Why Marriage Counseling is a Bad Idea, Vol. 2

(Image/The New York Times)

(Image/The New York Times)

I’ve been to marriage counseling twice.

By that I mean, in two separate instances during my marriage, I agreed to see a couple’s therapist with my wife.

The first time, my son had just been born, and I was offered a job that, in theory, would solve any and all financial concerns for the rest of our lives. (Top 1% money in my 40s, and eventual company ownership.)

The catch? It would require us to move 500 miles away near my family in Illinois, and my wife, who had already left her family once when we moved to Florida after college, knew she didn’t want to leave them again.

In my estimation at the time, fixing our financial difficulties (they were serious, and we had a newborn) combined with eliminating money concerns forever, was worth the move.

I argued that I’d make enough money where my wife would never have to work again if she didn’t want to, and would be free to travel to Ohio often (I suggested one week per month as a compromise) and that the grand total of time spent with family during one non-working week every month would GREATLY outweigh the time spent with family as our lives were currently constructed.

She argued that Ohio was our home, and that she could never be happy living so far from her friends and family in another new place.

She told me she believed we would eventually get divorced if we made the move. That her family was always going to be more important than money to her. (Which I always admired somewhat.)

We discussed it patiently and at length with a couple’s counselor.

He blatantly said in each of the final two sessions with him that he agreed with my take. That solving financial problems made sense for our family since money was the top source of conflict and stress for our marriage. He agreed that “Home” can be anywhere, so long as you’re willing to make it so. He agreed that visiting family in Ohio, while somewhat unconventional, could be done with the financial resources we would have, and that, in the end, she would actually see her family for greater amounts of time that way.

She cried and I hated it and I held her hand.

She was so sad. I had made my wife—the mother of my new son—sad. I couldn’t take it.

I told her the night before our final marriage-counseling session with that first counselor that I loved her more than anything, and that there’s no way I would jeopardize our marriage and family. I turned down the job offer and agreed to stay in Ohio.

“We’ll figure something out,” I told her.

The second time we attended counseling, our marriage was a trainwreck. I’d been sleeping in the guest room for at least a year. We never touched one another. Every day was shitty and horrible. Being at work and volunteering at a local homeless shelter was infinitely less stressful than being at the house, so I worked and volunteered a lot.

My wife started seeing a marriage counselor on her own.

After a handful of sessions, she told me the counselor wanted to see me too. I really wanted to stay married and not feel shitty and horrible anymore, so I agreed.

I don’t remember exactly what the counselor’s questions were, nor do I remember exactly how my wife answered them, during our first session together. I only know that I’m a pretty nice and pragmatic guy, and I wanted to commit double homicide right then and there.

I perceived my wife’s characterizations of me and our marriage to be totally unfair, and I perceived this aloof, disengaged counselor to be 100-percent validating all of it.

It’s possible I was being overly defensive and immature in my reaction, because I am overly defensive and immature. Also, that was the worst time of my life, so negative things might have felt magnified. I don’t know.

But I do know that I felt the counselor was disinterested in whether our marriage succeeded, and that my wife was cold and unfair. True or not, it seemed to me at the time like she was looking for validation for her anger and sadness and inclination to leave more so than she was a genuine, heartfelt strategy for repairing our marriage.

Something tells me I’m not the only one to experience this.

I Think It’s Insane

If you could get couples to attend regular marriage counseling sessions from the beginning of their marriage as a routine maintenance tool and a strategy for healthy communication, I believe marriage counseling would be a very wise, useful investment, and successful activity.

But that’s not how the real world works.

In the real world, people get married young and don’t know what to expect. They think it’s going to be just like the two or three years they’ve been together so far as boyfriend and girlfriend, and that it’s going to stay that way forever.

But then one day, it’s not.

And all the sadness and resentment and anger starts to build. Because men and women have so much trouble communicating, attempts to talk about it leave both parties dissatisfied and angrier than before.

As a last resort, one convinces the other to go to couple’s therapy, so an “objective” third-party arbitrator can set the record straight.

Then two people, who not too many years ago, stood before a pastor, judge, priest or minister, and declared their undying love and commitment to one another in front of almost everyone they know, are now sitting on a sofa or chairs, talking about how the person they “love” makes them sad, miserable and angry.

Let me repeat that.

We put two people during one of the most-difficult times of their lives in a room, when they feel like their spouse isn’t there for them anymore and may actually leave them, and we ask them to say out loud in front of one another how the other person’s actions make their lives shitty.

And excuse my language, but that’s fucking insane.

The people who don’t love their spouses are never going to succeed in marriage counseling anyway.

And the people who do love their spouses just sat there and took it up the ass while the person they do EVERYTHING for just told a stranger what stupid assholes they are right in front of them, and then the counselor validated it and celebrated their “honesty.”

I think there’s probably a better way.

We’re All a Little Bit Broken and Messed Up

I’m stealing this from a comment I left in the previous post on this subject:

There are a million different reasons why we are all a little broken and messed up, and no one has the time or money to get it all figured out. But if we can all be a little bit more self-aware of our shortcomings (or at least our behaviors that tend to upset others, even if it’s only our partners who get upset), and work hardest on making ourselves the most whole, balanced, healthy, content people we can possibly be… we give ourselves an excellent chance for happiness.

