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Going to Couples Therapy ... Alone

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Can couples therapy work if 50% of the couple is MIA?

couple in therapy session

Dr. Wendy Walsh: Marriage is hard work. Problems can arise in so many personal "overlap" areas -- from sex and money to child rearing and communication. And during the long haul, in terms of happiness rates, there will be many peaks and valleys. When you find yourself in a valley, couples therapy can be a great way to tune up the machine of love and get your marriage back on track. But there are plenty of husbands who wouldn't step foot in a therapist's office, even if they were the one being paid to be there. So, what's a wife to do? Can couples therapy work if 50% of the couple is MIA?

The answer is a resounding YES. Here's why. A marriage is a system. A family is a larger system where the marriage is a vital gear. If any part of that system changes, the entire system changes. The classic example is the alcoholic family member who refuses to get help. Unknowingly, the other family members' behavior supports and enables the alcoholic's behavior. But if even one member goes to Al-Anon and/or private therapy, they can learn techniques that can help them stop enabling the problem drinker, and the entire family will be affected. It might not be comfortable change. But it will be change.

Another thing that personal therapy can do is help you reframe the problems in your marriage, and assess your place in it. This can change your reactions to your husband's behavior and thus, change the marriage. Here's an example: a wife complains that her husband is a terrible communicator. He comes home from work, gives a few grunts during dinner, and heads to the TV immediately afterward. She nags and nags him in an attempt to get him out of his shell and interacting with her. Eventually she gives him ultimatums. But nothing works.

In personal therapy, she learns that she feels lonely in her marriage. She feels unseen and unheard. The therapist helps her link these feelings to early childhood events that may have been the root of her sadness. Then she asks her to foster the relationships in her life that do help her feel good, perhaps her women friends or family members. As the wife spends more time relying on friends and her feelings of neediness are assuaged, the husband can now safely lower his defenses and come out of his shell a bit. But it's important to remember, this won't work if the goal is to get another person to behave in a new way. If she is trying to manipulate him by going out with her girlfriends more, she won't really have changed inside. She's still a lonely woman, now nagging him with her behavior. But if she actually grows in self-esteem, realizes that she is lovable and can reach out for acceptance from those who will respond in a positive way, her mood will affect the family.

All therapy is a route to personal growth and higher-level thinking. It can take us out of unconscious reactions and help us understand our behaviors as being connected to our thoughts and feelings. My favorite saying is, "Therapy doesn't make you happy. It makes you real." Authentic feelings, when expressed in a non-confrontational way, can create a path toward intimacy in your marriage. Therapy can also help us learn to have empathy and accept others. So many things that we interpret as deliberate attempts to hurt us are actually someone else's protection reflex. In other words, he's not hurting you, he's protecting himself from you. Having empathy for his tender psyche can help bring you back to the place of loving respect that started it all.

And marriage is worth it. It is through the friction created in love relationships that we grow as individuals. Every crisis in a marriage is an opportunity to grow closer through understanding ourselves and the feelings of our partner. Conflict is part of the game. A relationship without conflict is one without emotional intimacy. Relationships should not be judged by the amount of conflict, but by the ability to repair after conflict. And, having a helpful guide in the form of a therapist can help you through that repair process.



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1 comments so far | Post a comment now
Michelle August 31, 2009, 4:51 PM

I think this is such fantastic advice. I’m not even sure what to add it’s so good! It makes perfect sense that each person needs to work on themselves individually and that can affect the relationship as a whole. I think in marriage people can forget that they are separate individuals with separate issues, and everything is a “we”. This is a good way to put focus back on themselves, as a single person. Thanks for the post.


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