Husband agreed to attend marriage therapy with me. Now what?
August 26, 2016 7:28 AM   Subscribe

After three years of a stress in our relationship, my husband has lately been open to marriage counseling. He isn't all for it, but is willing. The thing is that I feel like I've been walking on eggshells for so long around him, I'm not sure how to even begin talking about things in this situation.

I am female, he is male. We have young kids. I haven't felt emotionally supported by him in a few years. I have worked very hard to be supportive of him, but our issues continue.

He gets very defensive with any perceived negative feedback, he hangs onto odd statements or details and uses them against me months or years after I've said them. My belief is that he has some unaddressed mental health issues that have affected our family and our relationship (not to mention his life outside of the house). I have not said this in so many words to him, but have hinted at it. He thinks that we just don't have anything in common anymore (I think his possible depression is coloring everything he sees, including our relationship).

It has been a struggle to communicate my concerns and frustrations because he either tunes me out or gets angry and there is no productive conversation, and I end up feeling hurt, completely unsupported and lonely. I own that I have not been as assertive as I could have been, but sometimes I just need to have peaceful days for my own self preservation. I have been seeing a therapist on my own, which has been very helpful.

So how do I approach this whole new experience of marriage counseling? How do I participate fully without my fear that this will end our relationship getting in the way?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
He gets very defensive with any perceived negative feedback

I end up feeling hurt, completely unsupported and lonely.

It sounds like neither of you feels the other is on your side. Maybe you're in a more similar place than you realize. This may be a worthwhile area for focus in therapy.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:42 AM on August 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think you start by saying this in therapy?

I've never done couples counseling, but whoo boy do I know therapy. I think the instinct to try to manage the process is understandable, because it is often about trying to control negative outcomes and pain, but it's also not necessarily helpful to the process. If you can't say, in these counseling sessions, what you've said above, then they have no hope of being successful.

I'm so sorry you're going through this, by the way. It sounds so very draining to have to always be the adult who is managing another's emotions while getting no support of your own.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:46 AM on August 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

1.) Do some thinking and maybe even some writing in advance about what you hope to get out of this. If the majority of what you focus on are things you want him to do (i.e. I want him to support me more, I want him not to get defensive when I try to talk to him, I want him to work on his issues and not take them out on me) - try to abstract those things from actions you want him to take and instead go to a higher level to visualize and express where you want to be emotionally. Example: what feeling supported looks like to you, what better communication looks like/feels like to you. Going in with a few ideas in your mind of what success looks like, rather than a laundry list of complaints, will help you. If you can't do this right now because you are stuck, you're in luck -- the therapist will help you here.

Don't bring this list and read it off when you get there. Just have it in mind as a way to frame your approach to this.

2.) Make a pointed plan to listen. To the therapist and to your husband. I know that I felt that therapy is more about venting to a professional, but it's not really. Your therapist will ask you and your husband pointed questions. Listen to what your husband says, really listen. Ask him, in fact make an agreement with him if you feel comfortable that you will do this for each other. And when your therapist asks you a question, answer as directly and honestly as you can muster the courage for. It will be very hard, but the therapist is trained to guide you to a place of mutual honesty and respect and will likely take measured time to ask you questions that will get you there.

3.) Acknowledge your own fears and your husband's fears going in. I went to couple's therapy in the past with a partner and he was extremely reticent about it and I regret that I was dismissive of his fears. I approached it with a mind of "the only way out is through" -- as if we were going into an intensive fitness program and we should just do what the trainer told us and eat what the nutritionist says and we'd emerge perfect. This is completely different; it's scary and it's difficult and agreeing to help eachother through it by recognizing that it's going to have its difficulties is a good idea.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:13 AM on August 26, 2016 [15 favorites]

Good advice so far. I would add:

You may have ideas about his mental health, however if you are not a trained mental health professional, recognize that this is your speculation and don't diagnose him. Once counseling is established, bring it up in session: "I've thought that Fred might be depressed because he doesn't enjoy things that were pleasurable before" (or whatever).

Your fear that you'll split up is well grounded. If he thinks you've grown apart and don't have enough to keep you together, that's his take, and it requires a consensus of two people to keep a relationship going. I know that's really difficult and painful. However, it sounds like your relationship is very far from where you need it to be as well, and it really may be the case that there is not enough to hold you together.

