How to survive early marriage counseling?
July 10, 2014 10:53 PM   Subscribe

After several years of problems -- I repressed all my complaints, my spouse just sulked silently and suggested I "get over it" -- we finally started marriage counseling, and the trauma and upheaval of having this all out in the open is unbearable. How do people make it through?

I love my spouse. We have been married a long time and have children. Neither of us is interested in divorce. We have had these long, slow-simmering problems that I (in particular) pushed down and didn't deal with in order to keep the peace and the outer picture of a happy marriage, until it became unbearable.

We began marriage counseling and now that these issues (from both of us) are out in the open, it is AWFUL. Everything is broken and out-of-alignment and now that we both know about these resentments and problems the other has been hiding, it's making us question everything about our marriage. It's horrible; we both feel like we've been living a lie. I guess the alternatives are repressing it all and going on unhappy and pretending, or confronting it all and dealing with it. But the confronting and then having everything unsettled and awful is much worse than I'd thought it would be; the immediate stuff has been digging this all out into the open, which I guess has to happen before we can repair it.

There is no abuse involved, and we are both good parents, our children adore each of us. But we do these assessments and we score terrifyingly low, and we're both so much more actively unhappy right now (before we were unhappy, but repressing it and keeping surface pleasantness). It's so stressful and miserable and I feel like this is so much worse, not better.

I need to know from other people how they made it through these first six or twelve weeks of couples counseling, especially if they were successful. I'm terrified that these bad early weeks mean our marriage can't be saved. How do I cope until things start to improve? How long will it take for us to turn the corner?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
My first thought is that you should talk to your therapist about this. (Though if you're both leaving every session feeling crappier and less couple-y than when you went in, I'd question his or her abilities as a counselor.)
posted by small_ruminant at 10:58 PM on July 10, 2014

I think one motivation to get through the process of therapy is realizing that if you didn't do this, the problems that you were ignoring would wreck your marriage for sure - so you'd just be substituting short term gain (surface pleasantness) for long term pain, whereas what you're doing is the opposite. Harder, but the right thing to do in the end.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:08 PM on July 10, 2014 [16 favorites]

This is painful stuff, I know. BTDT. I feel for you.

If you both are committed to saving the marriage, it will work - the pain is a stage, and probably (hopefully) means that the ugliness can be dealt with. Having said that I don't know just what sort of problems they are, how deep they go and whether they show that you two are fundamentally incompatible. It doesn't sound like though, if you are currently persevering through the counselling.

All I can say is how glad I am that I persevered, it was a life changing process for me(this was not a couples thing). If there is a ray of hope, no matter how faint, I encourage you to continue.
posted by GeeEmm at 11:15 PM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't. Don't survive it. Fall in to it. Cry, scream, forget to eat, don't bother getting dressed every day, get through it and allow him to get through it too. You are married, you are committed. Take leaving off the table and commit to being miserable for a few months to a year so that you can work all of this out, honestly, and come out the other end happier and stronger than anyone you have ever met.

My ex-husband didn't do this. He sucked it all in and lied to me and the counselor. He took the emotionally easy way out. I left him 7 years ago. I am very happy now.
posted by myselfasme at 11:16 PM on July 10, 2014 [25 favorites]

Individual therapy, for an 'issue', has a similar trajectory. You're not only dealing with the excruciating honesty of it* but also whatever it is that made you decide to go to therapy. And it's hard, it's tiring, but eventually it gets easier. The things you're learning to do become habitual, and you start internalising and making proper connections.

It wasn't couples therapy but it took probably a month or two to get a handle with therapy, and I took it easy. So I didn't plan anything and ditched out of everything I could (I'm an extreme introvert, you might do something different) and tried to be as articulate as possible about what was happening.
posted by geek anachronism at 11:51 PM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can try to think of it like having children: a long period of incubating your issues, followed by a period of short but intense work. This period may involve pain, and like transition may include a moment of profound certainty that you can't do it, but then you make it. And then at the end, you have so much more than you expected and it's worth it.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:28 AM on July 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Think of all the medical treatments that require intense pain before healing can begin. Resetting a broken bone, pulling an infected tooth, rehabbing a torn muscle. If you don't experience that intense pain, pain that is for a short time worse than the disease itself, you will never get better.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:33 AM on July 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Love your spouse.

