and harm to her and their marriage.

3. Marriage counseling is designed to be neutral. The counselor does not take sides.

Many individuals in destructive relationships hoped that the marriage counselor would be their advocate. Hoped that he/she would name the abusive and destructive behaviors out loud, or confront the sinful attitudes. But that’s usually not the case.  

Marriage counselors are not supposed to take sides. They are supposed to advocate for the marriage and not for the individuals in the marriage. This makes it tricky when a wife wants to set boundaries, is tired of being forbearing and ignored and the husband is wanting the marriage to “go back to normal.” She is often labeled as the hard-hearted, unforgiving, unrepentant spouse while the chronic abuser, or cheater, or liar, seems to be the repentant one.     

As I say in my book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, “When there is no safety and no sanity joint counseling is ineffective and often dangerous. If a destructive partner can’t see his part or take responsibility for his own wrong thinking, beliefs, or attitudes, everything ends up being the wife’s fault and her responsibility.”

Their old history keeps repeating itself, even in the counselor’s office which leaves a wife feeling hopeless that her spouse can change and hopeless that their counselor truly understands their problem. 

Marriage counseling can be effective once the destructive individual in the marriage has done his own personal work of self-awareness, repentance, and empathy for the pain he has caused his spouse. The betrayed and hurt spouse must also do her own work to get stronger, reclaim her voice, and define what’s okay and not okay with her. Once that is in place, then and only then is it possible for them to communicate safely and constructively to explore whether or not marital trust can be repaired and rebuilt.

Friends, share what your experience of marriage counseling has been.



  1. Janice D on September 2, 2020 at 8:33 am

    I was the “ designated patient” during a very long and nonproductive season of marriage counseling with my husband.He sat on the couch next to me and patted my knee and played the part of a long suffering spouse of a very troubled partner.Although it marginally helped me personally it was a source of continued disappointment to me as week after week,year after year nothing changed.The counselor was a well meaning person who never confronted my husband.I “ made” my husband get individual counseling which also didn’t help as he continued in denial about his issues.I am now 2 years post legal separation and am out of the fog enough to have clarity to see why it wasn’t ever going to work.God is the creator of the marriage relationship between a man and a woman and violating his principles guarantees a poor outcome.Marriage counseling is for 2 motivated people who are committed to exploration and growth.My husband is unfortunately not on that path.

    • JoAnn on September 2, 2020 at 9:26 am

      Well said, Janis. Your experience certainly lines up with what Leslie said. I’m so glad you are now out of the fog. What’s next for you?

      • JoAnn on September 2, 2020 at 9:33 am

        Janice D I’m sorry I misspelled your name.

    • Aly on September 2, 2020 at 10:47 pm

      Janice D,
      Wow! What a response. I am very sorry for what you have been through!!!
      Janice D- you are marriage material, you are well able and a gift to be someone’s partner. Your separated husband is still sitting in his stubborn foolish place and does not deserve a loving caring individual as yourself. You both will reap what you sow. I am thankful you are free from such a person and I feel bad but I think (Free) is still with her destructive spouse in a living situation. Not all of us can detach at that level and function at a place of health.

      I love that you are here on this blog and you can articulate things like ‘marriage counseling is for 2 committed People working Exploration on growth’.
      This is SO TRUE! A destructive individual is not interested in growth what so ever!

      • Free on September 6, 2020 at 8:23 am

        Aly, I like your comment that destructive individuals are not interested in growth. I agree.

  2. Free on September 2, 2020 at 7:41 pm

    Go to marriage counseling if you are determined you must stay in a destructive marriage no matter what. Your spouse can blame you for their behavior and you can value him/her more than yourself and learn to suffer. The counselor and your destructive spouse will think up more and more ways for you to adapt to the dysfunctional relationship. After all, you said you are in this arrangement for life. Yet, your life will be shortened, because people who stay in destructive relationships end up with psychological and physiology disorders. The continual dripping of stress hormones in the blood stream takes a toll on the human body.

    So, if you want to stay married no matter what, yes, do couples counseling. Two against one always benefits the other two. If you want to stop being mistreated, then you start counseling be for yourself. That way you can learn boundaries, create consequences for you destructive spouse and detoxify from the twisted words and actions of your abuser. As you get stronger and braver, you can figure out what you want to do with your life. Your crazy spouse may change or they may not change. You then, choice when, if and how you would like to proceed, remaining educated and intolerant of all forms of marital mistreatment.

  3. Barbara B on September 3, 2020 at 1:28 pm

    In my experience, marriage counseling really hasn’t been counseling. I think it shouldn’t even be called marriage counseling. It should be called Communications Coaching, or Neutral Party Translation Services (Counselor says, “When he says x, this is what he means. When she says x, this is what she means.” Husband and wife say, “Ohhh I get it now” and everyone goes home happy).

    There is a place for marriage counseling, but any serious personal change has to happen in individual counseling. Trying to apply marriage counseling (communication coaching) when there is individual pathology is like trying to build a house on an active volcano. You can try but it’s going to burn down sooner or later.

    A marriage counselor is going to push for trust in the relationship, but what if your spouse isn’t trustworthy? Trusting before the spouse is trustworthy is going to do what Leslie says, make the problem worse.

    • Nancy on September 6, 2020 at 5:39 pm

      Barbara, this is so well said. Marriage counsellors help with communication strategies.

      I remember asking my sister in law for prayer and she said she’d pray for our communication. I asked her to pray instead for emotional safety. It took her a long time to respond to my request, but she finally replied that she would. She didn’t understand but I have to give her credit that she supported me despite not understanding.

      Communication strategies are worthless without safety.

      A tool that continues to provide me with emotional safety is the ‘how we love’ listener guide. When I know he’s triggered, the only way I will listen is by using that guide. With that he is guided through how to share in a healthy way. It prevents the sharer from blame shifting and emotional abuse. It won’t work though, if both parties are not willing to grow.

      • Barbara B on September 7, 2020 at 11:06 am

        Hi Nancy, What is the How We Love listener guide? It sounds like a good thing to have around the house.

        • Aly on September 8, 2020 at 9:43 am

          Nancy,Barbara B,
          Well said Nancy! I can relate and have benefited well from their resources and workshops.
          Barbara B you should be able to find the book and the Howwelove listener’s Guide in the workbook (I think)
          Go to howwelove.com. You might have to email Milan & Kay directly.
          It’s helpful to read the book and get better understanding from the material before engaging in these conversations.
          My husband benefited well by seeing his reactions were about his past and past experiences where I wasn’t even in the picture but he was continuing to put everyone one else’s shirt on me to take responsibility for others behavior etc. professional counseling also contributed to identifying this destructive pattern he kept bringing into the marriage. It was a lose lose for all involved until he was willing to explore these (areas) imprints and unhealthy ways of being in a relationship.

          • Barbara B on September 8, 2020 at 11:33 am

            Thanks Aly, I’ll check it out. It’s always wonderful to hear of repentance and restoration through a combination of God’s Spirit and hard counseling work!

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