Leaving counseling at counseling
August 31, 2017 8:36 AM   Subscribe

My spouse and I are about to start marriage counseling. I anticipate that counseling will make things worse between us before it makes them better. How can we keep the peace at home--especially around our toddler--while dealing with difficult issues in counseling?

I'm hoping to hear from counselors and from people who have attended couples counseling. Do marriage counselors treat this--managing the effects of the counseling itself on the household--as a normal part of the process that they address during the sessions? If you went to counseling, how did you handle hearing/saying/processing hard things with your partner, then going home and acting normal around your kids? Did you tell the kids what was going on? What age-appropriate things should you tell a toddler, if any, when there is detectable tension between the parents?

There is no abuse or affair, so I am not expecting anything explosive to come up in counseling, but I am fairly certain my spouse does not realize how profoundly unhappy I have been. My spouse sometimes has fits of explosive anger; they have been less frequent in the last couple of years, partially due to effort on my spouse's part, but I suspect partially due to me doing everything I can to avoid provoking him. I'm more prone to withdrawal or feigning happiness to avoid conflict. Our toddler is very verbal, sensitive, and emotionally aware, and we're both pretty good about keeping it together around her, but she notices even the most subtle signs of tension.
posted by xylothek to Human Relations (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
We've gone to counseling twice (one for family related stuff and once for pre-maritial / general couples counseling). The best thing we did when we were in counseling in order to leave it there and not bring it home (more then the let's try X suggestion at home) was to have a dinner or drinks afterwards just to decompress. It doesn't have to be anything fancy, just something where you can talk a ton or say nothing at all and just process. Make sure you say something nice to each other before you leave, it could be as simple as "I love you" or "I like that shirt" but just say something.

Also, don't be passive aggressive and ask the counselor if you really are having trouble, it is a natural part of the sessions but I always found that that dinner was a good way to decompress and realize that we all have our faults along with hopes and dreams. I'll be blunt, counseling sucks but it does work if you are open to it and let it work. It doesn't mean that you have to be a gushing mess, but just be open to the suggestions.
posted by lpcxa0 at 8:47 AM on August 31, 2017 [11 favorites]

What age-appropriate things should you tell a toddler, if any, when there is detectable tension between the parents?

In my opinion there are not any. You need to to try harder to fake it in front of kids this age.

As for how to discuss, not discuss, process things that happen in therapy that's a great thing to talk to your therapist about. I've done it in solo counseling, "ok so we just brought up a bunch of abuse I've never talked to another soul about.... what do I do between now and next week, what do I do this afternoon?" Then when I go home to my kids I have a plan.
posted by French Fry at 8:50 AM on August 31, 2017 [9 favorites]

What age-appropriate things should you tell a toddler, if any, when there is detectable tension between the parents?

You shouldn't tell them about any of the details, and you should use a VERY light touch. But you can talk to them about feelings, relate it back to their own experiences, and reassure them that feelings are normal. If you ham it up a little, they'll get a good giggle in.

Example assuming palpable tension but no outbursts, and toddler has noticed:
"Yeah, minithek, Mommy and Daddy are feeling a little grumpy right now. Everyone feels grumpy sometimes. I'll feel better soon. Remember when you had to take a bath yesterday and you didn't want to? You felt grumpy too, didn't you! But after bathtime we read a story, and then you felt much happier. Remember, we're a family, and we always love each other, no matter how we're feeling. Shall we have a hug? [enthusiastic snuggle-hug] Oh yes, I love hugs. They make me feel happy!"

Bonus: you may actually have an easier time faking cheerfulness after this exchange, since enthusiastic toddler-hugs often do have a medicinal effect. ;)

Also this is not a bad time to check some feelings books out of the library and read them, just because that's a good thing to do with toddlers anyway. Example.
posted by telepanda at 9:46 AM on August 31, 2017 [14 favorites]

Addendum: as long as you don't overdo it, you don't ALWAYS have to finish by feigning cheerfulness. It's ok for kids to learn that sometimes people feel bad, and though they do eventually feel better it doesn't always happen right away. But, if the kid is visibly stressed by whatever tension is going on, it does help them feel better if you can finish the talk with a smile.
posted by telepanda at 9:48 AM on August 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

Don't lie to toddlers. No rainbow bridges. They might not have the words now but they remember things that don't make sense and catch up when they can form the question and if they catch you the whole trust thing is over and they are older and there is nothing you can say.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 10:59 AM on August 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am a therapist. I would greatly appreciate it if a partner in a couple who came in started by telling me that they were worried about the effects of counseling due to the other partner's history of angry outbursts and the potential of any such future outbursts on their child. That would turn into task #1 to treat, because I doubt any other work could actually happen until that was under control -- I would find it both unethical and ineffective to start working on any other issues until outbursty partner had solid coping mechanisms that they were successfully using for managing their anger and until tiptoe-ing partner had enough confidence that they weren't going to trigger an outburst that they could actually engage in productive ways.

Your fear sounds, to me, completely appropriate. The best person to address it with would be your therapist, and they should consider it a major obstacle to fix before any further work is attempted. Therapy doesn't work if both people don't feel safe (uncomfortable and vulnerable is normal; unsafe is not helpful). If your therapist can't help your partner manage their anger, I would recommend individual therapy to help you sort out your options, rather than making yourself vulnerable to someone who might use that against you or your child.

Couple's therapy is actively harmful in domestic-violence situations, because it teaches the violent partner that the problems are both partners' fault when they are in fact all due to the violent partner, and what you're describing has all my therapist red-flags going up. If you feel ok talking to your couple's counselor about this first, please do so. If you don't feel safe talking to your couple's counselor about this in front of your partner, it's a really good sign that couple's therapy might be unsafe for you right now and individual therapy would be a better option.
posted by lazuli at 7:57 PM on August 31, 2017 [14 favorites]

Just popping in to add that Telepanda's wonderful comment is spot on regarding sharing feelings with young children. (Child therapist here.) Little people sense changes in adult nervous systems, and when we lie to them or pretend everything is fine, it spends their energy on trying to figure out what's incongruent rather than on more typical kiddo tasks. One of the best things you can do for kiddos is model sharing feelings appropriately, even negative ones, as long as you do it in a developmentally appropriate way (no details, focus on feelings.) Telepanda's scripts are great, and toddler hugs are a miracle in this life. Be well!
posted by fairlynearlyready at 11:06 PM on August 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

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