Why Marriage Counseling Doesn’t Work

Wondering why marriage counseling doesn’t work?

Every day we tell ourselves lies: “No more sugar!”  “No more yelling.”  “No more spending.” “No more drinking.” “This week I’m going to exercise.”  And then what?

How about this week, we agree to tell the truth?  No more lying to ourselves about all the big changes we’re going to make?

Let’s face it, changing ourselves is a big job.  It takes constant vigilance, steadfast commitment, rigourous honesty, infinite patience, and tons of support.  So doesn’t it seem a little bit nuts to think we can change our partners?

In my experience, when marriage counseling doesn’t work, it’s because couples come into therapy hoping I’ll help them get their partners to change.  They don’t realize that their best chance at getting something different from their relationship is to change how they respond to their partner’s objectionable behaviors.

Typically, women complain that their partners are lazy, clueless, narcissistic and immature–which they well might be.  But what they don’t realize is that by continuing to overfunction and tolerate unacceptable behavior, they are actually reinforcing it in their partners.

“I’m always cleaning up after her!”  Why is that?

“Why is it that we both work full-time and I’m still responsible for organizing all the social events, all the holidays, and everything that’s going on with the kids?”  Good question.

What actions are you taking to be kinder, more honest, more respectful, more responsible, less reactive?

Blame is a waste of time. Focus on changing yourself.

Men complain that their wives are never satisfied or that they show more affection to their girlfriends than they do to them. I ask them to get curious, not resentful. If you’re getting more support, affection, appreciation, or focused attention from a girlfriend, why wouldn’t you enjoy being with them more?

If I’m doing marriage counseling, the focus is always on what each person can do be kinder, clearer, more respectful, more responsible, congruent, less reactive.  In short, their highest self.  This means recognizing the ways in which your behaviors, reactions, beliefs, choices miss the mark. How does your silence, blame, drinking, lying cause suffering for yourself and others?

How does your silence, blame, drinking, or lying, cause

suffering for yourself and others?

For one person, that might mean changing jobs, working fewer hours, being more attentive, learning to be curious, fighting fair, giving up alcohol.  For another, it might mean learning to forgive, not being a martyr, making requests instead of demands, stretching more.

If you are considering marriage counseling, make sure that you are ready to work on yourself, and not looking for someone to take sides.  Real change happens in relationships when we are willing to stop blaming others. To make real progress, start taking greater responsibility for the ways in which you may be causing, creating, or reinforcing behaviors in others that we want to stop.

Tricky Tuesday: How to communicate with someone who won’t talk to you

Weekly lesson in how to deliver hard messages

Today’s Tricky Tuesday is about breaking through the silence when someone you care about is unwilling or unable to talk to you.

First off, you must understand the distinction between those two states—unwilling or unable. While the two may exist at the same time, they don’t necessarily.

You must understand the distinction between unwilling and unable. While the two may exist at the same time, they don’t necessarily.

Unwilling can mean many things:

  • I’m hiding something.
  • I’m afraid of your reaction.
  • I’m ashamed of something I did.
  • I’m stalling for time to come up with an alibi or excuse.
  • I’m showing you how it feels to be shut out.
  • I’m trying to guilt you into doing something you forgot to do, or don’t want to do.
  • I want you to suffer.
  • I’m trying to make you think I know more than I do about something you did (so you’ll confess).
  • I’m actually protecting you by not saying what I’d like to say right now.
  • I need to focus on another task or issue that can’t wait.
  • I refuse to talk about this with others present.
  • I don’t feel safe or equipped to talk about this topic, except in therapy.

Unable can mean something very different:

  • I’m over-stimulated right now and my brain isn’t working well enough to talk.
  • I’m not sure what I’m feeling because my body is flooded with multiple feelings at once.
  • I can’t find the right words.
  • I need more time to process what I’m feeling.
  • I can’t be pressured into talking.
  • I’m too tired.
  • I need to better-rested before we have this conversation.
  • You always interrupt me or tell me what I should be thinking or doing, so I can’t get my thoughts out.

 The situation

Ben and Joel have adopted a child. Initially, they were thrilled, but for the past few days, something hasn’t felt right.  Ben came home from work Friday, agitated. He barely acknowledged Joel or the baby the entire weekend.

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Before the baby came, the couple had agreed: Ben would keep working as a teacher, and Joel would take unpaid leave from work to stay home with their new baby. Then, once school was out, Ben would take over for the summer and Joel would go back to work.

The silence was deafening.  Joel knew something was wrong, but Ben refused to talk and insisted everything was fine. The truth was, Ben had lost his temper with a student who made an offensive joke about gays.  Witnesses saw Ben chase the boy down the hall and shove him against a locker.  Ben was fired.

There is nothing unusual about this kind of problem. When shame takes over, it becomes painful–if not impossible—to speak about it.

