How to avoid sabotaging couples counseling

July 30, 2018

Dr. Peter Pearson has seen this dynamic play out over decades of counseling and leading The Couples Institute with his wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader.Dr. Peter Pearson has seen this dynamic play out over decades of counseling and leading The Couples Institute with his wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader.In our practice we meet as a team weekly for at least two hours. In addition to ongoing training, we discuss what’s going on in our counseling sessions. Without sharing confidential information, we describe difficult marital situations, various therapeutic approaches and the overall trends we’re seeing. That’s 14 counselors and coaches bringing decades of experience to the table, exchanging observations and pooling our knowledge to provide the very best guidance for our clients.

I’m not bragging (well, maybe a little), but I say all this to let you know that what follows is more than just my perspective – it’s true within our practice as well as among other marriage therapists with whom we network.

When couple counseling doesn’t work, assuming there has been a competent, professional counselor involved, it’s usually due to one of these reasons:

  • Holding on to the idea that your spouse is the problem.
  • During counseling, focusing more on your spouse’s efforts than your own.
  • Ignoring or minimizing how your personal behaviors contribute to the relationship issues.

Obviously, these are variations on a theme, which is summed up well by therapist Esther Perel, the author of “Mating in Captivity” and “The State of Affairs”: “It’s so easy to focus on what’s missing in the other person. It’s so easy to go critical. It’s so easy to think that if [my spouse] were different, my life would be better … .”

‘Any spouse who goes into counseling presuming that fixing the other spouse will fix the marriage is, wittingly or not, sabotaging the process.’ Click To Tweet

If this is the attitude with which you’re entering counseling, it’s highly likely to sabotage the process, starting with how you interact with your counselor.

Are you trying to sway the counselor?

Dr. Peter Pearson has seen this dynamic play out over decades of counseling and leading The Couples Institute with his wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader. In a recent Business Insider article, he said people come into his office with the idea of swaying him to their side by describing all the ways their spouse has wronged them. He said, “Their perception and belief is, ‘My partner causes my problems’ … [They think that] if they can be clear enough about how their partner is the problem … I will reform the partner.”

Folks, I can’t emphasize strongly enough how damaging this is to the counseling process, and to ultimately saving your marriage. Starting counseling with a focus on what your spouse is doing wrong is like wearing the proverbial rose-colored glasses. No matter what you look at – no matter what your counselor talks you through – you’ll see everything with a reddish-pinkish hue, regardless of what the reality actually looks like. Until you take off those glasses and look at yourself, you’ll always be stuck at square one.

Wasting valuable time

Any counselor worth their salt will see your bias immediately and know it must be dealt with before anything else in the marriage. Dr. Pearson echoes this, saying that when someone walks into his office with this attitude, that’s the person he focuses on first.

“I disturb that way of thinking,” he explains. “I say, ‘No, what’s going to make you create a stronger marriage is by changing how you respond to what your partner does that’s so problematic.”

Bottom line, allowing yourself to focus on your spouse’s issues wastes your time, and your spouse’s and your counselor’s, not to mention that it costs you money as well.

Yes, the problem is both of you

The truth is the problem is not you or your spouse, it’s both of you. By its very nature, relationship involves two parties – two people who have to merge their different backgrounds, their unique personalities, and their different life experiences into a productive, intimate partnership. Both of you have behaviors that are difficult to live with, and both of you have responses to one another’s behaviors that only make the problem worse. Walking into counseling with your eyes wide open to this fact will jump start you into truly productive therapy.

So if you’re considering counseling, my strongest guidance is to not sabotage yourself. Check your personal perspective with these questions:

  • Are you willing to look at yourself as hard, or harder, than you look at your spouse?
  • For every change that you ask of your spouse, are you willing to commit to a corresponding change in yourself?

This is hard, I know – because believe me, I’ve been there myself. But I 100% guarantee that couples who make the best progress most quickly are the ones who are willing to look at themselves first rather than point fingers at one another. Our counselors and coaches have helped hundreds of clients make the most of their counseling, right from the start. They’re ready and waiting to help you.

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