Emotional Abuse – Why Marriage Counseling Makes it Worse

If you live with a resentful, angry, or emotional abusive person, you have most likely have already tried marriage counseling or individual psychotherapy. You may have tried sending your partner to some kind of anger-management group. Let me guess your experience: Your personal psychotherapy did not help your relationship, marriage counseling made it worse, your partner’s psychotherapy made it still worse, and his anger-management or abuser classes lowered the tone but not the chronic blame of his resentment, anger, or abuse.

Fortunately, you can learn something about healing from each one of these failed treatments, which we will examine next, one by one.

Why Marriage Counseling Fails

By the time most of my clients come to see me, they have already been to at least three marriage counselors, usually with disastrous results. A major reason for their disappointment is that marriage counseling presupposes that both parties have the skill to regulate guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy without blaming them on one another. If your husband could reflect on the motivations of his behavior – what within him makes him act as he does-he might then disagree with you or feel he can’t communicate with you or feel incompatible with you for any number of reasons, but he wouldn’t yell, ignore, avoid, devalue, or dismiss you in the process. If your husband were able to regulate his own emotions, your marriage counseling might have been successful.

Another strike against marriage counseling is manifest in an old joke among marriage therapists: We all have skid marks at the door where the husband is being dragged in. As you well know, men do not go voluntarily to therapy as a rule. So therapists tend to go out of their way to engage the man because he is 10 times more likely to drop out than his wife. If the therapist is sufficiently skilled, this extra effort to keep the man engaged isn’t a problem, in normal relationships. But in walking-on-eggshells relationships it can be disastrous, because the therapist unwittingly joins with the more resentful, angry, or abusive partner in trying to figure out who is to blame in a given complaint. Of course he or she won’t use the word, “blame.” Most marriage counselors are intelligent and well-meaning and really want to make things better. So they will couch their interventions in terms of what has to be done to resolve the dispute, rather than who is to blame. Here’s an example of how they go wrong.

Therapist: Estelle, it seems that Gary gets angry when he feels judged.

Gary: That’s right. I get judged about everything.

Therapist: (to Estelle) I’m not saying that you are judging him-

Gary: (interrupting) Oh yes she is. It’s her hobby.

Therapist: (to Estelle) I’m saying that he feels judged.

Perhaps if your request could be put in such a way that he wouldn’t feel judged, you would get a better reaction.

Estelle: How do I do that?

Therapist: I noticed that when you ask him for something, you focus on what he’s doing wrong. You also use the word “you” a lot. Suppose you framed it like this. “Gary, I would like it if we could spend five minutes when we get home just talking to each other about our day.” (to Gary) Would you feel judged if she put it like that?

Gary: Not at all. But I doubt that she could get the judgment out of her tone of voice. She doesn’t know how to talk any other way.

Therapist: Sure she does. (to Estelle) You can say it without judgment in your voice, can’t you?

Estelle: Yes, of course I can. I don’t mean to be judgmental all the time.

Therapist: Why don’t we rehearse it a few times?

So now the problem isn’t Gary’s sense of inadequacy or his addiction to blame or his abusiveness, it’s Estelle’s judgmental tone of voice. With this crucial shift in perspective introduced by the therapist, Estelle rehearsed her new approach. Gary responded positively to her efforts, while the therapist was there to contain his emotional reactivity. Of course at home, it was quite another matter, despite their hours of rehearsal in the therapist’s office.

In a less reactive relationship, the therapist’s advice wouldn’t be so bad. It’s questionable whether it would help, but it wouldn’t do any harm. If Gary could regulate his emotions, he might have appreciated Estelle’s efforts to consider him in the way she phrased her requests; perhaps he would have become more empathic. But in the day-to-day reality of this walking-on-eggshells relationship, Gary felt guilty when Estelle made greater efforts to appease him. Predictably, he blamed it all on her — she wasn’t doing it right, her “I-statements” had an underlying accusatory tone, and she was trying to make him look bad.

By the way, research shows that therapists behave in their own relationships pretty much the same way that you do. In disagreements with their spouses, they fail just as much as you in trying to use the “communication-validation” techniques they make you do in their offices. They find it as tough as you and your husband do to put on the brakes when their own emotions and instinct to blame are going full throttle. After all, how is Mr. Hyde supposed to remember what Dr. Jeckyl learned in marriage counseling?

