Thursday, January 9, 2014

When Marriage Counseling Fails

Taryn Hillin’s experience of marriage counseling is, regrettably, all too common.

A semi-estranged couple sits in a room with a certified marriage counselor and emotes. Both parties seem to be following a rule that tells them, not merely to express their feelings openly and honestly, but to express their anger, resentment and contempt for each other… openly and honestly and shamelessly.

Hillin describes her experience:

I've been in marriage counseling twice: Marriage #1 and Marriage #2. I can't say I'm a big fan. In fact, I can probably say I'm a huge advocate for not going to marriage counseling at all. It's like paying someone to referee a knockdown, fist-flailing hate fest where saying anything to each other -- even truly horrible statements -- is supposed to bring you enlightened understanding and emotional intimacy.

To me, our weekly sessions were a flogging and I would have done anything, including chewing my own leg off, to escape the trap of that room. Through the months of listening to my every flaw, I would gaze out the window of our therapist's third floor office and wonder if it was high enough for me to run and jump to my death, just to escape the emotional beating that Husband #2 was unleashing on me.

Inflicting more emotional damage on each other is not therapeutic. It is not cathartic. It does not put issues on the table where they can be dealt with. If you are going to resolve conflicts you need to adopt a tone that facilitates negotiated compromise; psychodrama isn’t it.

For the sake of argument we will imagine that Hillin’s experience does not tell us what happens in all marriage counseling. And yet, the picture is all too familiar, all too dramatic and all too destructive.

It is the nature of the marital beast that two people who live in very close proximity and who share so much intimacy provide a multitude of ways to inflict serious emotional harm on each other.

Confiding in another person and sharing your life with that person requires that you both agree, on your sacred honor, not to use your privileged knowledge to inflict pain on the each other. They are honor bound not to use the information to hurt the other person. With that agreement, sharing confidences becomes too risky.

Those are the ground rules.

When marriage counselors encourage or condone a breach of trust they are not only making reconciliation impossible. They are promoting or countenancing one habit that is guaranteed to damage a marriage.

Hillin offers a picture of a more constructive approach, one that she and her estranged husband agreed on together. It did not, in and of itself, solve all of their problems. But it shows the way toward reconciliation, toward finding common ground.

It involves a weekend together, one that would take place half-way between where she was living and where he was living. It’s called finding a middle ground.

Hiller and her husband agree not to work on their relationship and not to spend the time tearing into each other in the name of openness and honesty. They decided to enjoy each other's company.

She describes the weekend:

So Husband #2 and I agreed to try something different for a while. After four months of not seeing each other and communicating sporadically by email, we decided to meet for a weekend halfway between here and there. No relationship talk, no divorce filing talk, just topics that we were strong enough to handle in our broken state.

For one weekend, we were ourselves again, the two people who fell in love so many years ago. The ones who laughed and flirted and kissed and cuddled. In some respects, our separateness is still evident, but our one weekend was a step towards remembering the reasons that I fell in love with Husband #2 to begin with.

Was it enough to heal the marriage? Apparently, not. Still, it was a step in the right direction, one that undoes some of the damage done by marriage counseling.


Webutante said...

I couldn't agree more with the usually awful process of going back and letting it rip in a marriage counsellor's office.

What I have learned over my years as a court mediator is the power of putting a healthier process in place with ground rules for respectful, even pleasant communication. In mediating even the most contentious court cases, both parties have to agree on the front end to the simpliest rules of courtesy and respect: stay in your own chair, no shouting, no name calling, no interupting, no snarling at your opponent and waiting your turn to talk.

These ground rules are not rocket science but apparently are new to some people dealing with conflict. It cools things down rather than heating them up. We get agreement on these rules, then let it do its magic. We have deputy sheriffs in the next room in case things get out of hand but it's never been necessary.

When people say what a good mediation it is...I give all the credit to the respectful process in which everyone leaves the room without injuries and usually with a sense of accomplishment.

It's a very powerful and brief experience that can have lasting
effects. It is something we can all apply to our lives and relationships.

Great post, Stuart.

Webutante said...

One other ground rule is staying on the topic at hand rather than wandering off into the quick sand of each and every perceived slights....most important.

Then we go into the phase of how we can do it better next the focus stays in the present and future rather than the hellhole of the past.

Sam L. said...

A positive outcome. Impossible for me to say what would be the best outcome for them, but it was a good one, and likely better than most. Far better than recriminations, permanent bad feelings toward each other. Have a funeral for the marriage, bury the hatchets, and get on with your lives.

Larry Sheldon said...

I had one experience with marriage counseling and I will summarily declare it a failure even though quite a few years later I am still married to my first wife.

The thing that I wanted most when I greed to ti, was a referee--a person that would listen to us both and say, as appropriate "Larry, you are wrong here, think about a and b and c..." or "Mrs. Larry, you are wrong here ...."

But that did not happen. At each session, she in one room, I in another, each with our own "counselor".

Most often I would get a lit of things I needed to apologize for.

Done. Meeting over.

Larry Sheldon said...

By "one experience" I mean one time that she moved out, and the condition of her moving back was that we do "marriage counseling". It went on all one winter.

Jason said...

Pretty good information I have got from here about marriage counseling experience of Taryn Hillin’s and whatever I got from here that's really informative as well. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

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