Thursday, May 10, 2018

Couples Counseling Killed Her Marriage

Rather than regale you with yet another instance of an advice columnist giving out bad advice, I offer a change of pace. This week, thanks to the Daily Mail, we read about Jo-Anna Francis, a woman who believed that she could revive her failing marriage by going to couples counseling.

It ought to be well enough known by now that couples counseling does not work. The counselors are not going to tell you, so we call on Francis to explain what really happened in counseling and how, by her testimony, it destroyed her marriage.

In effect, it’s relatively rare for clients of such counselors to go public with their stories. The details are often intimate and embarrassing, thus unworthy of public exposure.

Francis speaks frankly about her experience, so we will defer to her and let her present her experience with a minimum of commentary.

She begins by noting that counseling involves picking apart a relationship in front of a stranger:

Without the counselling, I’m convinced we would eventually have climbed out of the marital hole in which we found ourselves and still be married today.

Instead, it opened Pandora’s box. In front of a stranger, we picked at the fabric of our relationship until it unravelled completely.

Some things are best performed in the dark and in private. But, you knew that already.

The marriage in question was three years old. The couple had been involved for eight years. It took less than a year for the counseling to kill the marriage.

The Francis marriage began unraveling with the birth of their first child. Naturally, she saw the problems in terms of communication—haven’t we all been told that better, more open communication will solve all of our problems?—and not in terms of organization and gender roles… which seem to have been the real problem.

She explains:

Ironically, I was the one who suggested counselling. I felt it would help us with the communication problems we’d been having since our son was born, which had also impacted the physical side of our relationship.

My working life had changed completely when I was made redundant just five months after returning from maternity leave. I set up a new marketing business, but had to juggle it with looking after an 11-month-old.

Meanwhile, Alex’s life appeared to carry on as before.

I started to feel resentful. I felt like my business couldn’t reach its full potential because of Alex’s inflexibility. If I had a meeting, he was unwilling to change his plans to do the pre-school drop-off.

A little less resentment and a more resourceful attempt at organizing the family might have been more useful than communication. We do not know what her husband’s business was, so we do not know whether her demand was reasonable or unreasonable. 

We suspect that Francis had bought into the feminist life plan, whereby husbands and wives would share childcare. She seems to have wanted to impose her vision on her husband… failing to notice that husbands do not relate very well to neonates, infants or babies. And without saying anything about his professional responsibilities. We know, for a fact, that managers who take time off to go off and care for children lose the respect of their staff and their peers. About that, Francis has nothing to say. I suspect that her therapist did not either.

As it happened, Francis did try to discuss different ways of organizing the household, though it appears that she larded it over with complaints about how unhappy she was. Unfortunately, constant complaining causes people to tune out:

Before we had counselling, I was the one who liked to get things out in the open, whereas Alex was more of a closed book. If I tried to discuss how we could organise childcare differently or how unhappy it was making me, he’d change the subject.

Francis wanted to solve it all with a lot of open discussion. One suspects that she was not willing to negotiate or even to take responsibility for childcare, but believed that she could persuade her husband to do something that he did not want to do.

If we could have just talked honestly to each other, I’m convinced we would have overcome our problems and regained our intimacy. But we didn’t seem able to do that on our own, so it was in the hope that Alex would open up to a third party that I started looking for a counsellor.

Her husband seemed to have accepted counseling because he thought that it would improve their sex life. Yet, the female therapist was significantly older than both of them… and Francis found this to be disconcerting.

At our initial appointment, I was shocked to discover the female therapist was as old as my grandparents. The thought of talking through my sex life with someone the same age as my gran was not appealing. Yet I was heartened to find Alex and I appeared to be on the same page: we wanted to learn how to communicate better with each other and improve our love life.

More interesting for our purposes was the content of treatment. First, the therapist recommended a “sex ban” in order to put the issue to the side. Since Francis was rejecting her husband’s advances, he saw the ban as her victory. This suggests that they began treatment under the shadow that the therapist was going to take one side or the other:

Our therapist suggested a ‘sex ban’, a way of removing the pressure to be intimate. I felt it was a sensible plan — but Alex saw it as a sign I had ‘won’, that it was the excuse I’d been looking for not to be intimate with him.

But then, husband Alex became more emotional.

There was also a stark difference in how we responded to the counsellor. Alex became very emotional about our relationship in the sessions.

But I discovered, too late, that I don’t open up in such artificial circumstances. And I was heartbroken that my husband was being incredibly open and honest with a counsellor in a way he wasn’t when we were alone together.

Before assuming that therapy was working for Alex, we note another possibility. He might simply have been playing the therapy game. It would have been much better to be open and honest than to discuss diaper duty. Moreover, the therapist had set up a sex ban. Now, Alex might have been trying to persuade her to lift the ban. If you think that a reticent man, going to therapy, will open up and be cured, you know very little about men.

As it happened, the therapist, like many psycho professionals, was more concerned with dredging up the past than about planning for the future. To be fair cognitive therapists have recently started recommending against this approach, but it is alive and well:

I wanted to look to the future, not be forever defined by the fact my parents divorced when I was two and I’d had a tricky relationship with my stepdad. Perhaps I was naive, but I expected therapy to focus on the here and now.

Our counsellor, however, wanted to know everything — from our childhood experiences to our relationships with our parents.

Wanting to know everything might make the therapist an omnivore. It might also mean that she did not know how to negotiate the areas of couples conflict.

As I have often pointed out, understanding why you are doing what you are doing or not doing what you are not doing is a futile exercise:

I realise now that this is standard, to help understand why we had certain outlooks.

