She Said, He Said: Committing to couples counseling needs to be a two-way street
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
My wife has been seeing a therapist for the past six months, working on some issues around the death of her mother and the resulting care of her father who suffers from dementia. She says she has learned a lot about herself and now realizes how unhappy she is with our marriage. She says she is willing to do couples counseling but not until I do my own counseling to resolve some of my own issues. I don’t want to lose the marriage and am willing to look at my baggage, but it feels like she is setting a requirement for me that I’m not sure I know how to meet. Even if I do start my own counseling, how will she know when I’m “ready” to begin working on our marriage?
Told to Fly Solo
Lori and Jeff: Our condolences to you both for the losses you’ve experienced. Death and illness of parents is often deeply painful but also can create opportunity for recentering and new growth. We appreciate your wife’s awareness and honesty and also the bind in which you find yourself. While we always encourage individual counseling as a means to healing and growth, there are significant differences between individual and couples counseling. Successful relationships often require that the two go hand-in-hand.
Lori: It’s not uncommon for the women in heterosexual relationships to be the initiators of couple’s counseling. But women have to be careful about the dynamic they are setting in place when they make requests like the one your wife has made. We’ve unfortunately worked with countless couples in which the woman has positioned herself as having it together and has identified her husband as the primary source of the problem. Often, to the credit of these women, they really had been making efforts and trying their best to fix the relationship, and their spouses had perhaps lagged in motivation or the “know-how” to keep pace. But that doesn’t mean that resolving the relationship problems is now squarely the responsibility of the man.
Ladies, just because you’ve put in work, it doesn’t mean you’ve got your stuff together in your relationship. We don’t ever graduate or check off the “Now I’m a perfect partner” box. I’ve been doing this work for a long time and am reminded every week of areas in which I still need to grow. If you want a healthy, strong, fulfilling relationship with your spouse, you need to sit in the same counseling room with him and be willing to hear from his mouth about how your patterns, choices and behaviors also impact him. When we do individual work we’re only able to explore what we can see about ourselves and it’s often our blind spots that create the most challenges for our significant others.
Jeff: When one partner does individual counseling outside of the relationship and thinks they’ve got it all figured out, it’s kind of like the television show, “The Biggest Loser.” It was a competition to see who could lose the most weight with a $250,000 cash prize for incentive. The contestants were sent away to a “ranch” where they were allowed to eat only healthy, low-fat foods and were forced to exercise to the point of collapse by their “coaches.” It was truly miraculous to see the transformations that many contestants experienced. Once they returned home to their normal lives, however, many of the contestants gained back most of the weight they had lost and then some. So, what happened? Their success was all based on environment and context. The old lifestyles, pressures, triggers and habits that caused them to gain the weight in the first place never went away. All that the contestants had learned was how to lose weight in an extremely controlled environment. Once the controls were gone, they could not maintain their healthy behaviors and fell back to their original unhealthy patterns — they simply hadn’t developed new ways of coping or adapting.
The same kind of thing happens when one partner makes changes and grows outside of the relationship, like the contestants at the “ranch.” They might make some very meaningful progress with their own individual issues and create healthier emotional patterns, but when those growth points are tested back within the context of the relationship, they often revert back to their old, less healthy patterns.
Lori and Jeff: She will never know when you are ready to start couples counseling. If there are problems in your marriage that seem unresolvable without help, then you are ready. The only real requirement is that you both are willing to learn and grow together. If you’re interested in doing some individual work in conjunction with the couple’s work, it will surely help the process, but let your wife know that it will not serve as a substitute.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.
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