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Marriage counselling made it worse – A tale of caution and hope

Marriage counselling made it worse

Leslie called me in a state of panic. She was worried that her twelve year marriage was beyond repair. She loved her husband David, but their long-standing differences were threatening to tear them apart.

Leslie was a worrier (self-proclaimed), and David, although cool-headed, wasn’t much for talking. Leslie would get overwhelmed with mothering, work and household responsibilities. Her anxiety would build, and she would desperately turn to David, who was consistently unable to validate and soothe her in the manner she expected. (She wanted him to say the right things). Leslie worried that maybe David didn’t possess empathy.

This set off a pattern of conflict that had gone on for their entire relationship and had landed the two of them in counselling early on. Their counsellor quickly came to the conclusion that David needed to improve his communication skills. A common assessment, here it is broken down into its basic points –

  1. Leslie and David have issues.
  2. They need to be able to talk about the issues if they are going to get better.
  3. Leslie wants to talk about them, David less so.
  4. Therefore, let’s solve the problem by helping David learn to communicate more effectively.

This can be considered a fairly standard marriage counselling approach, based on a belief that more talking about the relationship issues, with an emphasis on validation, will ultimately foster understanding and bring a couple closer together. Sometimes it helps.

In this case, the frustration between Leslie and David only grew worse. Leslie became more certain than ever that David held the key to their core issue. If only he could get it right! David tried, but found that the more he attempted to match Leslie’s verbal speed and agility, the more nervous he got, and the more he failed. No matter what he said, she was always upping the ante and staying one step ahead of him. Their well-meaning counsellor had unwittingly given a professional stamp of approval to the couple’s dysfunctional pattern. They stopped going to counselling and the issue continued to be a source of pain and conflict.

Much later, as life and relationship stress was becoming unbearable, Leslie heard about my work. She requested an information package and set up a call with the three of us. She was clear about her expectation that David participate, and she assumed we would focus on helping him learn to be a better communicator.

In our session, I listened with curiosity, looking for clues… What was driving the relationship system? What were the unexamined assumptions? Since Leslie was much more comfortable talking, the two of us talked. David listened. This matched everything Leslie had told me about their relationship dynamic, but I didn’t assume their differences to be a problem, and I said so as I managed the session.

Leslie explained their issues in detail and I listened, reflecting on key points I was hearing –

“Sounds like you get really anxious.”
Yes, she agreed emphatically.

“And it sounds like you turn to David and want him to reduce your anxiety.”
Yes again. Full agreement.

“And when he doesn’t reduce your anxiety successfully you find it intolerable.”

“And the only relief you can find in the moment is to pull the plug on the relationship, which you do again and again.”
Here Leslie paused for a moment, letting the pieces fall into place, testing the implications of this. “That’s exactly what I do,” she finally confirmed.

As our weekly sessions continued, Leslie was shocked to discover that there was actually nothing David could say that would satisfy her. For years she had believed that if only David would say the right thing, she could finally relax. This belief was echoed by friends, family, counsellors and expert authors everywhere. The belief was so ubiquitous that it was never challenged, even though it never led to a happier marriage. But in our sessions Leslie discovered that this belief simply did not match reality.

From this point onward, new possibilities emerged. Fortunately, there were still feelings of attraction, love and respect between Leslie and David. Leslie’s ability and willingness to observe her own experience, beliefs and behaviours were an asset. Also, neither Leslie nor David were invested in making the other wrong. In fact, both were relieved to finally see a way out of their long-standing deadlock.

Our sessions increasingly focused on helping Leslie learn to track the anxiety in her body and to moderate her nervous system directly. This was a brand new experience for her. With help and practice, Leslie learned to use mindful awareness to turn her attention inward rather than reflexively projecting her anxiety out onto David. This change created a refreshing spaciousness between them. When he didn’t have to struggle to keep up with Leslie’s panic and demands, David was able to finally help her. She became more open to the tactile soothing that David was good at providing. (As long as she was expecting David to “say the right thing,” she had been closed to the idea of being touched while anxious.) I began facilitating experiments between them about what kind of touch each of them enjoys moment-to-moment, and they continue to explore new ways of soothing themselves and each other.

Paradoxically, only after Leslie let go of her attachment to David understanding and validating her in a specific way could she enjoy the genuine gifts that David brings to the relationship. Only after looking inside and taking responsibility for her own anxiety could she find any satisfaction in the soothing he was capable of providing. Unstuck after a decade, the process continues, with new layers constantly being revealed.

