Why Couples Shouldn’t Do Couples Therapy (Says the Couples Therapist)

The number one cause of escalating conflict in marriage is one we rarely talk about. As marital therapists, we focus all of our energies on the conflict between spouses, but we ignore the battle within each partner. And as a writer, I segregate my posts about marriage and my posts about shame. Until now…

A Saturday night with the person you love can go south in a heartbeat, can’t it?

Several weeks ago, my wife and I had just finished another night of one-more-cup-of-water requests, my-legs-hurt laments, and can-I-have-another-kiss rituals, and the rustling from the kids’ bedrooms had quieted.

And a couple of open hours sprawled out before us like an oasis in the desert of living.

Until my wife began to discuss the recent seminars she’d conducted in Guatemala. She looked at me like I had heard the story before, and the truth began to slowly dawn on both of us: I had never asked about her teachings in Guatemala.

I felt a moment of sheepishness. And then I went on the attack—a mixture of defensiveness (“I watched the kids for ten days so you could do the trip!”) and offense (“It’s your fault for not telling me sooner!”).

Listen. I’m a shrink. And I still get surprised all the time by my your-not-good-enough voice of shame.

It can sink a Saturday night in just one quick beat of a shame-shadowed heart.

Marriage Enemy Number One

Our hearts are like a sponge for shame, and most of us are pretty saturated with it by the time we meet our lifelong companion. So when our partner criticizes us, or asks for change, or asks for more, or simply gets a little too close for comfort, our heart gets squeezed and we leak shame all over the place.

Except shame is a lie so it never comes out all honest and confessing. It comes out like barbed wire. Usually, we try to make our partner feel even less worthy than we feel ourselves—with verbal attacks, emotional slander, and sometimes simply with silence.

And in most marriages, shame begets shame. So, when we shame our spouses and squeeze their hearts, their shame oozes out, and they go on the attack.

Usually, when the friendly fire is over, it’s impossible to tell who really fired the first shot. We assume our spouse is at fault and we completely ignore marriage enemy number one: shame.

Why Sometimes Marital Therapy Isn’t the Answer

For many couples, the cycle of shame-escalation in the relationship is so intense the marital therapy hour looks like a weekly battlefield reenactment. The script is written and the players have little interest in changing their own lines. Oftentimes, both spouses are secretly looking for an audience who will cast the deciding vote in their favor.

So, the viability of any couples therapy is dependent upon each spouse’s answer to two questions: are you willing to focus on yourself and face your shame? And are you prepared to do so for an hour a week in the presence of your partner?

If the answer to either question is “no,” the couple should not be in marital therapy. Instead, each spouse should be attending individual therapy. But partners resist individual therapy for at least two reasons. First, the mere suggestion of individual therapy feels like more shame—more you’re-not-good-enough.

Second, the individual therapy room can feel like a prison cell—no distractions, no one to blame, no place to direct the shame spilling out of our hearts. Which is why many people go to individual therapy and use the hour to complain about a spouse.

It is far more painful to look in the mirror.

Fighting for Your Saturday Night

As my wife and I began to go toe-to-toe that Saturday night, she had the wherewithal to step back and say, “You know, right before you got angry you looked embarrassed.”

I stopped mid-fury, and suddenly, the battle wasn’t between her and I, the battle began to rage within me.

Frankly, I think every marriage hinges upon this kind of moment: Do I deny the shame she saw peak out before my defenses were up and go back to shaming her, or do I own it?

“Crap,” I thought, “This is going to hurt.”

The shame began oozing up from the cracks in my heart, and I began to share with her the multitude of ways I had felt not-enough in the past week.

It hurt to feel it. It hurt to admit it. But it felt so good to share it.

And with no shame to defend, I felt free to apologize for all the ways I bungle my priorities and lose my focus on the most interesting thing in my life—her.

It wasn’t the Saturday night we had hoped for, but I think it was the Saturday night we needed.

