Wednesday, July 3, 2013

When Marriage Counseling Fails

In case you were wondering why marriage counseling is so ineffective, Time Magazine has the answer. Most marriage counselors believe, as an article of faith, that conflict should be addressed, not avoided.

Thus, they promote and encourage dramatic conflict. Since these conflicts tend to undermine martial harmony, the results are often not very good.

Obviously, the problem is not limited to people who undergo marriage counseling. The media has promoted this idea, thereby infecting the ambient culture. People who have never seen the inside of a counselor’s office  are likely to believe that when you have conflicts with your spouse, you must talk them out.

Time Magazine explains the conventional approach:

It’s a familiar mantra that marriage counselors rely upon in advising their couples — talk about conflicts and try to resolve them, rather than letting suppressed feelings fester until they poison a relationship beyond repair.

This implies that a spouse who does not want to have a serious conversation about a conflict is not doing his or her part to heal the marriage.

As you might imagine, the conventional wisdom is wrong. New research has shown that in the best and long-lasting marriages, couples ignore their conflicts. They put them aside, unresolved, and move their conversation to more neutral ground: they discuss what they are going to have for dinner.

Researcher Sarah Holley examined the conversational patters of couples who were over 60 years of age and who had been married for a long time. She discovered that these couples avoid contentious discussions, see arguments as less important and try to engage in positive experiences.

Other studies have shown similar results. Some attribute it to the wisdom that comes from age and experience. A successful marriage builds on harmonious communication; it does not found itself on endless arguments. It is not based on resolving conflict, but on managing differences.

Naturally, these studies have not persuaded the marriage counselors who still adhere to the conflict resolution, talk-it-out model. Some have suggested that when a couple is not fighting their marriage must be dead.

Besides, if marriage counselors were not provoking or directing drama, they would not know what to do with their clients.

26 comments:

Leo G said...

Moe Norman, one of the greatest golfers, and suspected to have ADD, had the mantra of when leaving the golf course, forget your bad shots, and replay/review your good shots, for that is what you want more of.

JPL17 said...

In 29 years of marriage, the most valuable 5 words I ever learned to say to my wife were, "Can we discuss this later?"

tnxplant said...

It took me 30+ years to learn this. We've been married 40 years, and it finally hit me that when my spouse was angry or upset about something, I should listen, be unemotional, not try to fix it, and apologize only when I'd actually done something wrong. Waiting for things to cool down and changing the subject really do work!

Anonymous said...

There are people in marriages where there is significant breakdown in the relationship, and a tempestuous silence lurks around. This isn't silence that is give-and-take, "agree to disagree," and "this, too, shall pass" kinds of thinking, which are acknowledgements of a greater commitment. It's an affirmative choice. What I encounter with couples I know who are (thankfully) in marriage counseling is they need to be straight with each other, need new communication structures to fall back on and often need a referee. The marriage isn't working because one person is not getting the seriousness the other is putting out in the table, and it breeds contempt.

John Gottmanm is a famous University of Washington marriage researcher who has done excellent work on this. Gottman posits that the greatest threat to a marriage is contempt, the last and most devastating of his "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (another is stonewalling). These are relationships that don't work, and the reasons are many. Gottman can tell within 5 minutes whether a mariiage will work out, with 91% accuracy. He acknowledges there are different types, that some relationships are fluid and phlegmatic, while others can appear rough and verbally aggressive, yet both can work with he right pair-mix. The bottom line is that successful couples calmly sit down and work their problems out to mutual satisfaction when that arise. I highly recommend Gottman's "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work." I've given it as a wedding present to every couple that's invited me/us to their wedding... it's that good, and a great many have told me it's been indispensable.

My point in sharing this is that marriages come with different veneers, and perhaps many (most?) marital therapists believe that interactions should look like grand, Oprah-type waterfalls of feelings, which make for great theater for the therapist, I'm sure. The question is: does it work? Your piece says it does not.

