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

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.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.