Why Your Marriage Counseling Failed

(From Love without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One)

By the time most of my clients come to see me, they have already been to at least three marriage counselors, usually with disastrous results, nearly as bad an anger management class or anger control course. All three badly fail to reduce emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and violence because they fail to increase compassion.

A major reason for their disappointment is that marriage counseling presupposes that both parties have the skill to regulate guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy without blaming them on one another. If your husband could reflect on the motivations of his behavior – what within him makes him act as he does—he might then disagree with you or feel he can't communicate with you or feel incompatible with you for any number of reasons, but he wouldn't yell, ignore, avoid, devalue, or dismiss you in the process. If your husband were able to regulate his own emotions, your marriage counseling might have been successful.

Another strike against marriage counseling is manifest in an old joke among marriage therapists: We all have skid marks at the door where the husband is being dragged in. As you well know, men do not go voluntarily to therapy as a rule. So therapists tend to go out of their way to engage the man because he is 10 times more likely to drop out than his wife. If the therapist is sufficiently skilled, this extra effort to keep the man engaged isn't a problem, in normal relationships. But in walking-on-eggshells relationships it can be disastrous, because the therapist unwittingly joins with the more resentful, angry, or abusive partner in trying to figure out who is to blame in a given complaint. Of course he or she won't use the word, “blame.” Most marriage counselors are intelligent and well-meaning and really want to make things better. So they will couch their interventions in terms of what has to be done to resolve the dispute, rather than who is to blame. Here's an example of how they go wrong.

Therapist: Estelle, it seems that Gary gets angry when he feels judged.

Gary : That's right. I get judged about everything.

Therapist: (to Estelle) I'm not saying that you are judging him -

Gary : (interrupting) Oh yes she is. It's her hobby.

Therapist: (to Estelle) I'm saying that he feels judged. Perhaps if your request could be put in such a way that he wouldn't feel judged, you would get a better reaction.

Estelle: How do I do that?

Therapist: I noticed that when you ask him for something, you focus on what he's doing wrong. You also use the word “you” a lot. Suppose you framed it like this. “Gary , I would like it if we could spend five minutes when we get home just talking to each other about our day.” (to Gary ) Would you feel judged if she put it like that?

Gary : Not at all. But I doubt that she could get the judgment out of her tone of voice. She doesn't know how to talk any other way.

Therapist: Sure she does. (to Estelle) You can say it without judgment in your voice, can't you?

Estelle: Yes, of course I can. I don't mean to be judgmental all the time.

Therapist: Why don't we rehearse it a few times?

So now the problem isn't Gary 's sense of inadequacy or his addiction to blame or his abusiveness, it's Estelle's judgmental tone of voice. With this crucial shift in perspective introduced by the therapist, Estelle rehearsed her new approach. Gary responded positively to her efforts, while the therapist was there to contain his emotional reactivity. Of course at home, it was quite another matter, despite their hours of rehearsal in the therapist's office.

In a less reactive relationship, the therapist's advice wouldn't be so bad. It's questionable whether it would help, but it wouldn't do any harm. If Gary could regulate his emotions, he might have appreciated Estelle's efforts to consider him in the way she phrased her requests; perhaps he would have become more empathic. But in the day-to-day reality of this walking-on-eggshells relationship, Gary felt guilty when Estelle made greater efforts to appease him. Predictably, he blamed it all on her -- she wasn't doing it right, her “I-statements” had an underlying accusatory tone, and she was trying to make him look bad.

By the way, research shows that therapists behave in their own relationships pretty much the same way that you do. In disagreements with their spouses, they fail just as much as you in trying to use the “communication-validation” techniques they make you do in their offices. They find it as tough as you and your husband do to put on the brakes when their own emotions and instinct to blame are going full throttle. After all, how is Mr. Hyde supposed to remember what Dr. Jeckyl learned in marriage counseling?