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21 replies on “Marriage counselling made it worse – A tale of caution and hope”

My counseling made it worse in a similar but different way. He didn’t agree to counseling until I was done. I didn’t want to stay married and was only going to counseling because our religious leader asked me to.
The counselor was so focused on changing my mind about staying married that she wouldn’t help us with the actual issues and problems we had. If she had been willing to work on our relationship instead of our marriage, we might still be married or at least have a decent relationship since we are still raising a son. Instead we ended up divorced and still with lousy communication and compromise skills to boot.

It took me 10 years to figure out that in an attempt to stop the arguments I had compromised myself into a person he didn’t like and someone I didn’t recognize. Meanwhile, he had quit doing and being all the things that caused me to love him in the first place and “didn’t think I was serious” when I told him they were deal breakers. We never figured out how to work together on anything.

“If she had been willing to work on our relationship instead of our marriage, we might still be married or at least have a decent relationship since we are still raising a son.”
– Useful insight Shauna, and clearly hard-won. Thanks for sharing.

This is extremely great insight in my opinion. Thank you for sharing. When a person feels they can only be fulfilled by another person, it puts both in a precarious position.

i wish I had read this at 20 instead of 45! My husband also dies not verbally spar like I do. I begged him to talk to me. When it was i who just needed to own my insecurities. We are married 25 years and when I quit hounding him to talk and found my own peace and center he opened up. He is dynamite at comforting by touch. That’s what I always had and ignored! Thanks for articles that put our problems in plain language.

I think this is a great article! Someone else can’t fix you. We defiantly have the non communication issue going on. But we both shut down and continue business as usual with no connection.

Awesome read. Amazing article. Im 26yrs old and i can relate to this anxiety issue. Luckily its in an early stage and i can apply myself better in my relationship.

I’m curious if i can find a way for this to relate to my situation… My husband often has a negative tone when speaking, i find it painful to be spoken to this way, he also dismisses my feelings and gets absolutely nervous when i cry, his response is usually cold and defensive, so am i expecting too of him to speak to me kindly or be supportive when I’m emotional or is this a completely different issue. I’m wondering because our Therapist is working on his communication skills..

I am currently reading a book titled Emotional Fitness by Janice Berger. In it, there is a quote that says “I recall one client who was so armoured against his own feelings of fear that he could not tolerate any fear, or even nervousness in either his wife or his children”. The book is about what happens when we learn to shut down our feelings. Learn not to allow ourselves to feel and how that manifests in our lives. I’m still early in the book so I can’t really comment on how helpful the advice is yet. But, Mary’s comment reminded me of this quote. Janice Berger also made the comment that medical professionals often unwittingly encourage patients to suppress their feelings because they are just as afraid of their own feelings as anyone else.

What a great post! So clearly articulates the positions that couples find themselves in. I am going to share with some clients who are in the same place. It’s amazing how when one person starts to care for themselves in a more true way, the other person can then come forward. I appreciate your posts!
Keep doing this good work. 🙂

YES!!! Thank you!

My husband and I went to couples counseling with no success. I heard an awful lot of “I don’t know how to help you” and a fair amount of “well, I guess you’re not compatible then” from the counselor.

My original complaint for going to the counselor was my husband’s anxiety driving me nuts. After several months of sessions, I was convinced it wasn’t anxiety and I was fundamentally flawed, terrible at talking to my husband, and I would have to figure out on my own how to not pull out my hair in frustration or just shut down when he started nagging me until I’d tell him what he wanted to hear… only to have him demand it again from me 5 minutes later.

Over time, I have figured out he is trying to make himself feel better by having me say what he wants to hear. He wants me to affirm him over and over again about those things. He wants me to reassure him I am not thinking all the bad things about him that he anxiously fears I am, one of twice every day, when I have given no indication that I actuality think those things. I have tried telling him that he needs to find that kind of reassurance inside of himself, because it’s impossible for me to give him as much as he wants. It doesn’t seem to click though, and he feels like I’ve said I have nothing good to say about him and I’m not interested in affirming him ever.

If I get frustrated or give up and walk away, he begins to fear I am withdrawing from him emotionally or that it marriage is over.

It always feels like a no win situation.
Thank God he comes around after a few days and apologizes. Except, then he beats himself up for it, so then I’m reassuring him that he’s not a terrible husband.
Sometimes it feels like my whole life is reassuring him.

I have tried to see 2 different marriage counselors. One with this marriage and one with my last (turns out I had been married to an assist with narcissistic personality disorder). Neither of them helped me one bit. They just threw worksheets and books at us.
I wish it wasn’t so hard to find someone who actually had some skill……

Of course, I think what needs to happen for any real progress is for my husband to feel more secure in himself, and there’s nothing I can do to get him to that place…

Not all the counsellor is good at counseling.
From i have seen the comments here.

Before you argue with your spouse.
Do you mind to tell me, “what is marriage?”

We must recognize that when we got into marriage, our weaknesses appear than when we were in relationship.

