A friend—I’ll call her Mary—felt her marriage was probably over, but wanted to explore every avenue before divorce. To make sure her conscience was clear, and that she did everything she could to keep the family together for the sake of the children.
She went to a couples therapist with her now ex-husband—I’ll call him Ron—who was bipolar and a master at charming people into thinking he was the stable one. My friend watched his performance with their therapist and could see the moment when the therapist fell for her husband’s manipulative wiles. The two men seemed to be life long buddies before the first hour was up.
There was no second hour.
So how did things go so wrong so fast? What could Mary have done to change the outcome?
1) Don’t wait until it’s too late. Mary was unhappy for years before she sought counseling. In fact, research shows the average couple is unhappy for six years before seeking counseling. If you hear a rattle in your car, you take it in to get fixed right away before it gets worse and takes serious money to repair it. Likewise with your relationship. Try to fix it while it’s just a little noise.
In Mary and Ron’s case, significant damage had already been done. Negative patterns of behavior had been entrenched. Resentment over past hurts was running high. That’s not to say couples therapy can’t be effective in such cases, so don’t lose hope. But—and this is a critical ‘but’—both parties have to be committed to make a real effort to make their marriage work. Mary had already given up before she even made the appointment.
2) Beware of the last-ditch effort. If you both want to save the marriage, couples therapy can most certainly be helpful. But Mary already thought her marriage was probably over. If she had been honest with herself, she would acknowledge that there were probably no circumstances under which she wanted to stay with Ron.
But it’s hard to be that intellectually honest in times of emotional turmoil. Basically, Mary wanted a therapist to endorse her decision to divorce. She wanted to feel validated, especially in light of the fact that Ron was so good at putting on a show for others, while unleashing his temper in the privacy of their home.
3) Don’t expect your partner to change. Especially if you drag him to therapy. It was Mary’s idea to go to couples therapy, and Ron went along with her. But what Mary wanted was a new husband. A different husband. A person who wasn’t who her husband actually was.
Therapy can help people build better relationships. It can teach couples to be more accepting of one another. It can help them change some of their assumptions and turn the switch to “off” when it comes to automatic behaviors. In other words, therapy can help people make changes, but it can’t switch out your partner for another one. So Mary needed to face the fact that, while she said she wanted to change the relationship, she really wanted to change her partner.
4) Find a therapist who’s impartial, but also willing to engage and take action. Mary and Ron went to the first therapist Mary called. And he was not impartial, at least from Mary’s perspective. Talk with your partner about what you both expect to get out of counseling. Get referrals from trusted sources. Interview the therapist on the phone, and give your spouse equal time to do the same. And if you find the therapist is not suited to you as a couple, try another until you get it right.
Unless the two of you are not really committed to improving your relationship. Then maybe it’s time to think about going your separate ways.
Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here: http://www.nancyscounselingcorner.com/contact-us.