One popular marriage therapist and author has written that women in abusive marriages have to learn to set boundaries. “She needs to learn skills to make her message – ‘I will not tolerate this behavior any longer’ – heard. [The] hurt person [must] learn how to set boundaries that actually mean something.” This is the therapeutic equivalent of a judge dismissing your law suit against vandals because you failed to put up a “Do not vandalize” sign. You have to wonder if this therapist puts post-its on valued objects in her office that clearly state, “Do not steal!”

Putting aside the harmful, inaccurate implication that women are abused because they don’t have the “skill to set boundaries,” this kind of intervention completely misses the point. Your husband’s resentment, anger, or abuse comes from his substitution of power for value. It has nothing to do with the way you set boundaries or with what you argue about. It has to do with his violation of his deepest values. As we’ll see in the chapter on removing the thorns from your heart, you will be protected, not by setting obvious boundaries that he won’t respect, but by reintegrating your deepest values into your everyday sense of self. When you no longer internalize the distorted image of yourself that your husband reflects back to you, your husband will clearly understand that he has to change the way he treats you if he wants to save the marriage.

One of the reasons marriage therapy fails to help walking-on-eggshells relationships is that it relies on egalitarian principles. Noble an idea as it is, this approach can only work in a relationship in which the couple sees each other as equals. Remember, your husband feels that you control his painful emotions and, therefore, feels entitled to use resentment, anger, or abuse as a defense against you. He will resist any attempt to take away what he perceives to be his only defense with every tool of manipulation and avoidance he can muster. In other words, he is unlikely to give up his “edge” of moral superiority – he’s right, you’re wrong – for the give-and-take process required of couples’ therapy. And should the therapist even remotely appear to “side” with you on any issue, the whole process will be dismissed as “sexist psychobabble.”

Many men blame their wives on the way home from the therapist’s office for bringing up threatening or embarrassing things in the session. Two couples I know were seriously injured in car crashes that resulted from arguments on the way home from appointments with therapists they worked with before I met them. I’m willing to bet that if you’ve tried marriage counseling, you’ve had a few chilly, argumentative, or abusive rides home from the sessions.

The trap that many marriage counselors fall into (taking you with them) is that resentment – the foundation of anger and abuse – can seem like a relationship issue. “I resent that you left your towel on the bathroom floor, because it makes me feel disregarded, like my father used to make me feel.” But as we have seen, the primary purpose of resentment is to protect the vulnerability you feel (or he feels) from your low levels of core value. Please be sure you get this point: Low core value is not a relationship issue. You each have to regulate your own core value before you can begin to negotiate about behavior. In other words, if self-value depends on the negotiation, you can’t make true behavior requests – if your “request” isn’t met, you will retaliate with some sort of emotional punishment: “If you don’t do this, I’ll make you feel guilty (or worse).” Merely teaching the couple to phrase things differently reinforces the false and damaging notion that your partner is responsible for your core value and vice versa.

Many women live with resentful, angry, or abusive men who seem to the rest of the world to be “charmers.” I’ve had cabinet secretaries, billionaires, movie stars, and TV celebrities for clients, all of whom could charm the fur off a cat, in public. Before they were referred to me, each one of these guys had been championed by marriage counselors who concluded that their wives were unreasonable, hysterical, or even abusive. They have no trouble at all playing the sensitive, caring husband in therapy. But in the privacy of their homes they sulk, belittle, demean, and even batter with the worst of them.

These men have gotten so good at charming the public, including their marriage counselors, because they’ve had lots of practice. Since they were young children, they’ve used charm and social skills to avoid and cover up a monumental collection of core hurts. Though it can be an effective strategy in social contexts, this masquerade falls flat on its face in an intimate one. If your husband is a charmer in public, his resentment, anger, or abuse at home is designed to keep you from getting close enough to see how inadequate and unlovable he really feels. In fooling the marriage counselor and the public at large, he makes a fool of you but an even bigger one of himself.

Why Your Psychotherapy Did Not Help Your Relationship and His Made It Worse

Research and clinical experience show that women in therapy tend to withhold important details about their walking-on-eggshells relationships. Most say that they’re embarrassed to be completely honest with their therapists. One woman told me that she was convinced that her therapist, whom she thought was “awesome,” wouldn’t like her if she knew about the harsh emotional abuse at home. Though it is incredibly hard to believe, she saw that same therapist for five years without ever mentioning her husband’s severe problems with anger and abuse. By the time I was called in, the woman was suffering from acute depression and anxiety that were destroying her physical health. When I spoke to the therapist, however, she had no clue about the abuse.