A marriage not 50 & 50 by 2 persons.
But 100 & 100.

Ask ourself, what is marriage?

We had been talking a lot. Working through some things. My husband thought we were on the right track. I however, felt that due to the explosive nature of everything that a counselor would make us less likely to defensively fly off track. He believed that it would just reopen wounds that had started to heal. Because to bring someone up to speed required starting at the beginning. He was right. The last appointment we had “Then why are we still married.” He stated just as our time was up.
I’m thankful that it didn’t derail us completely. But I have seen that it is possible not to be the right fit for every situation.

Powerful insight as our marriage counselor directly focused on me not sharing/communicating thus causing our problems by being “emotionally unavailable”, dismissive and disregarding. After being married for 20 years I realized that much of what my wife was struggling with were some serious childhood abandonment issues and the unhealthy choices she made as a young adult in addressing those issues. She would go through periods being wracked with guilt, shame and unworth and sought me to comfort, soothe and sometimes confront. I tried. It was never enough and it was very hard to be accused of “not being there/not empathizing/no truly listening” when I knew I was. Many, many times. Instead of dealing with the issues – it was deflected to me as being non supportive.

Wife continued seeing her counselor that validated her “freedom” and lack of “emotional support”. She then sought a divorce but settled into current three year separation. About two years ago she agreed to halt the divorce and see a counselor jointly to help me understand my role in our marriage demise. That was an amazing experience that hit the core – my wife admitted being very hurt in the past and struggling with past family issues/choices and nothing I can do/say will solve that. Also, revealed that I was emotionally spent trying to help her.

But, that is where we stalled. She lives on her own as she needed her time and space. Children alternate weeks between houses. Wife still struggles with family/past. Expects me to fight in bold way for our marriage now. We date and spend time together. We do not really speak of any of this – I get the feeling and sometimes verbal comments that she wishes what she accused me of would just go away. Quote from her “…during my stupid phase of life”. Not sure where we are going. Her request is me being bold and my unspoken request is for her to deal with and put to peace her struggle of family/past. I feel and reflect on that she knows and acknowledges her family/past issue, and it must be her decision to address/heal.

First counselor we had gave us ” Dance with Anger” and other books to read. I read half, thought it was nonsense. He read them all, quoted them all back to the counselor. I was “resistant’. He continued to stay out at night, drink and dope, when I do neither. I was told that dislike of his cheating was “provincial and parochial’ by the counselor. I should forgive and get over it, as people had different ‘needs’. Best thing she did was have us list Pros and Cons. When I titled it ” Pros and Cons of Divorce”, not of Leaving, or of Staying Together, I knew I was done. I left , after cancelling further appointments for me.
I realised that I have certain expectations, needs and a worldview on which I am unwilling to compromise. While I could have pretended that I was willing to change those things in my character , I liked them too much. I am the protesting, school volunteer, cake-baking, picketing, feminist- inspired businesswoman I choose to be.
The last 10 years have been bliss.

I’ve actually lost most of my faith in counseling both individually and as a couple. I have had at least a half a dozen counselors over the course of my 43 years and none of them helped at all. In terms of my experience with couple counseling, I am still devastated and bewildered. My son’s father and I went into counseling. We had two couple sessions and then shifted into individual sessions. When my ex attended his first, and ultimately only session, with our counselor, he came out of it saying she was very wise and we would talk about it later. The day before mother’s day he told me he was leaving me. I felt so angry. We had gone to her for help. I attended my last individual session with her to ask what happened. She told me she could not tell me of course but that it was unfortunate that my ex could not tell me the truth. She then provided me with the same information she gave to my ex regarding smart ways to financially separate! This was over 10 years ago now. He is now married to someone else. We have a terrible relationship and do not co-parent very well. I’m heartbroken over how this all turned out and I never got an explanation. I tried counseling again a year ago and it was not helpful again. The counselor kept soothing me saying, but I only see strengths in you. But, she never helped me get to the bottom of my feelings. I still need help but feel I need to gain help from books and videos. I can’t imagine wasting my time and money again. I can’t risk being let down again.

Try “Self Therapy by Jay Earley.” Its really complicated at first , then it becomes easier and makes a lot of sense. Internal Family Systems has had great success.

I read your comment just now and felt compelled to write a response. Not because i have any wisdom on the matter but just to let you know i have been through many psychologists and councillors in my life for childhood issues, marriage, and bereavement and have failed to feel satisfied after finishing a round of sessions with any of them! I have found more understanding and guidance with people i have met in random situations in life when i have showed a bit of vulnerabilty in conversation. I have also found journal writing very beneficial to release things and move forward. It is heartbreaking to hear you are still feeling unresolved after all this time. I wish you all the best and hope you have a supportive network around you.

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