When used properly, couples therapy is a great tool to improve communication and the long-term health of a marriage.
However, it is hit or miss for troubled marriages. In The Marriage Clinic, John Gottman finds that only 11 to 18 percent of couples make meaningful, long-term gains and that almost half of the couples who seek couples therapy are divorced within five years.
And when one partner is abusive, it can be a downright terrible experience. The Oregon Domestic Violence Counsel addresses the number one reason they don’t recommend couples therapy when abuse is present:
Because the focus is on the relationship, there is an implicit assumption that each person contributes to the abusive behavior, when in truth the perpetrator is fully and solely responsible for his abusive behavior.
The problem is, some women may not realize they are in abusive relationships. They know something is wrong, but they think it is their fault. In cases like this, couples therapy can be highly traumatic.
Here’s My Story
A few years before the marriage ended, I knew we were in trouble. Then, one evening, a minor incident shocked me. Duane came home from work and immediately got on the stationary bike.
I said, “How come you got right on the bike? Why not take a minute to say hello?”
The shocking thing was his response: “I’m not on the bike.”
All of a sudden, something clicked.
I recalled a thousand similarly casual statements over the past few years. Duane had been lying to me. The only difference about this time was he slipped and told the lie right to my face, indifferent to the fact that I could see how his actions didn’t match his words.
For the first time in our marriage, I thought there might be something wrong with Duane. He had applied for a few promotions and been turned down; maybe he was working too hard? At the same time, I was angry. Why wouldn’t he talk to me if he was that stressed? Why could we never have a real conversation?
I told Duane I thought he should see a therapist. He reluctantly agreed; what he really wanted, he said, was couples therapy. I refused. I told him he needed to work with someone individually before we would be ready for that.
But when he got back from the first session with the therapist he found, he told me that she recommended couples therapy. In fact, she had already filled out the insurance paperwork to bill us for joint sessions.
A therapist does not generally talk a client out of individual therapy in one session. Only years later did I learn that Duane told her we were seeking couples therapy.
The therapist must have thought I was a bit deranged, then, when I wrote her a long, reactive email saying that there is no way I would be in therapy with Duane.
She repeated that her recommendation was couples therapy.
I felt deeply invalidated by her response. At the time, of course, I didn’t know that Duane was psychologically abusing me. Feeling that I must be to blame yet having an instinctive sense that something was off, I was on the defensive most of the time.
Two years later, when the marriage was on the brink of collapse, I finally agreed to give couples therapy a try.
Things had become such a mess that I wanted someone who could to step in and mediate so that we could have a discussion that didn’t get off track. Duane’s motive, unknown to me at the time — and possible unknown even to himself — was to get an authority figure to approve his desire to leave.
You see, he’d fallen in love with someone else. She wasn’t interested, but another woman might be. He was in contact with one of his exes. He was meeting women in the neighborhood coffee shop. But he didn’t want to be that douche who cheats. He wanted to have just cause for leaving so that I would be at fault.
Duane didn’t hit me. He rarely yelled.
Instead, he was dismissive and demeaning. He stonewalled. He made fun of me in front of our daughter. He kicked the dog.
In the therapist’s office, I was thrown off by his skillful manipulation. I had always thought of Duane as highly intelligent but not very good with words. His capacity for glib half-truths, distraction, and innuendo floored me.
And almost from the start, the therapist responded positively to him. It was not so much that she condoned his tactics — she could see that he was derailing conversations — as she invented a motive for them.
Duane was a victim. He avoided tackling our issues because he was anxious, especially around me.
When she asked about affection between us, I gave an example: Duane never wanted to hold my hand.
The therapist interrupted me, looked at Duane, and said, “Was she squeezing your hand so hard it hurt?”
Duane simply nodded. Someone finally understood him.
There were several instances like this. I remember the therapist trying to convince me that Duane’s laughter was “nervous” during a situation I recounted in which he was mocking me. I got frustrated, trying to set out the exact context of the incident, wasting precious moments of the session. I wanted so badly just to be believed.
Ultimately, this therapist decided to separate us “for a few sessions” and became Duane’s own individual therapist without even informing me that the couples therapy was over. I had to call her to find out. She wasn’t planning on talking to me ever again.
Some Concluding Thoughts
I taped that phone conversation. I had already spoken to the state licensing board, and I knew the therapist had violated her professional code of ethics by terminating the therapy without my knowledge or consent.
Of course, there was no point really in filing a complaint. I have since watched Duane fool a number of women, some of them very intelligent.
Their inability to see through Duane is not done on purpose, to hurt me. And to be fair, at that point in my life I was pretty unstable. Our daughter’s therapist, who was excellent, let me vent, and my own therapist and a wonderful support board taught me to act strategically.
I had to own and manage my own behavior, repair my relationship with my daughter. That was on me.
Still, I think that therapists and counselors need to have a better understanding of cluster B personality disorders if they want to earn part of their income from couples therapy. These combined disorders constitute more than 10 percent of the adult population. Surely, they make up far larger percentage of the population going through divorce.
When it does not dismiss them as incurable, psychotherapy has traditionally focused on treating the personality disordered individual. It’s time to shift our focus to the damage they do to their relationship partners. To give solace and find solutions, rather than heaping on more blame.