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.

How to talk to someone who is irrational. Timing is everything.

I don’t recommend trying to reason with anyone who is angry or irrational.

Here’s why. When a person is angry, stress hormones are automatically released into the bloodstream. These hormones tell the body to do one of three things:

  1. Fight
  2. Flee
  3. Freeze

Notice that “Talk “isn’t on the list. That’s because anytime we feel personally attacked or threatened, our reptilian brain—the ancient, purely reflexive, non-rational part of the brain—reacts, and our entire body shifts into survival mode. We don’t think straight from this place, because in survival mode, the rational part of our brain shuts down so the reptilian brain can get us to safety.

It is always better to postpone difficult discussions until both parties are in a more balanced, and more resourceful place. Nobody thinks straight in a hailstorm. Better to wait until the storm has passed.

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.

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Home

Express Yourself Ecards AppExpress Yourself Ecards is a deceptively simple communication app that makes hard things easier to say. Each of the 10 cards helps you find the right words to express what you’re feeling.

Not only do the cards decrease defensiveness in the Reciever. You’ll automatically feel better just by filling one out.So, grab your iPhone or iPad. Try out the app for free. Find out why your brain will love you for it!
Express Yourself Ecards will change the way you talk to each other.  The respect is built into the app!

Why They Work

Express Yourself Ecards appHow labeling your feelings calms the brain

Tired of being misunderstood? Wish you knew what to say and how to say it better? Express Yourself E-Cards help you clarify your thoughts and feelings, and communicate them more effectively.

Completing the checklists takes you on a journey of self-discovery. That means that even if you never send an E-Card, you’ll benefit from the process.

Continue reading “Why They Work”

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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