Two people trying to be the best versions of themselves possible, will also try to give unselfishly to their partner and/or marriage every day. When two people give more to the other than they take for themselves, Happily Ever After happens. Both people always get what they need, and they always feel good because they’re giving a lot, too.

Jayne left a fair comment about just how hard maintaining a stable and healthy relationship truly is, even with two intellectually capable people trying their best:

“okay…but having been through divorce, as I have, and having witnessed many people aware of the danger, still fall into that black hole of complacency and taking each other for granted… Do you believe you yourself can keep a relationship “good”. As I wrote “you, yourself” I had part of my answer and that is that it’s not possible to do all by yourself. Sooo much thinking on this subject and sooo much evidence of miscommunication makes me think most of it is driven by chance. Relationships seem to start by “chance” and even with our knowledge and intellect, they can’t be formulated for success. Sometimes I do believe that relationships aren’t supposed to last forever and this is proof. When you think about it, there is a lot of proof for that,” Jayne said.

I liked my response because I think it’s the difference between couples who make it and couples who don’t:

Chance favors the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur famously said that in the 1800s. And I think he was right.

Sure, there’s a lot of chance and bullshit that affect our lives.

But when we aren’t lazy, when we put in the time and effort to psychologically prepare ourselves for ANYTHING (a project, a new job, a new town we’re moving to, learning a native language before visiting a country, etc.), but certainly a committed relationship, I think we give ourselves an excellent chance for success.

I have no idea whether I’ll ever marry again. And all of the preparation in the world can’t guarantee it will last forever.

But my would-be fiancée and I will spend a LOT of time talking about these things, working on them, and demonstrating self-awareness and empathy.

Anyone I end up having “the same fight” with over and over again? It’s likely going to be her stubbornness or my stubbornness that prevents us from breaking that cycle.

In either case, that will be a sure sign to NOT get married.

If I get married again, she and I will have had these high-level talks and will have, repeatedly, over many weeks, months and years, demonstrated the ability to communicate effectively and behave unselfishly even when it’s inconvenient.

Sure, I may divorce again one day.

But it won’t be because I made the mistake of going into it not properly armed with the tools and information I need to be a good husband and succeed.

Fate gets to decide whether I live or die five minutes from now.

But it doesn’t get to decide how I treat the people I love.

Let’s Stop All the Finger-Pointing

Individual marriage counseling is the act of one person exploring all the ways they can be a better husband or wife. And THAT should be the question every married person asks themselves daily: How can I be a better spouse today?

So, confession: I don’t think ALL marriage counseling is bad. I just think the way it’s most often done is.

I also stole the following from another one of my comments in the previous post:

EVERYONE commits some kind of crime in their marriage.

Therapists shouldn’t spread the blame around equally when one person got screwed over, but they also shouldn’t not ask the right question.

People sometimes say I take on too much responsibility for the end of my marriage. Right or wrong (and I think it’s wrong), it doesn’t matter.

It’s ALL about responsibility and accountability.

This is something I believe strongly (this only applies to me, not all marriages): If I behaved every day in my marriage the way I have grown to believe a person must behave in order to have a long, healthy marriage, my wife and I would still be married, and probably with a second child.

I’ve never said or typed that before. But I think it’s true.

That doesn’t mean it’s entirely my fault that we got divorced.

It just means, I had a lot of control over my own destiny (and that of my wife and son) and I squandered it through immaturity, irresponsibility and negligence.

Thus, I’m now 36 and single and only see my son half the time.

Even when our hearts are in the right place, we reap what we sow.

If you can’t find an answer to the question: What have I done that might have contributed to my spouse’s sadness and anger?, then you’re one of two things—the greatest husband or wife in the world, or a self-centered narcissist.

And in either case, couples counseling can’t and won’t save you. You’re going to have to save yourself.

And to do so, you need to start asking the right questions.

You need to start right now.

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13 thoughts on “Why Marriage Counseling is a Bad Idea, Vol. 2

  1. zombiedrew2 says:

    “True or not, it seemed to me at the time like she was looking for validation for her anger and sadness and inclination to leave than she was a genuine, heartfelt interest in repairing our marriage.”

    I think this sums up an important aspect of any counseling (and life in general). Your intent with something has everything to do with what you get out of something.

    I’ve seen/heard of many cases like the one you describe – where someone doesn’t actually seem to be looking for “help”. Instead, they are shopping for the answer they want. They may go from person to person presenting a scenario, and even if 10 people disagree with the scenario as soon as they find one person who agrees, that provides the validation needed.

    Marriages fail when people are looking for someone to blame. They fail when one person remains focussed on how they got into the mess they are in instead of how to get out of the mess they are in.

    You can’t change the past.

    It is important, only for the purposes of learning from it. But dwelling over every little detail of how you got into a mess and then laying blame does nothing but leave you tethered to your problems. And your anger. And your resentment.