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The Talk to Me, Already!  card was designed to give the person who’s feeling shut out a way to connect with the person unwilling or unable to speak. It allows the Sender to express their hurt, anger, suspicions, or fears from a distance when the person in the room is unresponsive. Below is an example of screenshots I took of an Express Yourself ECard Joel might have written to Ben. The remaining checklists (not visible on the first screenshot) give Joel a chance to express both his hurt and his love for Ben, as well as his desire to know the truth so he can be part of whatever solution they need to come up with as a couple. The beauty of the cards is that they can be sent from a distance to anyone’s phone (even if they have an android) or tablet, since the link appears in an email.

TT Cropped tightly Oct 11 Talk to me double

Affairs, Separation, Divorce Part 2: What about the kids?

In Part 1, I discussed why most affairs fail. If you have kids, your risk of failure is even greater. If you do decide to separate, divorce, or continue with an affair, Part 2 contains a list of Dos and Don’ts for parents to follow.

  • Do make sure your kids have someone to talk to: a counselor, clergy, or other trusted adult besides their parents.
  • Don’t think that just because they’re not talking about it, they aren’t struggling.
  • Do answer their questions honestly, but with restraint.
  • Don’t burden children with information they don’t need to know and won’t be able to forget. Remember: They are counting on you to make them feel safe in the world.
  • Do treat your spouse with respect. Your kids need two parents who can disagree, be angry, even fall out of love, but never be disrespectful of one another.
  • Don’t talk negatively about your ex or their affair partner to your kids, or within earshot of them, or in texts. It hurts them and makes you look heartless, cruel, or petty.
  • Always always communicate directly with your ex about changes in plans, requests, complaints.
  • Don’t put your kids in the middle. For example, Don’t pressure them take sides or ask them to “get your mom to say yes.”
  • Don’t pump kids for ‘dish’ on ex’s affair partner
  • It’s okay to share your sadness with children in general terms about what’s happening.
  • Do not over-share. For example, don’t discuss a spouse’s abusive behavior, unless the child has witnessed or overheard it, or you have concerns about the child’s safety with the other parent: chemical use, violence, extreme volatility.
  • Don’t use a child as your confidante. This is damagaing to teenagers as well as children.
  • Don’t expect them or guilt them into taking care of you.
  • Do assure them you are getting outside support (and get it!)
  • Do comply with agreements between you and your ex.
  • Don’t bribe kids with things the other parent can’t or won’t get them.
  • Don’t ever ask them to keep secrets from their mom or dad.

Above all, remember: Nothing you do as a parent is more important than keeping them healthy, mentally and physically during this difficult time for your family.

photo courtesy of Unsplash

Affairs Part 1 — Can they work out? What about the kids?

Do affairs ever work out for people? What you should know before you end your marriage.

In over 30 years as a marriage counselor, I’ve seen hundreds of couples. I’d say half are dealing with infidelity of one kind or another. Most of the men and women having affairs are good people who weren’t looking for trouble. More often than not, they started out as co-workers or Facebook friends, and ended up having an affair that threatens or ends their marriage.

“Most relationships that start as affairs don’t work out long term—unless both partners are young, childless, close in age, and relatively unencumbered.”

The reason they fail isn’t for lack of genuine feeling, but rather because the fall-out caused by infidelity is so horrendous, and so far-reaching.

Before you decide to end your marriage, make sure your new relationship can survive the fall-out.

Prepare yourself:

  • If both of you have kids, get ready for a rocky ride. As happy as the two of you are, it’s unlikely that your kids will be celebrating your good fortune. Unless your kids have witnessed repeated acts of physical or emotional abuse, they will want their parents to stay together.
  • Kids need stability. They shouldn’t have to worry about a devastated, angry mom or dad, or know that one parent is having a great time while their other parent is suffering.
  • You can’t control your spouse. She (or he) may be so angry, so hurt, so destroyed by your betrayal, that she may not be willing or able to hide her pain from your kids.
  • If your kids hear from their mom that their dad is a “liar,” a “cheater,” or a person who “cares more about his girlfriend than he does about us,” your kids will suffer, and your relationship with them may be damaged forever. (This may sound dramatic, but trust me. Unless all the adults involved exercise great care and excellent boundaries, you may never regain your kids’ trust.)
  • Kid Logic makes children—especially young children—see things as either good or bad, black or white. They see themselves at the center of everything. Because of this, it’s easy for them to believe that you must not love them enough if you left them to be with someone else.
  • Older kids may turn their backs on you, either to protect themselves, avoid public shame, or affirm their loyalty to the parent who was betrayed.
  • Your family may not accept or approve of your new partner. This includes: parents, siblings, and extended family as well as your wife’s parents, siblings, and extended family, and your lover’s parents, siblings, and most importantly, their children.

If, after considering all of these possibilities, you decide end your marriage and pursue your new relationship, proceed with caution.

Watch for Part 2: A list of Dos and Don’ts for parents who are separated or divorced

My biological clock is ticking

Dear Betsy,

I’m 27 and my biological clock is ticking. I just started dating a guy. I don’t want to rush things, but I also don’t want to wait too long and miss my chance to have a family.  Any advice for how to proceed?

