When to See a Therapist Instead of Just Asking Friends for Help


When you have problems with your marriage, you might reach out to friends, who bring value that a professional can't. But when should you get professional help?

I walked into a large chain bookstore and asked the clerk, “Could you tell me where the self-help section is?”

She paused, then responded with a slight smile: “Well, that would defeat the purpose now, wouldn’t it?”

Several decades ago, self-help books were a novelty. Now they make up one of the largest sections of a bookstore. Whether the topic is marriage, fitness or finances, thousands of books promise to help us solve our problems. When life gets tough, our first thought isn’t to seek help from another person; it’s to figure it out (maybe with a little research) on our own.

Scripture has little to say about self-help. However, living and growing in community are evidenced by passages such as Ecclesiastes 4:9-10: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!”

Friends can walk alongside us through the tough times of life. When we can’t sort through life issues on our own, their support and advice can help us see more clearly. God gave us one another so we can get better. That applies to us as individuals and even more to our marriages.

But what about when the issues become too tough for friends to help with? When is it time to get professional help? That’s a fine line.

When our marriage is going through turbulence, we reach out to friends for support and advice. But some marriage details aren’t appropriate to share with outsiders in the community, and yet we need input because we’re too close to the situation. Whom can we talk to, and how much should we share?

Friends bring value that a professional can’t. Professionals bring a different dimension from what friends can give.

Friends can help in many ways

Friends can listen. Good friends know us well, so they care enough to listen without trying to “fix” us. They’re more prone to say, “Tell me more …” and “How can I help?” than to give unsolicited advice that we might not be ready to hear.

Friends can empathize. The best friendships often grow through doing life together over time. These friends don’t interpret our pain through their own experience; they just join in our pain.

Friends encourage us. When we’ve spent time with friends, we often have more courage to face issues. Friends give us hope that change is possible and motivate us to keep trying.

Friends help us clarify our perspective. During tough times, we’re often too close to see the big picture. Good friends help us expand our limited view so we see the bigger picture. We’re caught in the short-term struggle, but they can help us think of long-term possibilities.

Friends help us make good decisions. We can be tempted to rely on others to tell us what to do so we don’t have to wrestle with tough decisions. However, good friends can merely guide our thinking, enabling us to take ownership of our choices. Other times, they can simply be blunt and tell us that what we’re doing is a huge mistake.

Professionals can help, too

Professionals provide direction and tools. A professional counselor or therapist is trained to diagnose specific issues and to prescribe solutions.

Professionals are objective. They don’t know you or your situation already, so they focus precisely on the issue without personal involvement or emotion. They won’t take sides with either you or your spouse based on who makes the better argument. They stay neutral so they can find the truth. (And you don’t have to sit in church with them next Sunday.)

Professionals are experienced. In addition to having extensive education, professionals build work through issues with many clients a day, allowing them to offer you strategies based on previous successful experiences. That allows them to read between the lines of what each spouse says because they recognize patterns. Seasoned counselors and therapists aren’t easily swayed by smooth words or well-crafted logic. They know how to discern what’s true and what’s just “positioning.”

Professionals equip you to make good choices. Professionals don’t just tell you what to do; they help you implement new ways of thinking and responding. Once you learn those new strategies, you’ll be able to use them in almost any situation.

Where’s the line?

Jayden and Will* have been struggling in their relationship for a while. They love each other and want their marriage to work, but there are unhealthy issues that just aren’t going away. They’ve tried to implement the advice of friends — but they’re not moving forward and are losing hope that their marriage can improve.

Is it time for them to seek the help of an expert? They need to evaluate their situation based on the following specific indicators that show it’s time for that next step:

  • You can’t get past your emotions. Despite your best attempts to do things differently, you can’t communicate without anger or sarcasm.
  • You repeat old patterns. You’ve seen progress when you apply the advice of friends, but it doesn’t last. Repeated efforts spiral downward, and you feel as if you’ll never be able to make it stick.
  • You lose hope. The longer you’ve been working on your relationship without forward movement, the less energy you have to keep trying. It feels hopeless.
  • You talk to your friends, but still don’t know what to do. Multiple ideas from multiple people might make sense, but you can’t decide which advice to try — and when to try it.
  • Your friends are listening less and advising more. They want your relationship to improve, but start getting concerned and impatient when it doesn’t happen. You start feeling guilty that you’re disappointing them.
  • You feel stuck. Whenever what you’ve been doing isn’t working, it’s time for something different. When you’re out of emotional fuel and can’t refill your own tank, you need someone with proven solutions to intervene.

A lot of people are fearful that there’s a perceived stigma associated with going to counseling or therapy. “I’m not crazy,” people say. They feel shame, guilt or failure if it comes to that step. The key is to change your thought processes.

You can treat a headache yourself with aspirin (self-help). If it doesn’t go away, your friends might offer suggestions (rest, exercise, time outdoors). But if the headache continues for days or weeks in spite of everything you try, there could be a much more serious issue — but it takes a trained physician to discover and treat it. Ignoring it could be fatal.

Relationships are no different. When the signs of trouble linger and increase, the support of friends can make a huge difference. But if it continues, it’s time to seek the guidance of a professional.

Isn’t your relationship worth it?

Dr. Mike Bechtle is a speaker and the author of Dealing With the Elephant in the Room: Moving from tough conversations to healthy communication.

* Names have been changed.

How strong is your marriage? Find out today with the Focus on Marriage Assessment. This reliable assessment is based on the research and experience of Focus on the Family’s marriage experts Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley. Take this free assessment now.

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