    If you TRULY want to improve things, then then the focus needs to be on how to be a better person and a better partner, each and every day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Matt says:

      Precisely, Drew. The ONLY way marriage counseling can ever work is if people use it to understand how they, themselves, can be a better spouse. NOT trying to place blame and force change from their partners.

      I know you get it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I totally agree with you. Marriage counseling can often just become validation for “why my spouse is a total wanker who I should divorce.” Sometimes it is just punitive, as in “come talk to my counselor, they’ll straighten you out.” Seldom ever really said is the hard truth, like “you’re failing to empathize with your spouse” or “this suffering you’re experiencing is totally your own fault.” Those are hard truths that people don’t like to hear and they don’t sell well, so many counselors tend to avoid them.

    It may be a bit different for women, or perhaps not, but what has really gotten me through some dark days is to force myself to list several positive things about hubby. It might just be “well, he’s breathing today” or it might be all the little things I do appreciate, but it really does change the whole focus.

    When we point fingers at each other we hand over the blame, but also all of the power. It is a tough lesson for us all, but we can only change ourselves. Focusing on what’s wrong with our spouse, is a way of rendering ourselves completely powerless and if that becomes the nature of marital counseling then it is doomed to fail.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. anitvan says:

    “I’ve never said or typed that before. But I think it’s true.”

    That broke my heart a little.

    I root for you, Matt. I really do. I hope that one day you get to be a husband again, the kind of husband you wish now you could have been *then*.

    Like

    • Matt says:

      Well. I don’t know that I crave or desire marriage. But I appreciate the sentiment very much.

      Let’s just see if I meet someone with whom marriage is a practical eventuality before we worry too much about it. :)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. ttravis says:

    The NY Times magazine had a story a few years ago about a couple who went to counseling not because their marriage was “in trouble,” but because they (well, mostly the woman, who is the writer) wanted to see if they could consciously improve it. You can find it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/magazine/06marriage-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Like

    • Matt says:

      I read this Saturday morning, and I should have insta-replied to you. This was a really good piece and I can’t thank you enough for sharing it. I hope other people will read it, too.

      Like

  5. realophile says:

    it’s so true – my responsibility is to stop feeling wounded by my partner and disabled by my failures and instead focus on what i can give. wounded or not, i can give a lot.

    thanks for the marriage counseling… ;)

    Like

    • Matt says:

      I hope it didn’t come off preachy. :)

      I think people have a lot of influence on the health of their relationships. But most people default to a position of assuming something is wrong with the other person and that if they really love us, they’ll conform to the way we want them to.

      I don’t know why we do it. But it causes a lot of problems.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You and I have had similar experiences with marriage counseling. I found when my ex went alone for several sessions he was prepping the field, when I eventually was invited along it felt as if I was the target. Not that I was perfect, but that he was validated.

    Like

  7. wannabemgtow says:

    I’m a married man in counseling now. I’m quite comfortable in counseling. I spent about 3 years in counseling after my first mistake/marriage. This time, I was prompted by a Divorce program that I went to to try and help me repair some more of the damage from my first mistake/marriage because I was starting to see how it was effecting THIS mistake/marriage. I’ve been going expressly out of the idealogy that I can make my marriage better by making myself better.

    Unfortunately, I’m finding out that my idealogy is incorrect. I AM helping myself….I’ve found out a LOT of things about myself in recent months that I never identified before but the growth is not translating over to the marriage. So, I can only come to the conclusion that I just flat out suck at marriage. How do I come to that conclusion? Because my wife is perfect, just ask her. There is RARELY anything happening badly in the marriage that she is responsible for, especially if its related to “communication”. She’s the master communicator so she works hard at making sure that everything wrong with the marriage is a communication problem because if it’s a communication problem, she CANNOT be the person causing it. The more I work to simplify the marriage, the more she works to make it more complicated. Goal posts are constantly moving…..nothing I do is ever good enough. The whole thing is just about pointless but I keep going to counseling for ME! It’s helping ME so TO HELL WITH HER. My counselor is female and agrees with me when I say that my wife has no fucking clue how good she has it. She doesn’t have to work, she takes afternoon naps after the kids are done in homeschool and millions of women in the country from sea to shining sea would be wet just dreaming of having a man that’s WILLING to go to counseling, much less one that actually goes.

    I work hard quietly these days to make sure young men contemplating marriage get a nice talking to before they even consider it. Marriage is NOT what it used to be. Marriage today is nothing more than a license for a woman to take everything you’ve ever worked for and strip you of all dignity. Anyone who disagrees with me needs to go visit a divorce court or a family court for a day. The only males winning in those court rooms are the lawyers. You’re a good man……don’t forget it……and when I say don’t forget it, I mean DON’T MARRY AGAIN. IT’S NOT WORTH IT. IT DOESN’T GET ANY BETTER THE SECOND TIME.

    Like

  8. cyp says:

    When women have no task at hand their insane mind creates problems when there are none. You should have given her a lists of tasks to do every day. About sleeping in the guest room that was the worse thing you could do. She shit tested you. you should have said: if you do not want to sleep with me you go to the guest house. the moment you accepted her demands she ost respect for you.

    Like

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