When a relationship breaks down it is often because one or more of the participants has drifted into disrespecting their partner. There was one dirty sock too many left on the floor and the sympathy switch got turned off and someone started seething and thinking, "Filthy inconsiderate..." and the habit was formed that dislike and despair and disrespect all mingled and there was no room for appreciation and closeness.

You need to break that habit of hating your spouse and make a habit of loving them.

If a habit of disrespecting your spouse is formed you end up with a second phase where you look at your own behaviour and see how you have been surly and sharp and been the first one to offend in a new cycle of indifference and bad interaction because you were pre-empting the sadness from loving one sided. You end up with guilt and shame because you've been mean, and self-justification and triumph and... it just makes you feel worse.

If the foundation of your marriage is still good, if the chasm in your marriage is based on two sets of hurt feelings and self defense and two sets of reasonable expectations that were confounded then you can go back and rebuild it and it won't be one sided. Or if it is one-sided, consider would it be okay for you to be decent, affectionate and honest with someone who can't love you back the same way, but is still a good person who doesn't mean you any harm?

So, actively love your spouse and and learn from the sessions. Go out on a limb and say, despite everything I have done I still love you. I did so much of it because I was afraid you didn't love me. Don't say despite everything _you_ have done, I still love you. The hurdle is the wall of hurt feelings and misunderstandings, not the socks your partner left on the floor.

Look at the meta messages going on. If your spouse leaves their socks on the floor often there is no message, it is done obliviously but you've been receiving it as if it is contempt. When your spouse comes and stands helplessly in the doorway and asks, "Honey, do you know where my socks are?" Get up, give them eye contact, give them a hug (metaphorical or otherwise) because the meta-message behind many of these small interactions is to check for the bond.

Start actively doing things to build the bond with your spouse. Make a plan. This will give you things to look forward to. Today I will: say three appreciative things, and do three appreciative things. Ask your spouse to participate in this. "I love you and I want to feel close to you. Please today after work come and pick up your socks from under the kitchen table. This is the thing that would make me feel loved and earn you my affection far out of proportion to the few seconds it takes to scoop up a pair of dirty socks."
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:23 AM on July 11, 2014 [22 favorites]

I can't imagine couples therapy being anything other than painful until all the dirty laundry is exposed and you move on to learning strategies for dealing with issues day-to-day.

One thing we started doing spontaneously was when we'd get out of the therapist's office back in the lobby we'd just hold each other tight for a moment. This allowed us to confine the negativity and pain to the therapist's office and walk out of there holding hands.

Also, sometimes there'd be the next couple in the waiting room as we stepped out of our session and, walking away, we'd whisper to each other: "Another couple of suckers" or "Those suckers are here again", and we'd chuckle self-deprecatingly.

This and the hug would totally lift the mood for us.
posted by Dragonness at 4:28 AM on July 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

It's horrible; we both feel like we've been living a lie.

You have been living a lie. You didn't have a happy marriage, otherwise you wouldn't be repressing feelings and resentments. Happy marriages are those in which you feel safe to tell your partner what you're feeling, what you're upset about, pretty much EVERYTHING.

You and your partner made an implicit deal in your marriage, we don't talk about anything, we just soldier on and pretend that we're happy.

You weren't happy when you decided not to tell him that his flirting with other women was a problem for you, but you chose the EASIER path of not contfronting it. You weren't happy when he quit his job to sell Amway, but you decided not to say anything and instead seethed in resentment. You weren't happy when he'd sit around watching football all day, rather than team up with you to clean the house.

Do you really love him? Or do you love the idea of being in a happy, 'normal' marriage?

