Does Marriage Counseling Make Emotional Abuse Worse?

marriage couseling 1

By Steven Stosny

If you live with a resentful, angry, or emotional abusive person, you have most likely have already tried marriage counseling or individual psychotherapy. You may have tried sending your partner to some kind of anger-management group. Let me guess your experience: Your personal psychotherapy did not help your relationship, marriage counseling made it worse, your partner’s psychotherapy made it still worse, and his anger-management or abuser classes lowered the tone but not the chronic blame of his resentment, anger, or abuse.

Fortunately, you can learn something about healing from each one of these failed treatments, which we will examine next, one by one.

Why Marriage Counseling Fails

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. 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? more…


One Response to “Does Marriage Counseling Make Emotional Abuse Worse?”

  1. Mil Says:

    Why this article is correct. This went on over several sessions. My “boyfriend” and I have small children together and he is emotionally abusive. Hi ex-wife has harassed me. His mother has done very destructive things to me. They have even gotten my daughter kicked out of a volunteer program at 12 years old. He has been emotionally abusive for years, withholding affection, refusing to help with our children, drinking( for while living in my parent’s home and even though my parents took him and his children in by by his ex-wife when they had no where else to go and I helped him with those children amongst other things. He has also acted indifferently towards my eldest daughter by another man, a relationship I had left years earlier. He had no problem acting concerned and caring in front of the therapist. As long as I have known him (20 years-since we were teenagers) he has had general flat affect and sounds like Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh except when he is hostile. I thought perhaps I could get some relief from the therapist. I had even moved into transitional housing for abused women while pregnant. I told her my boyfriend doesn’t like to be disobeyed. She said that she didn’t like that, that those were strong words. Then my boyfriend said that I used strong words. After talking to him. She then went into a line of questioning that was insulting and overlooked other strong words that I quoted or ones she used about me or that he did. She asked me if I had children to spite him because he had told her he didn’t want children with me, that I “don’t listen to him” leaving out that he had gotten multiple women pregnant on multiple occasions prior to our relationship and that he not only gave me a difficult time about using protection when we were intimate, but that he did things to sabotage my birth control as well. He also refused to use protection with various women he had slept with I later discovered. Spite was the word the therapist used not him. I also told her he had referred to me on numerous occasions as a cunt, she had no response to that. I also told her his child(who actually love me and who were so young when their parents divorced they don’t remember them being married) by his ex-wife referred to me as a whore(which his ex-wife routinely calls me even though I had zero romantic or inappropriate involvement or interest when whey were together and she was the one who left him), she had no response to that. I also told her he had once pulled over the car, sneaked away, gotten high, hid it, and then drove us somewhere. She had no response to that even though he was driving under the influence. When describing a recent conflict over a very minor incident, he referred me to “dragging” the kids out, simply because he had not expected for me to have them when I met him for lunch. I described his brooding and not greeting our children which she overlooked. He admitted to his drinking and lied and said he never drank around the children. He is in a sober-living house because he got kicked out of his mother’s house after getting kicked out of my parent’s home. He lied and said he had never drank around his children.I told her he lies directly-like the not drinking around the kids, which she did not question him about, and by omission. She suggested that I “felt” he was lying. When I told her he had abandoned our children on various occasions, instead of asking if this was true, she asked me who else in my life abandoned me. She then asked who else does he act like and at that point it felt like an interrogation, and I had started crying and I told her my brother and she said he wasn’t my brother. I went onto describe a number of times where he tried to kick our children and myself out of the car, telling us to take the bus including when it was storming and she not only did not question him about this, she excused it, saying he was stressed-her words, not his. This was despite the fact that during one of these incidents he admitted that he changed his mind about picking me up because he knew what he had done was wrong. He was told that he has ptsd at the VA, which she never found out, because even though he told her had had been on the frontline in the infantry in Iraq, her questions were exacting with me and cursory with him. His father abandoned him, which she didn’t ask him about. I told her about a conflict we had in which I told him not to talk to me like I was one of his daughters and he said: “You need to be spoken to that way.” No response from her. She told him he was dealing with a traumatized person in tone that suggested she emphasized with him. I told her that he referred to my older daughter as a “bi***” and that she has “my weirdness”, and she glossed over that saying to both of us “Can we agree that hurtful things about the children aren’t ok.” I told her my older daughter when she was as young as ten even referred to him as acting indifferent to her-no response. He told he that I never had any accountability and she asked me if I get that from my cultural heritage, not asking if I felt this was true. She accepted everything he said at face value. I told her he pressured me into the relationship-no response. I told her that when I was in labor even though he had promised to be there and we weren’t arguing at the time, that he sent me a text when I had not texted him stating: “No I don’t want to be there for a baby I don’t want”. No response from her. He then went to Disneyland with his Mom(who hates me after I encouraged him to spend more time with his children by his ex-wife) and his ex-wife(who neglects their children together) and other children, when our baby was less than three weeks old and then refused to meet our baby until she was two months old, also ignoring at the time, my eldest daughter and our two year old together. In a drunken moment of clarity when our baby was a week old, he texted me saying he stayed in touch with me all these years because he loved me and that he treated me “so badly” when he was finally able to love me. I sat there and cried in front of the therapist and said “He knows he treated us badly(me and the children) and he just sat backed and enjoyed it. He also regularly denies what an angry person he is. So then he offered that he didn’t think that his actions warranted some of my responses, and so she felt it was appropriate to bring up how emotional I was the other week in the session. as if she knew what he was talking about. There were many incidents of abuse over the years, but I am just sharing what I shared with the therapist that she managed to overlook for whatever reason. Maybe this was in part due to her training in one specific area. After all, you wouldn’t go to a heart surgeon for a brain tumor. As troubling as this sounds. I expected the father of my children to lie and treat me badly but it shook me to the core to have a professional sit before my eyes and excuse his behavior and dismiss my concerns. I am not including everything she said, but in all the years I have felt devastated by this relationship, I think I felt worse than I ever had before. Not being able to recognize the signs of an abusive relationship, and failing to catch on his underlying need to control in his statements, left me feeling deeply disheartened. She held my emotions against me and labeled me as traumatized, not seeing that perhaps I am traumatized by this relationship. Don’t think he didn’t use these sessions against me. He certainly did. I told her that I had stayed in transitional housing for abused women. She asked me no questions about this.I think articles like yours are important because I don’t even think that some professionals realize the harm that they can do. She even made sure to ask me if he did anything write and to let me know that I needed to be there for his children that aren’t mine even though we all don’t live together. Would she say that had I told her he was punching me in the face everyday? I doubt it.

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