My advice: Relaaaax.

Why not enjoy this phase and give yourself plenty of time to get to know each other? Let yourself discover who this man really is by seeing him under a variety of conditions, with a variety of people (friends, co-workers, family).  If you’re thinking seriously about this guy, you need to get a feel for who he is off-stage as well as on.  Take your time. Enjoy the excitement and newness of it all.  And don’t put pressure on yourself to know how it’s all going to turn out, before you know who the guy really is.

Speaking as a family therapist–and as a mother–who you have kids with is the most impactful decision you’ll ever make.

So don’t rush. Your biological clock is ticking, but you still have time. Make good use of it by doing basic research. Ask yourself these questions.  They’re the questions I wish everyone would ask before they take the ultimate plunge with someone.  If you don’t like the answers to the following questions, don’t waste your time with this person.

So here’s my list:

  1. Is this man a friend to your excitement, or is does he act threatened, bored, or judgmental when you talk about what you love?
  2. Does he regularly ask you questions that show he’s really interested in who you are and what you think–as opposed to taking up 90% of the airspace talking on and on about himself?
  3. Does he bring out the best qualities in you, or do you feel bad or “less than” in his presence?
  4. Is his masculinity fully-developed or does he still act like a grown-up teenager?
  5. Does he make you laugh?
  6. Does he find you amusing?
  7. Does he want kids?
  8. Do you trust him?
  9. Does he keep his promises?
  10. Does your family love him (and vice versa)?
  11. How does he treat his own family members and friends?
  12. How does he treat the people he’s had conflicts with?
  13. Does he have a drug or alcohol problem he’s not dealing with?
  14. Is he generous with his time, money, talents?
  15. Does he ever scare or threaten you? Do not stay–or leave your kids with someone who scares you.
  16. How does he treat you when he’s angry, upset, or not getting his needs met?
  17. Can he apologize when he hurts someone, or is it always someone else’s fault?

The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about who this man really is, and whether he’s someone you want to build a life with.

I hope I haven’t scared you off.  With the right person, love is grand.  So enjoy. But go slow. Pay attention to your needs, feelings, hunches, and observations, and don’t ignore or find reasons to justify actions or behaviors you don’t like. If over time everything feels right, then take the next step. But until you have the answers to these questions, proceed with caution. Better to take your time now than to find out too late that you let your itchy DNA decide your future.

I don’t know what to talk about in therapy. What topics should I talk about?

Here’s a question for you that might help. Why are you seeing a therapist if you don’t have anything to talk about?

There are no tricks that will help, but if you’re seeing a therapist, I’m assuming it’s because you’re struggling with some kind of challenge or conflict. It could be, that verbalizing that conflict is a problem in itself.

Therapy is supposed to help you, not entertain, support, or hold the interest of your therapist.

Also, keep in mind that while therapy may produce insight, insight alone doesn’t produce change.Only taking action produces change.

Here are some questions that might get you moving in the right direction. Just remember that your therapy is supposed to help you, not entertain or hold the interest of your therapist. And that insight isn’t change, so even if you get great “Ahas!” what gets people to change is action, not insight.

On to the questions:

• What feels familiar about the challenge you’re dealing with?

• Is there a familiar role you’ve been playing that keeps you stuck or lands you in the same place you’ve been trying to avoid

• In whose company have you felt the most alive, the most accepted, respected, at ease? (There might be different people in each category.)

• When you are in this person’s or people’s company, what is it that they say or do that elicits those feelings in you? For example, I laugh the most—which feels GREAT—with my cousin, Sharon. She thinks I’m hysterical and the more she laughs, the funnier I think I become. But it only happens when we’re on the phone. In person, we don’t laugh as much because she smokes cigarettes and is always antsy to have one, so I don’t think either of us is as relaxed in person as we are when she can smoke while we talk.

• What regrets do you have and what are some concrete steps you might take to forgive yourself, heal an old wound, or try a do-over that will erase your regret?

• Who are the people in whose presence you feel small, unsafe, dull, less-than, or unsure of yourself?

• What is it that each person on that list does that makes you feel this way, and why do you keep going back for more?

• What do you wish you could tell someone from a safe distance about how you really feel? (By the way, if you’re interested in doing this, I’ve created an iPhone app called Express Yourself ECards you can download for free at the App Store. It has a “Can I Be Honest?” ECard you can fill out and send via email. It will help you find the right words to express yourself, without getting blasted for it.)

• What are you spending money on, and what does your spending reveal about your values? For example, are you spending money to fill a void? Create art? Help others? As a substitute for meaningful activities?

All of these questions can be jumping off points for discussions that are likely to lead you to insights. With those insights, you’ll be able to see concrete steps you might need to take to move forward in your life.

I hope this list was helpful. If not, and you still can’t think of anything to talk about, you might be better off spending your time and money doing something that brings you closer to living a more balanced and meaningful life.

All the best, Betsy

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