I hope you two do find a way back to each other, and build your inner strengths enough to repair the wounds of the past and move forward in a loving way. It's very hard work and worth it for the growth, even if in the end you do split. You can only do your part and can't make him do his. Would you want to stay with him even if he doesn't? Guessing you know the answer to that.
posted by Sublimity at 8:25 AM on August 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

As someone who spent way too many years believing that my happiness depended on my husband's state of mind, I would encourage you to explore with your own therapist how to identify the things in your life that you can control and the things that bring you pleasure and make you happy apart from your husband. Identifying those things will improve your life now and in the future, regardless of how your marriage plays out. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 8:59 AM on August 26, 2016 [14 favorites]

Your description is very similar to how I perceived my husband in the early days of our marital counselling. We went to probably 10+ counsellors over a several year period (as soon as the counsellor challenged him to take responsibility he refused to go back to them because "they were taking my side" or if they were a woman he dismissed everything they said due to his misogyny). If your husband truly has mental health issues then couples counselling is probably not appropriate - any more than dragging him to a coach and saying "my husband can't keep up with me when we run, please help" and ignoring his broken leg.

The good thing was that so many counsellors immediately twigged to my husband's mental illness and immediately asked what he was doing to address it (nothing) and pointed out that the counselling would go nowhere without his full participation in managing his health.

A lot of counsellors believe in the "both parties are equally at fault" but that doesn't work when one person is delusional or has distortions of objective reality. So, my advice is to encourage the counsellor to address your husband's mental health, have specific examples of his disfunction, and prioritise seeking care for his health over the current trust and communication issues you are having. I'm sorry, this is hard, good luck.
posted by saucysault at 9:15 AM on August 26, 2016 [16 favorites]

a HUGE ditto to what saucysault said. A relationship simply can't work without the participation of both people. So be very careful about a therapist who does take the "both parties are 50/50 at fault" part too far. Of course they'll start out that way until they get to know you but just be sure not to take on more than your fair share of responsibility.

This book: Do I Have To Give Myself Up To Be Loved By You was so helpful to me when I was going through similar issues in my marriage. The main premise is that when someone is faced with conflict, they can either react in fear (and become defensive, refuse to communicate) or react with an intent to learn. Learning more about the conflict and each other is the only way to grow closer. If one partner always just shuts down and refuses to find out what the problem even is then the relationship can certainly continue but it won't be one in which each person can be themselves and feel accepted and loved by the other.
posted by dawkins_7 at 11:22 AM on August 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

If it's any comfort, my wife and I once were in a similarly low spot and marriage counselling almost certainly saved our marriage.

The only additional advice I can give (everything above is pretty awesome) is let the therapist guide you through these fears. You aren't going to get everything you have said in your post out in the first session. It will most likely be months.

You may not even have to bring up the mental health issues. After several sessions, our therapist was able to get my wife to accept that she may have been suffering from depression. He did this incredibly gently and it was really amazing to watch.

I had wanted to get to that point months earlier, but, similar to your situation, any time it was brought up, my wife would immediately shut down. With our therapist getting her to open up about it.... I am having trouble explaining some of the nuance here, so please bear with me.... First, our therapist did not say, "you are depressed." Rather, he got my wife to say, "maybe I am depressed and maybe that is something I need to work on, so we can work on us." So, she came to the realization of her own volition. But, since the therapist asked (not suggested), it also had the weight of a professional behind it.

All of the other things in your post... I could practically go line by line and say, "Yep. Our guy helped with that and here's how" but it would be a book. The perceived negative feedback and the struggle to communicate really hit home. Our therapist was able to to help both of us understand why the other may see something as negative and taught us better ways to communicate so that not only did we both feel heard, we both felt we could be heard.

It's a long, hard process and I wish you the very best. The fact that your husband is willing to go (even if it is only grudgingly) should be a sign of hope. Even if things have been hard for years, both of you are showing a commitment to your relationship, so there is still something there.
posted by a non mouse, a cow herd at 12:10 PM on August 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm a therapist who has done couples counseling.

The biggest misconception that most couples have is that I'm a judge, who's going to say Partner A is right and Partner B has to change. Assuming a non-coercive relationship, the truth is always that both partners are right and that both partners need to change. The couples who tend to make the most progress are those who both are willing to change to make things better, without thinking that changing means they're losing. Getting caught up in power struggles (between the two partners, between one partner and the therapist, between the other partner and the therapist) is what tends to derail appointments.

The other major derailment I've experienced is when a couple colludes to hide an important aspect of the problem. (For me, it was when I was working in an agency that limited all clients to 10 sessions, and a couple decided not to let me know one partner had a serious meth addiction (and that's why he was spending nights away from home) for 6 sessions.) Let the therapist know what's bothering you, even if it paints you or your partner in a bad light. Don't collude with your partner to hide things from the therapist. Individual therapy can still work when an individual is hiding things. Couples therapy gets WAY off-track if both participants are hiding a problem.
posted by lazuli at 7:52 PM on August 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

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