Are your attempts to seek help actually making things worse?
Earlier today, Simcha Fisher featured a guest post titled Married to An Angry Man written by Monica More (a pseudonym). It’s a story about a woman who is struggling in her marriage and who feels that all of her efforts to seek help have failed. My heart broke when I read it because it is a story I encounter so often. I am grateful to Monica for sharing her story because it is an opportunity to highlight the things every couple can do to get the help they need–especially when things seem hopeless.
Getting the Right Kind of Help
Sometimes it can feel like nothing you try works, but that doesn’t have to be the case. One of the 8 habits that separates so-called “marriage masters” from “marriage disasters” is that successful couples tend to have a knack for knowing when, where and how to get competent help. By contrast, couples who are struggling often don’t know how to find healthy supports. Like a drowning man desperately flailing around for something–anything–to hold onto whether it would be helpful or not, the pain struggling couples experience often causes them to inadvertently reject things that could be helpful and latch onto things that aren’t.
The following illustrates some common mistakes spouses make in seeking help and offers some ways to overcome these obstacles to marital healing.
1. “I read books that told me to love more and give more… but they just made things worse.”
Inspirational books written by well-meaning people who have gone through the normal ups and downs of married life are often of little use to couples struggling with serious problems. Moreover, these kinds of inspirational, personal anecdote-driven, quasi-advice books can actually make a struggling marriage worse because they typically ask readers to adopt an even more vulnerable posture (love more, give more, be more patient and understanding). Being more generous and vulnerable are great recommendations for a basically good marriage that has gone a little stale, but if a marriage is challenged, and especially if there is any kind of abuse, adopting such a posture will create an increasingly toxic environment.
If you are having difficulties–and especially if you are dealing with consistent disrespect, cruelty, or abuse of any kind–it is terribly important to seek out self-help resources (books, programs) developed by professional counselors that are trained to offer strategies for handling complicated relationship problems. Not all of these books are great, but even an average book written by a professional marriage counselor is going to be more helpful than a more inspirational/personal witness-type book. Inspirational books are fine if all you need to do is find the strength to keep doing what you’re doing, but if what you’re doing isn’t working, you need to get new tools and you need to learn how to use those new tools under pressure. It is exactly in those times that you need to look for resources (a book, a program) written by an expert with the education and experience necessary to help you find a new path forward.
2. “My Spouse Doesn’t Want To Go To Counseling”
Asking one’s spouse’s permission to seek professional help is another one of the most common mistakes couples make. No one wants to have to go to counseling and many people would prefer to delay it as long as possible. Studies show that couples tend to wait 4-6 years from the onset of problems to the time they even begin to seek professional help. On top of this, if one’s spouse is abusive, emotionally or otherwise, there is even less of a motivation for the offending spouse to want to seek help even if they say they would like to stop. Why? Because, sadly, the marriage actually works for them. The angry, emotionally manipulative, or abusive spouse has all kinds of strategies for getting what he or she wants out of the relationship. Going to therapy means risking giving up all that control and risking NOT getting what he or she wants. If you are miserable and your spouse is persistently resistant to therapy despite your misery, 9 times out of 10 it is because the marriage works as far as your spouse is concerned.
So what do you do? Make the appointment anyway. If you had cancer, you wouldn’t ask your spouse’s permission to seek treatment. If your marriage has cancer but your spouse is too stubborn or clueless to know it, get help anyway. The best way to get your spouse into therapy is to let them know you are going with or without them. When they know you are absolutely serious about getting help, most spouses will come along if for no other reason than they want to make sure the therapist gets their side of the story. But even if your spouse never accompanies you to counseling, a therapist trained in one-person marital therapy can still help you make huge improvements in your marriage even working on your own. One person marital therapy involves learning to set respectful boundaries that thwart unhealthy marital behaviors and encourage healthy ones. Often it results in the offending spouse willing joining in the process at a later date, but even when it doesn’t, a solo-spouse can make big changes in the marriage.
The key, however–and this is critical–is seeking help from a trained marital therapist. Many therapists say they do marital therapy but have absolutely no training in it. Their success rates tend to be around 30% while trained marital therapists have success rates over 90%. Make sure your counselor has had specific training and supervision in marital therapy. Specifically, ask if they have training in systems theory and/or Gottman Relationship Therapy, two of the most successful, empirically-validated approaches to marital therapy.