Counseling allows you not only to confront your partner, but to confront yourself. You've known for quite some time that you've not been happy, you know that it's inauthentic to stuff down your feelings and desires just to avoid conflict, and now that you've allowed yourself to step into authenticity, it's scary and weird and it's not what you were expecting.

Aside from couples counseling, get your own therapist. Process your REAL feelings in all of this. You may find that you DO love your husband, you just need better methods for dealing with conflict and joint decision making. Or, you may find that what you've mistaken for love all these years is actually a desire not to rock the boat.

Either way, you need to process your own feelings separately from your husband. He would also benefit from separate counseling.

Good luck to you, you're entering uncharted waters.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:10 AM on July 11, 2014 [9 favorites]

My partner and I have been through this. Some tips:

Remind yourself that the future is long, and that once things improve, this rough patch will feel like a blip in a long life together. We'd say to each other, "What's one or two bad years out of 30 or more?" It helped.

You're stressed and putting a lot of time and energy into therapy. Nonetheless, you should make regular times to do things you enjoy together, whether that's going to a movie or a shared hobby or cooking a mea. Whatever it is, you need to actively remind yourselves that you like each other, that you enjoy being together, so you remember what it is you're doing all this painful work for.
posted by not that girl at 5:48 AM on July 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's completely normal that this process feels unbearable. I agree with others that you should get your own, separate counseling. You need a safe space to process your feelings outside of the work you are doing with your husband.

You are dealing with competing fears. On the one hand, you were afraid of continuing to repress your truth -- that's why you entered this process to confront your issues. On the other hand, now that you're confronting the issues, you're afraid that you will lose your marriage.

Now that you've committed to loving yourself enough to tell the truth -- and loving your husband enough to hear his truth -- your relationship is going to change. This is inevitable and while it may feel awful, it's actually really great news.

You don't want the marriage you had back. It would mean repressing who you are, pretending to be happy with things that made you miserable and generally wasting your life away. You realize that our time on this planet is short, right? Something within you could no longer sustain the pretend-happy that you had. It's time you got some genuine happiness, but it's not going to be easy. You're going to have to confront your fears. There is no other way around it.

It may help to think about what you're experiencing right now in terms of grief. You are grieving the marriage that you thought you had and realizing just how much you were covering up and playing make-believe. This is a painful realization. But it doesn't mean that you and your husband have to break up. It just means that the future is unknown - which can feel very scary.

We can't tell you how long it will be before you turn a corner. The main thing to remember now is that one of two things is going to happen: You'll either go through this tough, challenging, painful process and grow closer together, or you'll discover that it would be better to go your separate ways. What you need to wrap your head around is that both of these scenarios are better than a fake-happy marriage. No matter what happens, you're going to learn a lot about yourself and your husband. Whether you grow together or grow apart, you will be growing and, if you continue to honor your truth, you will be stronger and eventually much happier as a result.

One piece of practical advise, aside from getting your own counseling, is to really focus on taking care of yourself. You are going to need to learn how to self-soothe, if you don't already. Make sure you are getting enough rest, eat healthy food, drink water, get fresh air, take long walks, perhaps try meditation -- learn how to create an emotionally safe home within yourself. You need to experience that wise, loving part of you that is completely okay regardless of what happens in your marriage. Find your own therapist, nurture yourself and get some perspective.
posted by Gray Skies at 6:12 AM on July 11, 2014 [9 favorites]

I don't have a magic answer to your pain... you're experiencing what nearly every couple doing marital/relational counseling experiences...

But, I can offer you this... "Be kind to each other"... I say this at the end of every session to couples that come for marriage counseling.... Have that tattooed on the inside of your eyelids and live it every minute.

You're experiencing the "worse before it gets better"... be strong, be kind, it WILL get better if you are both sincere in your desire and efforts to make it so...

posted by HuronBob at 6:18 AM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's a couple of things that have been helpful to me in dealing with marriage therapy. We've also had a marriage where things tend to get repressed on both sides, for different reasons:

1) Right now one of things we're working on is emotional honesty and learning to tolerate one another's emotions, to be able to look at an exchange where I might say "I dislike Thing A that you do" and hearing back "Why do you even care about Thing A? I feel a little angry hearing that" and realizing we're both entitled to have negative feelings about the other person without it being the end of the world or the end of the relationship, to be able to acknowledge one another's feelings first and foremost as just feelings, and not attacks that require immediate defense, or even apology.