How to Fight Within Marriage Ourselves

You don’t fight for your Saturday night by fighting with your spouse. You fight for your Saturday night by fighting with yourself. By fighting back against your shame. Except in our fight against shame, we don’t wield weapons toward others, we lay them down.

We breathe deeply, giving ourselves just enough space to make a wise decision—the decision to look in rather than shouting out.

We cultivate a quiet-still attentiveness—it pulls the covers of anger off the bed of our shame and reveals the aching, hurting kid underneath, who just wants a place to call home.

We use a graceful self-compassion. Until we can be gentle with ourselves, we can’t be gentle to anyone else. So, when we discover the hurting kid within us, we speak to him or her like we would to any kid with a skinned knee or a bloody elbow—with an embrace and a whispered, “Hush…”

We use courage and vulnerability to reveal it all to the person we love. We say things like, “This isn’t about you; this is about me. I’m terrified I’ll never be good enough for you, but I bluster as if you are the one who isn’t good enough for me, because that feels way safer.”

And we insist on being with people who can receive this kind of confession gracefully and receive us within their embrace.

So, as the marital therapist, I often find myself saying, “I can’t help until you have faced your shame. But if you are willing to do that first…

…I don’t think you have any idea what kind of radical, life-altering, world-changing love the two of you could create together. Then, marital therapy will be a rebellion that turns this world upside down.

How has overcoming shame improved your marriage? Share your thoughts, or any other ideas, in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

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Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

The Mess: The messy places in life—and the messy places within ourselves—present us with a choice. Because the mess is where our shame collides with grace, and we can choose to succumb to shame, or we can fight to receive grace. Come visit The Mess, and join the rebellion against shame. And as always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Preview: It’s spring break! No mid-week post this coming week. The next post will be on Friday, March 29, and is tentatively entitled, “Why Christians Can’t Stop Sinning.”  

DisclaimerThis post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Disclaimer: Kelly's writings represent a combination of his own personal opinions and his professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with him via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Kelly does not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accepts no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • becca @ exilefertility.com

    Here’s how it has gone with us (married almost four years) many times: if my husband says something hurtful I may have trouble forgiving him (even though its a very small thing) but then I will become ashamed of my over-reaction and really have difficulty continuing to communicate. I’ve been realising that rather than be embarrassed of my reaction to just let it be what it is, in honesty and openness (rather than pretending everything is fine) and to let my husbands acceptance of me bring another small layer of healing … Small things often point to something so much bigger for us and like you said it is often much more about our own shame than the actual offence. Excellent post. Thanks so much.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank YOU for sharing this, Becca. It points out one more of the myriad ways shame can affect our relationships. It’s so good to keep our antennae up and watching out for it!

  • Laura

    How has overcoming shame improved your marriage?

    Learning how to identify/address my own shame, has helped me to recognize when the beloved, my husband, is experiencing his own personal struggle with his. Understanding this aspect of shame has helped me to know that in sensing his own shame it is much better – more loving – to meet his with a quiet empathy and not a proffered “solution”. I tend to always want to “help and fix things”. But what I now understand is I can only “fix” mine and not others. I can however, love quietly from the sidelines. Thank you for sharing so generously!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Beautifully said, Laura.

  • Jennifer Newell

    Kelly,
    I think it is safe to say this post touched a nerve. No one wants to admit their shame and well this really points out how we react to our spouses might not be about them and instead be about us. For myself, I struggle most when it comes to our children. I think I have expectations of myself that are at best unreasonable. When we are struggling and as a result my husband and I are disagreeing on next steps, it is easier to make this be about him than to know the reaction I am having is because of me. Thanks for this. It is something I think we all need to think about and consider in our marriages.

  • Jacob Wadsworth

    I think pride also has something to do with the fights going haywire. Not one among the couple wants to give up or give in so they end up with intense fights. It is important to understand one another to prevent tensions from escalating. Both should be considerate of one another’s thoughts and feelings. – http://www.relationshipreality312.com/

  • Julianne Weimer

    Every problem has a solution. If a couple keep on fighting, doesn’t show respect, no understanding, the situation could be worsen. Everything can be fix. Couples therapy can help them.
    StevenCope.com

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  • Rainie Flores

    I think couples who would want to seek marriage counseling or couples therapy should both admit that they need it. It should be a mutual agreement otherwise it won’t help them. If they still want to save their marriage and after trying everything they can to make it work but to no avail, then couples therapy is the answer.