But it simply served to highlight our differences, rather than celebrate what we’d loved about each other in the first place.

It left us feeling pitted against each other, rather than on the same side. After each session, without fail, there would be an emotionally charged, silent drive home. I felt at fault and I’m sure Alex felt drained.

The therapist treated each of them as self-contained human monads, utterly individual, but decidedly detached from each other. The mania about self-actualization divides people; it does not unite them.

The therapist also encouraged individual sessions. These did not produce any positive benefit:

We were encouraged to have a session each on our own. I didn’t think these were a great idea, but accepted it as part of the process. I worried the counsellor would take sides on the basis of what we’d said and felt under pressure to make my ‘case’.

I was correct. Afterwards, we were both suspicious of what the other one had said.

As time went on, counselling only seemed to exacerbate our issues and sense of distrust.

The therapist seemed to believe that she needed to release each spouse’s capacity for love, and that love would conquer all. It did not work out:

Today, I am convinced that, had we not gone to therapy, we would have just ‘got on with things’. We were old enough to know marriage wouldn’t be all hearts and flowers and that the basis of marriage should be a good friendship, which we had.

Counselling eroded that. We ended up in a ‘who loves who the most’ competition — not what I had wanted at all.

Francis suggests that a good friendship, not romantic love, should be the basis for a good marriage. In that, she is no doubt correct.

She concludes:

Because I couldn’t express my love for my husband in front of a stranger, I was left feeling I didn’t have the capacity to love as much as I ‘should’.

Rather than trawling through the past, surely it would have been better to give us practical help with the present? Perhaps if someone had encouraged us to take the time to ask ‘what’s gone well for you today?’ or ‘what’s upset you today?’ and listen to each other, we’d have moved forward, rather than backward.


Sam L. said...

Ah... Toxic "therapy".

Christopher B said...

Sounds like she had the perfect opportunity to resolve the childcare drop off problem by, ya know, raising her own child for a while. I'm sure she would consider that crazy talk, however.

JPL17 said...

Stuart's description of couples counseling perfectly fits my wife's and my torturous experience with it about 18 years ago. Fortunately for us, we saw it making things worse and quit before it was too late. Of course right after quitting, things immediately got much better.

So maybe that's the one way couples counseling can actually work: namely, once you quit and find yourselves again in a situation that might prompt a marital fight, you both think to yourselves, "No! Don't make me go back to that awful couples counseling! Anything but that!", which prompts you both to figure out a way to negotiate it out yourselves.

Flugelman said...

Never trusted "Counselors" much. Had a neighbor couple who were Family Counselors in the community. She an ex-nun, he an ex-priest. She went to a neighbors house one day asking "Is your hot water out too?"

whitney said...


It sounds like you and your wife United over a common enemy. Very wise

JPL17 said...


Thanks for your kind words. It took some years and perspective to get to that point, but the wait was worth it.

Dan Patterson said...

Deny biology all you want but male animals do not generally make good caretakers of young. They tend to eat them instead. Female animals are equipped for children from conception through nurturing into pubescence. The nurturing begins a decline after the little animal attains some independent abilities, then the male animal is best equipped to push the little one along to adulthood; by then it's too large to be tender and their are better meals to be had.
Single mothers disrupt that biologic template and the result is adolescent youth and young adults with strongly tribal behaviors, inability to adapt, violent problem solving expressions, and a general atavism away from civility. Baltimore 1960 vs Baltimore now, for example.
Couples therapy seeks to ignore innate roles and focuses on why the male is so wrong in his behavior, point of view, communication style, and hair cut. "Jesus will you shut UP and leave me ALONE" might go unsaid but is in every man's head. Do not pick at him or your young will be eaten. Maybe not by him directly, but they will be destroyed.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I was a pretty good caretaker of the young, did more of it than my wife some years between 2-5, thanks just the same, and I have five grown sons, all fully employed, supervising others, and independent. Well, the fifth one only supervises others in the Reserves, not at work. Just because modern sensibilities undervalue biology does not mean that we have to crown it as king over our destinies. Our brains are remarkable things, and we can adapt to many situations. You'd be surprised how many things can work with a little planning.

One form of counseling I do approve of is pre-marital, which could have been useful in this case. If X happens, what will be your response? Expectations around children should be a major part of this. Response to extended family are neglected even more in courtship discussions. Expectations around serious illness and injury, more still.

As for sex, the Puritan concept was that it was designed by God "to knit the heart of a husband to his wife." That is, it is to repair and strengthen relationship more than express it. Expressing one's affection is not a bad thing, but it is not the main thing. Unfortunately, our culture has taught something different for at least a century, even in more traditionalist sectors.

Ares Olympus said...

It is hard to evaluate whether "Counseling Killed Her Marriage" as much as it failed to save it. Teaching people to fight fair seems to be the primary skill to be learned. You might as easily say "a lack of money" killed her marriage, and the counseling probably cost them more as well. I wonder if a counsellor would act any different if her clients would pay nothing if the marriage still fails. But I suppose with a 50% chance of success, the bill must double, and just adds more future burden for those who make it. Still, reduced divorced benefit society, although lower the GDP I suppose.

I can see why conservatives say traditional specialized marriages are better, where it's the husband's job to have sufficient skills and commitment to earn a stable living, and the wife's job to well-manage the resources they have so she has time to manage a home, and you can even add in some grandparents to help out as well. Perhaps Feminists will actually see the virtue in these arrangements someday, at least for women who choose them.