I wonder if the 60+-year-old subjects of Holley's research wen through similar rough patches early-on, and had to communicate their way to resolution, and now that resolution is ground for mutual understanding. My own grandparents had a great marriage, but said the first year was bitterly difficult, and they had to find boundaries. To say that conventional wisdom is wrong in the grand scheme of things is fine, but to diminish the importance of specific things to specific people strikes me as unwise. Give-and-take requires participants to pick their battles, and some contemptuous (or stonewalling) mates don't communicate or listen to their spouses. This kind of attitude/behavior is hardly about putting one's best foot forward to make something work. rather, it is dismissive. That's not only unkind, it's dangerous.

I might add that our narcissistic, shameless culture works against this kind of "managing differences," because we look for the other to "complete" us. That's a different discussion, but I thought the book "Getting the Love You Want" by Harville Hendrix really put that in perspective. After all, it's not about you.

(Cont'd below...)

Anonymous said...

(Cont'd from above)

Some conflicts need to be resolved to create space for harmonious immunization. But the Disney-style perpetual happy face with no clarification or compromise is not healthy. You're correct if you're saying that not every bit of spilt milk needs to be cleaned-up by a counselor. My wife and I have never gone to therapy, but we certainly have lively conversations with elevated volumes sometimes because we are looking to be heard and reach an agreement about what we will do going forward. It's usually mature and respectful, but sometimes not. In the end, we work it out because we are good communicators. Some couples are not, and the pain just festers. I've not seen marital therapy work much of the time, but it can work if both spouses are committed. However, it can work from that place by finding common ground and moving to harmonious communication that manages differences... without a therapist being involved.

I remember hearing a psychiatrist on the radio once, his name is Stephen Marmer. He said something very prescient, which will always stick with me: "One third of therapists are good and can help you; the middle third are okay, but won't do harm; and the bottom third are bad, harmful and dangerous, to be avoided at all costs." I suppose that quote is true for any profession, actually. But the therapists you point to who are "provoking and directing drama," or say a marriage is dead if the couple doesn't fight, fall into the dangerous category. That sounds like inciting personal entertainment rather than helping. The best therapists I've ever talked with say the goal is to have things be un-dramatic as possible. They call it working on the marriage, not stoking flames.

The big breakdowns are about control. Control freaks will argue, resist, fight and argue until they are blue in the face. Their thirst for control cannot be satiated. If a problem is "resolved" (invariably to their satisfaction), they move onto the next article of conflict. I see this with couples I know, and it's just ruinous for their marriages... the other spouse can't give in enough. Again, narcissism on parade, and not solvable through couples therapy.

Sorry for the long post.. This is an important topic.

Tip

Sloane Westland said...

When your wife is angry, let her blow it off and don't answer or shout at her. Just listen and maybe you can find the answers on why she is angry.But if you really cna't take the problems at home, a divorce shouldn't be the first option. There's always the marriage counseling Plano that can help you.

charles cutt said...

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Thanks for sharing.

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Sherry Francis said...
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Daniel Kwok said...

Your articles don’t beat about the bushes these are actually exact t to the purpose. counselors

Nancy Jorden said...

My husband and I have been arguing a lot together. We think that it is a good idea to look into marriage counseling. I hope that we are able to find a counselor that we get a long with soon. We really hope that it will work well for us soon. http://capitolacounseling.com/index.php/marriage-and-family-therapy

elieasa marriea said...

I got married with my college friend but our life is not going well as wished. He always says "Just stop it"

Marriage Counselling

Melissa said...
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kesby said...
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Stive Peterson said...
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Parm Laniado said...

Many women believe that if their man would just share his feelings, they would finally have the connection they crave. But asking a man how he feels in counseling is like asking a woman in a bathing suit who’s eating a piece of cake how much she weighs.

Trying and failing to get a man to talk about his feelings in marriage counseling may confirm a wife’s worst fears that her husband is defective. But the real failure here is her lack of respect for the man he is — the one she picked to marry.

Chances are good that you married an imperfect man who’s perfect for you. Instead of trying to pry his feelings out of him, consider bringing respect back into the relationship by honoring your husband’s masculinity and his choices for himself. If you want more passion in your marriage, there’s no stronger aphrodisiac than respect.

Relationships naturally take a little energy and if you’re depleted, you give your relationship no chance to thrive. Showing up delighted instead of depleted is indispensable for a gratifying and intimate partnership.

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