3. “We went to a couple of session, but it didn’t do anything.”
Of course, going to therapy isn’t a guarantee for success but there are a few common reasons a couples’ attempts at therapy don’t work.
The first reason, as I noted above, is that the couple may be seeking help from an individual therapist who is doing marital counseling without proper training. These therapists’ success rates are abysmal compared to therapists who have undergone specific training and supervision in effective approaches to marital therapy. (incidentally, all therapists with the Pastoral Solutions Institute tele-counseling practice are required to commit to ongoing training and supervision in the latest, empirically-based approaches to marital therapy).
Second, research shows that serious marital problems often require a commitment of at least 12-24 sessions. That can feel like a long time, but 3-6 mos is not a long time compared to the fact–again–that most couples wait 4-6 years before seeking help. Couples who get help sooner get better faster. Generally speaking, the longer you wait, the bigger the problem gets. Regardless, it takes time to heal. It is important to keep in mind that there is no point of beginning therapy if you can’t commit to the full process. Think of it this way, if you don’t finish a course of antibiotics and you get sick again, that doesn’t mean antibiotics don’t work on you. It means you didn’t complete the treatment.
Third, couples often become demoralized when one spouse seems to be undermining the process by constantly complaining about the expense, not doing the homework, or incessantly pouting about having to go. All of these are simply tactics to maintain the status quo because–again–the marriage works for this recalcitrant spouse. Usually, this behavior will stop in a few weeks once the offending spouse realizes that it won’t stop their mate from making the next appointment. But, even if one’s spouse’s foot-dragging begins to seriously compromise progress, a shift to One-Person Marital Therapy can make all the difference as that solo-spouse begins to learn ways to set effective boundaries that spoil the games the offending spouse is playing.
The bottom line, make sure you are working with a trained marital therapist, then stick with it even if your spouse resists. Again, marital counseling is successful over 90% of the time when working with a therapist who actually knows what he or she is doing.
4. “Counseling was too expensive.”
I am, of course sympathetic to this concern. Unfortunately, medical treatment, including psychological help, is expensive. The good news is, most insurers do have some mental health benefit and you should take advantage of it when possible. But even if you don’t have good health insurance, as of 2013, the average divorce costs between $15,000-$20,000 plus a lifetime of hassle negotiating childcare, support, house rules, etc. By contrast, an entire year’s worth of marital therapy (should you even need that much) would cost about $5,000-$6,000. That’s not cheap, but it is up to 75% less expensive than the alternative on the high end of both duration and cost.
5. “I went to spiritual direction/counseling with my pastor”
Most people do not understand that there is a HUGE difference between spiritual direction and counseling (Note, I teach college courses in both counseling and spiritual direction). Simply put, a spiritual director’s job is to help you find God in the situation you find yourself whatever it is, while a therapist’s job is to help you change your situation. Spiritual direction, in short, is really not about changing anything so much as it is about being able to understand how God is relating to you through your present circumstances.
A woman in an abusive relationship might experience her spiritual director telling her to “join her sufferings to the cross of Christ” while her therapist is telling her to “stand up to your husband and set boundaries.” This is not conflicting advice. It is complementary. Someone who is experiencing a spouse’s cruelty needs to be able to both change their situation and experience God’s love in their present trials. Unfortunately, less experience spiritual directors often do not inform directees of this distinction between therapy and spiritual direction and many therapists don’t understand anything about the nature spiritual direction. And the public suffers from the confusion that results.
There is Good Help. You Can Find It.
These are just a few of the common mistakes couples make that cause them to be deprived of competent and effective help. I discuss many more ways to ensure you get the help you need in my book, When Divorce Is NOT An Option: How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love. Likewise, if you feel that it’s time to get professional marriage counseling help from a therapist with actual training and supervisions in marital therapy but don’t know where to look, I’d invite you to learn more about how we can help you through the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s pastoral tele-counseling practice.
Just know that regardless of your situation, competent help is available to you. Don’t be afraid to seek it out and don’t be afraid to commit to it when you find it. I pray that God will lead you to the healing you seek.