2) We've both found it helpful to have our own individual therapist in addition to doing couples therapy. In some ways, in fact, individual therapy on each side has been more important to improving our marriage that couples therapy has been. The truth is that a lot of the stuff that needs to be "repaired" is actually individual stuff, and it's also helpful to have an outside enlightened listener you can talk and help you process all the feelings that are getting dredged up when you're not quite ready to do that in couples sessions.
posted by drlith at 6:23 AM on July 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've been in marriage therapy (and I have a Masters in a counseling field). I believe you need to be sure that your therapist is truly working to save your marriage. It seems to me that it is easy for couples counseling to become a litany of hurtful past actions. Are you trying to find a way to make current communication better and a way to forgive each other for the past? While the past must be explored, if you churn up anger and hold onto that it will make it difficult to tap into the love of the marriage. This is probably my bias, but I think one of the ways people feel like they are "making a change" is to become single and start over, and therapy can encourage this because it can get fixated on the individuals in the relationship rather than the couple of the relationship (obviously, this is sometimes the best outcome). So I guess I'd say be sure the therapist is truly helping to save the couple, rather than "self-actualize" the individual (not saying that is bad at all, but I think it's a different goal).

I think John Gottman has some interesting things to say about marriages.
posted by bluespark25 at 6:27 AM on July 11, 2014

Also, if you didn't read this article about "why we're bad communicators" that was posted recently on The Blue, I would recommend it. I found it really spoke to me as a fellow person in a relationship that suffers from lack of communication (rather than arguing or screaming or shaming or other forms of too much "bad" communication).
posted by drlith at 6:29 AM on July 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Think of your marriage like a house. Right now, there are some structural problems, but things don't seem so bad at first glance.

Therapy is equivalent to stripping everything down to the frame to fix the problems. You are now looking around and saying "I can't live in a house with no roof, and missing walls, and intermittent electricity, and..." - and now you think maybe it's best to just knock the whole thing down and move (i.e. end the relationship because it's so terrible right now).

But remind yourself the alternative is staying in a house that's doomed to collapse on itself if you don't take the time to fix it. Don't just keep slapping on coats of new paint and doing a poor job of patching the holes in the roof. Commit to fixing the real underlying problems and you'll come out the other side with a wonderful, solid, long-lasting house/relationship.

If your house can be saved, your engineer will make it happen.
If your relationship can be saved, your therapist will make it happen.

It's worth it - no matter how inconvenient, awkward, stressing, or expensive it gets.
posted by trivia genius at 7:45 AM on July 11, 2014

We went to marriage counseling and individual counseling. I wanted my marriage to work, and I worked hard at it. After a year, I realized that the marriage was destroying me, my ex- wasn't going to be nice to me, and we ended up getting divorced, thank goodness. If your therapist is skilled, you should make progress towards the best outcome, but the best outcome may not be obvious to you.

Meanwhile, be kind to your spouse, remind yourself of spouse's lovable qualities. Be intolerant of unkindness, but ignore it/ walk away from it, instead of fighting about it. I have a bunch of links about ways marriages work and don't in my profile.
posted by theora55 at 9:54 AM on July 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

My wife and I went through a similar process about a year go. The counseling was really hard. I had no idea how my wife was viewing my actions.

Things were uncomfortable, but I made it a priority to show her every day that I loved her and wanted to be with her. I sent emails. I texted. I brought home small gifts like energy drinks for her night shift or a new book she wanted. It was still uncomfortable, and she acknowledged to the therapist that she was afraid it wouldn't last. That crushed me.

But slowly things got better. We learned to interact with each other in better ways. And we're doing good now.

I can't guarantee success for your marriage, but I've been where you are and we made it through.
posted by tacodave at 1:55 PM on July 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

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