The Good Place – Part 3 – Counseling

Posted on December 11, 2019


Same episode.  Same conversation.  Same spoiler alert.  If you missed the backstory, here is part 1.


Michael: But mostly you wanted answers.  The soul mate one, in particular.  So, I used it to torture you, which, again, sorry.  If soul mates do exist, they’re not found.  They’re made.  People meet, they get a good feeling, and then they get to work building a relationship, like your parents.  They didn’t magically stay together because you proved they should.

Chidi: It wasn’t my logic or my representation.  It was the feeling they got watching me, this scared little kid, telling them that he needed them.

Michael:  It was also what you made them remember.  You know, they loved each other.  Sometimes people forget.  You reminded them of what they already had.  It convinced them to go to counseling.

Chidi: I never knew they went to counseling.

Michael: Yeah, kids are idiots.  If they knew half the stuff their folks were up to, they’d lose their minds.  Turns out life isn’t a puzzle that can just be solved one time and it’s done.  You wake up every day and you solve it again.  Terribly inefficient.


I have low expectations when it comes to the pop culture supporting marriage.  Culturally, marriage has become rather disposable.  This exchange, of course, is fictional.  But someone in the TV industry actually wrote a situation wherein a distressed couple was able to become a happy couple by going to counseling.

The research indicates that marital therapy is about 70% effective in resolving the distress (and about 90% report improvement).  I haven’t yet met a couple who couldn’t fix the marriage if they were both willing to do their part to work on it (and I work with sex addicts).  If you were just hoping I would fix your partner, that’s a different story.

Let’s do the math and weigh the options.  A quick search indicated that the average cost of a divorce is $30,000.  But that’s not the whole cost.  There is paying for two households instead of one.  There is the physical health impact and the mental health impact.  If you have children together, your lives are tied together forevermore anyway.  There are custody issues while the children are minors.  There will by high school and college graduation, weddings, grandchildren, splitting time on holidays.  There will be dealing with your partner’s next spouse and the resultant blended families.  The whole thing is an expensive messy business.

On top of that, if you remarry, you still have a 50/50 chance on that marriage being successful.  You might think the problem was just that you chose poorly the first time, but you still bring your own junk into the next marriage.

If you could invest, maybe two or three thousand dollars for a 70% chance of avoiding all of that (or a 90% chance of at least making it go better) it seems like a sound investment.  Why wouldn’t you do that?

My supposition is that, to Michael’s point above, “sometimes people forget.”  When you have been in distress a long time, you forget that you love each other.  Years ago, I saw some research that found that the time lapse between one partner saying, “we should get counseling” and a couple actually doing it was seven years.  If you have been in emotional and relational pain for seven years, it makes sense that you forgot that you loved each other.  Early on in marital therapy (usually in the first session), I want to hear the couple’s courtship story.  I want to know what was it about your partner that made you say, “hey, I could go through life with this person.”  Generally, what I find is that there was a real attachment before the marriage started going off the rails.  Going off the rails usually meant that you both got stuck in a coping strategy for your own pain that left you both feeling unloved and unsafe (emotionally).  Your way of coping with your pain feeds your partner’s pain and around the pain cycle we go.

Next, you only go to therapy if two conditions are met.  First, you have to be in enough distress that you are willing to do something about it.  Second, you have to believe that it could actually make things better.  A hinderance on the first of those conditions is that one partner may be in more distress than the other.  The one who thinks things are not that bad may feel it is not a good investment of time, money, and emotional resources.

In addressing that, let’s take a quick detour into what we know about how human beings attach to each other and how we cope with attachment distress.  Human beings are made for connection to each other.  From cradle to grave, we need someone we can turn to for care, comfort, and support to cope with life’s stressors.  Even before the fall, when sin had not yet entered the world and our relationship with God had not been damaged by sin, we still needed another like ourselves.  We attach ourselves in close relationships.  When we are children, our attachment figure is usually mom and/or dad.  When we get to be adults, our attachment figure is usually our partner.  With me so far?

When our attachment figure is not responsive in meeting our needs for care, comfort, and support, the normal response is protest.  Attachment protest may look different in adults than it does in children, but it is still attachment protest.  Where we run into problems is when that protest still does not bring us the care we seek.  If that goes on too long, the result is despair.  If it continues, eventually we detach.  Your partner saying, “we need to go to counseling” is a form of attachment protest.  You let that go unheeded at your own risk.  It is much easier to have a positive outcome with a highly escalated couple than it is with a couple where one partner has emotionally detached.

That brings us back around to the second condition: the belief that therapy could help.  The research indicates that the amount of distress a couple is in at the start of marital therapy is not a factor in the success of marital therapy.  Things may seem so bad that it feels like nothing is going to make this better.  It is not true.  There is no relationship between a couple’s level of distress and a successful outcome.

One more factor is that one partner may fear that the therapist is going to side with your mate.  If you are the one who had the affair, that choice is on you.  However, on the whole, we are not here to play “find the bad guy.”  My working assumption is that you both do and say the things you do and say for a reason.  Even if the things you do and say really aren’t helpful.  It is a coping strategy for your own pain.  It just isn’t a strategy that’s working.  Having said that, this process is going to require some change for you.  I don’t fix people, and I really don’t fix marriages.  I just help you do it yourselves.  I have the easy part.  You do the heavy lifting.

Here’s the thing.  You want to be happy, right?  You want a happy life.  The research has found that when looking at comparably distressed couples and their general life satisfaction five years later, those who chose to stay and work on it had a higher life satisfaction (subjective life satisfaction, mental health, physical health, financial stability) than those who divorced.

I am going to finish roughly where I started.  It only takes one of you to end this thing.  It will take two of you to fix it.  Fixing it is totally worth it.  Run the numbers.