    EvolvingFamilies.net

  • Nancy Edward

    Some husbands really need to be careful of other woman outside their marriage,this was a true life story that happened to me to my own notice my sister took my husband from me the husband whom i have love so much and promise me that no woman will take him from me but all of a sudden things turned apart if not for my friend hear in USA that told me i needed a spell caster that can cast a spell to separate them maybe by now he must have went for a divorce which could have made me commit suicide because i loved him so much likewise like him also but how things turn around was a thing that surprised me.
    I vowed that any thing it could cost me i must separate him and my elder sister i then collected the contact of this spell caster from my friend Mary she told me his name is spiritual Priest Ajigar and his email is priestajigarspells@live.com i contacted him and narrated the whole story to him he consulted and found out that my sister visited a spell caster that casted a spell that made him love her i then ask him what to do he told me that this spell needed to be broken so that my husband can leave her alone and come back to me the spell was broken and within three days he began to hate her that he even beat her up before he said to her that it is over between him and her right now my husband is with me again and care for me like he have never done before i thank my friend Mary but i own all thanks to priest Ajigar for bringing back my husband and i their for advice that if you notice any strange behavior in your marriage or your boy friend or girlfriend is cheating you contact Priest Ajigar to know the root of it he will surely help you out and give an everlasting solution to it.

  • Selina J

    Hi everyone i will never forget the help the priest of JAYEMA temple render to me in my marital life. i have been married for 4 years now and my husband and i love each other very dearly . after 3 years of our marriage my husband suddenly change he was having an affair with a lady outside,i notice it then i was praying for divine intervention the thing became more serious i told my pastor about it we prayed but nothing happen. my husband just came home one day he pick up his things and left me and the kids to his mistress outside at this time i was confuse not knowing what to do again because i have lost my husband and my marriage too. i was just checking my mails in the office when i saw someone sharing her testimony on how the priest of JAYEMA temple help her out with her marital problems so i contacted the email of priest JAYEMA i told him my problem and i was told to be calm that i have come to the right place that i should fill some information concerning my self i did after 30 minus he called me again congratulating me that my problems will be solve within 48 hours. he told me what went wrong with my husband and how it happen.that they will restored my marriage but i will make a free donation to their JAYEMA home anything my heart told me. to my greatest surprise my husband came to my office begging me on his knees that i should find a place in my heart to forgive him i quickly ask him up that i have forgiven him.friends your case is not too hard why don’t you give priest JAYEMA a try they work surprises because i know they will also bring back your husband. contact him via jayemamagictemple@gmail.com

  • Juliet

    Hi Selina

    i was in a big problem in my marital life so i read your testimony on how Priest JAYEMA help you get your husband back and i said i will give it a try and i contacted the Priest JAYEMA to help me and he promised to help me get my problem solved. now am so happy with my life because all my problems are over. Thanks to the great Priest JAYEMA for the help and Thanks to you Selina.

    AM SO HAPPY……

    http://www.priestjayemamagictemple.blogspot.com/

  • Guest

    It took us so long to rema

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  • Bob Cole

    this was quite insightful.wow. we move from the shame to the anger so quickly we don’t realize what just happened. thank you.

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  • Anonymous

    Yes, because I will take advice from a counselor who cannot even demonstrate proper grammar.

  • Cristina

    I do not believe in marriage counselling. It’s like changing who you are completely instead of Twiting. There’s the difference what you love your partner hates and I wouldn’t change to love it for them. My partner is beautiful but hate everything about you change your personally for me?

  • Cristina

    Now that I broke up with my past I found a new guy that I can be myself with and love me for being me! I believe in self therapy not in relationship therapy.