When asked what is the most serious mistake that couples make, I answer, they wait too long to get help. The energy required to sustain a disabled Coupledom and avoid facing the realization that “we have problems that need professional expertise” could be channeled into using that “help” to improve the marriage.
In fact, problems faced and tackled in their early stages are far more likely to be overcome than those that linger, thicken with scar tissue and disfigure the marital state over time. Here the critical factor is time.
Why do couples stay away from professional help? Fear. Fear and finances and cultural beliefs. However, waiting can be fatal to The Coupledom. And that is very costly. The Coupledom is a dyad with two individuals who likely do not share equal measures of tolerance for enduring unhappiness. One member of the pair may be “done” before the other member is “ready” to give the misery a name and seek help. And that, very simply, is the highest cost of “waiting” for everyone, especially the children.
For those individuals who waited until the children left home and the empty nest ensued, the cost of dissolving a marriage can feel emotionally unbearable. Spending the latter decades of one’s life regretting the time spent in the earlier decades because they ended in matrimonial failure is a common depressive state post mid-life divorce. And the staggering possibility that “I may spend the last decades of my life alone” plagues many divorced minds. Does this have to happen? No.
As I see it, these unfortunate outcomes occur because the early years are focused on achieving goals that can supersede or camouflage the deteriorating state of the marital relationship. Quite simply, there is just so much individuals can manage – earning a living, completing an education, housekeeping, child rearing, trying to fit in to a community and socializing simultaneously – and it taps much of the energy supply that humans can access. Add to that fear – fear that if the couple engage in the therapeutic process, the entire marital house of cards will come tumbling down on the family sanctuary and instead of preventing a crisis, it will bring one on. Ah, but this is a misplaced fear indeed.
Many delaying techniques are born out of psychological defenses such as rationalization, denial and avoidance, characteristic defenses of the human psyche – tools the psyche carries in its toolbox. But when these tools are overused the consequences can be devastating.
I have worked with couples who operate differently. They come to therapy seeking prevention of the heartbreaking outcomes I describe above, of the protracted and unraveling dissolution of a marriage. One might say, they are proactive participants in the mental health of their marriage. They have hurt and disappointed each other, disagreed on methods for managing challenges with children, in-laws, finances, work demands and intimacy. They have tried to reconcile their differences but to no avail. In short, they recognize that unless they discuss these tensions in the presence of a skilled third party, matters will only get worse, problems only bigger. They don’t wait to try to a scale mountain when they can use their energies to walk up a hill.
Couples therapy is a complex mission to embark on – far more complex than individual therapy. In fact, couples therapy is a dance of rich complexity which begins way before the first visit. Someone leads the dance but their partner may be unwilling to join in. The multifaceted ways couples undermine getting expert help or sticking with the process, are a book in themselves. One spouse may verbalize that therapy is unnecessary but finally agrees to a visit – a visit that “proves” that either the therapist isn’t good or too costly or the process a clear waste of time – and who has the time anyway? “See, we’re fine.” Some couples terminate prematurely because “The therapist didn’t like me. The therapist sided with you. She’s a woman, she sides with you. He’s a man, he sides with you. We can work this out ourselves. Anyway, you attack me in every visit. It’s just making matters worse. We fight after every session.”
Some couples are serial users. They have seen five or six therapists over a period of years yet somehow all five or six of these therapists failed them. When asked what led to termination with each of these therapists, the answers are often vague. “I liked her, she didn’t. We didn’t think it was helping. He felt attacked. She thought it was too expensive.” Well, it’s a tough process that taps into our most primitive fears.
At the core of all productive couples therapy is trust – trust between the therapist and the couple that grows with the visits and reduces the otherwise unbearable vulnerability individuals may experience opening up the marital door to a stranger. But not all folks have equal amounts of muscle to build trust – to endure the first stages of awkwardness – because not all participants are equal in their emotional sensitivity or history. Severe attachment trauma can interfere with creating a bond with a therapist, especially in the presence of one’s partner where trust issues may already be a primary culprit in the relationship. Early and repeated emotional betrayals by caregivers can leave scars so thick that no one easily passes through their walls. These individuals can build up muscle for this challenge in individual therapy. That can be a good place to begin. But sadly, that scarring may cause resistance to even the sacred privacy and confidentiality of the one-on-one psychotherapeutic relationship.
Cultural influences may play an important role in a partner’s refusal to see a therapist. Many cultures view entering psychotherapy as an admission of serious mental illness, something to shun – shameful, even indulgent – a cultural taboo. And that you never share family matters outside the family. This is an enormous betrayal. A closed system keeps out strangers. And what is a therapist but a stranger?
This brings me to the hot topic of humiliation. The fear of humiliation ranks high as a hidden yet underlying cause in couples therapy aversion. For the individual this fear may be unconscious, concealed by defenses that appear as arrogance or superiority. They diminish the therapeutic process or are dismissive of their partner’s feelings or insist that financial cost supersedes all other considerations. For these individuals, any exposure of imperfection is experienced as deeply embarrassing, so risky that though they sincerely hope their marriage will continue, they cannot tolerate the “exposure.” Shamed in their childhood, they are spending much of their adulthood avoiding the possibility of being shamed again.
And secrets – secret of the past – avoided, blocked or denied – can wield a heavy blow to attempts to bring someone into the psychotherapeutic process. Seeming irrational reactions to a spouse’s pleading that “we go for help,” may have at their core a raw fear of exposure of family of origin secrets or the danger of unblocking painful buried memories. As I mentioned earlier, embarking on couples therapy is a complex mission.
I have described just some of the motivators in couples therapy resistance. Yet I have worked with many individuals with deeply disturbing histories of betrayal and humiliation, memories buried or denied, cultural conflict, who have engaged in couples work successfully. Their courage is striking, their fortitude impressive.
And equally courageous is the person in The Coupledom who makes the request to enter couples therapy, a request not lightly given. Rather, this is a brave step that signals serious distress. For their partner to balk at it, be dismissive or minimize their spouse’s suffering, is very risky behavior that often reinforces their spouse’s feelings of alienation, hurt or insignificance likely already in play. What would motivate a spouse to be that destructive or seemingly uncaring? Fear. Unconscious perhaps, unrecognized probably, but definitely fear. Or they could be done – emotionally out of the marriage and yet unable to articulate that either to themselves or to their partner. But more than likely the root of the resistance is the fear of losing control over a tightly woven and dysfunctional coping structure. These individuals are still in the marriage but stunningly inept at the crossroads of its future.
How does one address this stalemate? Engage in a series of conversations over time that respectively explore the resistant party’s concerns. Keep these conversations brief and to the point. “…without the aid of an expert, I know our relationship will continue to deteriorate. We are growing apart.” When challenged, be clear. “I’m fifty percent of this marriage and my unhappiness puts the whole marriage at risk.” This is not a threat. It’s a fact. “It takes two to make a marriage work but only one to end it.” Sadly, and ironically, a frightened partner who is strenuously denying that there are marital problems that need outside intervention is likely to cause irreparable damage, the very outcome they are trying to avoid.
If this kind of exploration devolves into a repeated war of words and increasingly hurtful exchanges, then I urge the individual who is asking to get help to go for help on their own. Whether you are one or two in the therapy process, collaboration with an expert is needed – people are stuck here and in pain. The changes that spouses make individually will impact The Coupledom and lead to new strategies and a clarification of choices and options which hopefully can be productively shared with their reluctant spouse.
If you have a toothache you see a dentist, eventually, or you lose your tooth. If your Coupledom is aching and remains untreated… Don’t wait. Big mistake.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2016