 

One popular marriage therapist and author has written that women in abusive marriages have to learn to set boundaries. “She needs to learn skills to make her message – ‘I will not tolerate this behavior any longer' – heard. [The] hurt person [must] learn how to set boundaries that actually mean something.” This is the therapeutic equivalent of a judge dismissing your law suit against vandals because you failed to put up a “Do not vandalize” sign. You have to wonder if this therapist puts post - its on valued objects in her office that clearly state, “Do not steal!”

Putting aside the harmful, inaccurate implication that women are abused because they don't have the “skill to set boundaries,” this kind of intervention completely misses the point. Your husband's resentment, anger, or abuse comes from his substitution of power for value. It has nothing to do with the way you set boundaries or with what you argue about. It has to do with his violation of his deepest values. As we'll see in the chapter on removing the thorns from your heart, you will be protected, not by setting obvious boundaries that he won't respect, but by reintegrating your deepest values into your everyday sense of self. When you no longer internalize the distorted image of yourself that your husband reflects back to you, your husband will clearly understand that he has to change the way he treats you if he wants to save the marriage.

 

One of the reasons marriage therapy fails to help walking-on-eggshells relationships is that it relies on egalitarian principles. Noble an idea as it is, this approach can only work in a relationship in which the couple sees each other as equals. Your husband feels that you control his painful emotions and, therefore, feels entitled to use resentment, anger, or abuse as a defense against you. He will resist any attempt to take away what he perceives to be his only defense with every tool of manipulation and avoidance he can muster. In other words, he is unlikely to give up his “edge” of moral superiority – he's right, you're wrong – for the give - and - take process required of couples' therapy. And should the therapist even remotely appear to “side” with you on any issue, the whole process will be dismissed as “sexist psychobabble.”

Many men blame their wives on the way home from the therapist's office for bringing up threatening or embarrassing things in the session. Two couples I know were seriously injured in car crashes that resulted from arguments on the way home from appointments with therapists they worked with before I met them. I'm willing to bet that if you've tried marriage counseling, you've had a few chilly, argumentative, or abusive rides home from the sessions.

 

The trap that many marriage counselors fall into (taking you with them) is that resentment – the foundation of anger and abuse – can seem like a relationship issue. “I resent that you left your towel on the bathroom floor, because it makes me feel disregarded, like my father used to make me feel.” But as we have seen, the primary purpose of resentment is to protect the vulnerability you feel (or he feels) from your low levels of core value. Please be sure you get this point: Low core value is not a relationship issue. You each have to regulate your own core value before you can begin to negotiate about behavior. In other words, if self-value depends on the negotiation, you can't make true behavior requests – if your “request” isn't met, you will retaliate with some sort of emotional punishment: “If you don't do this, I'll make you feel guilty (or worse).” Merely teaching the couple to phrase things differently reinforces the false and damaging notion that your partner is responsible for your core value and vice versa.

 

Many women live with resentful, angry, or abusive men who seem to the rest of the world to be “charmers.” I've had cabinet secretaries, billionaires, movie stars, and TV celebrities for clients, all of whom could charm the fur off a cat, in public. Before they were referred to me, each one of these guys had been championed by marriage counselors who concluded that their wives were unreasonable, hysterical, or even abusive. They have no trouble at all playing the sensitive, caring husband in therapy. But in the privacy of their homes they sulk, belittle, demean, and even batter with the worst of them.

 

These men have gotten so good at charming the public, including their marriage counselors, because they've had lots of practice. Since they were young children, they've used charm and social skills to avoid and cover up a monumental collection of core hurts. Though it can be an effective strategy in social contexts, this masquerade falls flat on its face in an intimate one. If your husband is a charmer in public, his resentment, anger, or abuse at home is designed to keep you from getting close enough to see how inadequate and unlovable he really feels. In fooling the marriage counselor and the public at large, he makes a fool of you but an even bigger one of himself.

Help is available in the Stop Walking on Eggshells Boot Camps and in:

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