When therapists are aware that their clients are walking on eggshells at home, they feel almost bound to persuade the woman to leave the relationship. The most frequent complaint I hear from women who have undergone this kind of advocacy therapy is that they were reluctant to reveal the depth of their guilt, shame, and fear of abandonment to their disapproving therapists. Some have reported that their counselors would say things like, “After all he did to you, and you feel guilty?” I have heard hundreds of women report this kind of pressure from their therapists and have heard hundreds of therapists at conferences express exasperation about their clients’ reluctance to leave their walking-on-eggshells relationships. The trainings I do for therapists worldwide always emphasize the utter necessity of compassion for their clients’ enormous burden of guilt. Making hurt women feel ashamed of their natural (albeit irrational) feelings of guilt is intolerably bad practice. Compassion for her core hurts is the healthy way to help her heal her pain.

Despite these problems, your psychotherapy probably helped you a little, even though it did not help your relationship. Whether it helped your husband is another matter.

The goal of traditional psychotherapy is to reprocess painful experience in the hope of changing the way the client sees himself and his loved ones. If your husband’s therapy unearthed painful experience from his past, without first teaching him basic emotional self-regulation, he most likely dealt with that pain in the only way he knew how — by taking it out on you. He either seemed more entitled to display resentful, angry, or abusive behavior or used the pain of his past as an excuse for it. Here are the sort of things women hear from resentful, angry, or abusive men who are in therapy:

“With all I’ve had to put up with, don’t you hassle me, too!”

“It’s so hard being me, I shouldn’t have to put with your crap, too!”

“I know I was mean to you, but with the pain I’ve suffered, you have to cut me some slack.”

In defense of your husband’s therapist, this approach is designed to make him more empathic to you eventually. But it takes a long time – a great many weekly one-hour sessions – before his sense of entitlement gives way to an appreciation of your feelings. And once he reaches that point, he has to deal with the guilt of how he’s treated you in his “pre-empathic” years. For at least a few more months of slow-acting therapy, he’ll feel guilty every time he looks at you. Without the skills offered in the Boot Camp section of this book, he’ll either lash out at you for making him feel guilty or distance himself from the wrongly perceived source of his pain – you.

As we’ve already seen, marriage counselors have to make special efforts to build a working alliance with reluctant male clients. That formidable task is all the harder in the more intimate context of individual psychotherapy with a man who dreads exposing vulnerability, as just about all resentful, angry, or abusive men do. To establish and nurture this tenuous alliance, therapists will often employ a technique called “joining.” He or she may validate your husband’s feelings about your behavior, both for the sake of the therapeutic alliance and out of fear that he’ll drop out of therapy, as most men do before making any real progress. Your resentful, angry, or abusive husband will likely interpret the best “joining” efforts of his therapist as reinforcement that he has been mostly right all along and you have been mostly wrong. To make matters worse, most therapists have a bias to believe what their clients tell them, even when they know that they’re getting only half the story and a distorted half at that. This is a bit hard to swallow when you consider that many resentful, angry, or abusive men make their wives sound like Norman Bates’s mother — they’re just minding their own business, when she comes screaming out of nowhere wielding a bloody knife.

If you were lucky enough to communicate with your husband’s therapist – and that’s something that most resentful, angry, or abusive men will not allow – you probably heard things like this.

“He’s really trying, give him credit for that.”

“As you know, he has so many issues to work through.”

“We’re starting to chip away at the denial.”

The message to you is always, “Continue to walk on eggshells and hope that he comes around.”

Why Anger-Management Didn’t Work

Research shows that anger-management programs sometimes produce short-term gains, and that these all but disappear when follow-up is done a year or so later. That was almost certainly your experience if your husband took an anger-management class. They are especially ineffective with men whose wives have to walk on eggshells.

The worst kind of anger-management class teaches men to “get in touch with their anger” and to “get it out.” The assumption here is that emotions are like 19th century steam engines that need to “let off steam” on a regular basis. These kinds of classes include things like punching bags and using foam baseball bats to club imaginary adversaries. (Guess who would be the imaginary victim of your husband’s foam-softened clubbing?) Many studies have shown conclusively that this approach actually makes people angrier and more hostile, not to mention more entitled to act out their anger. Participants are training their brains to associate controlled aggression with anger. Could the designers of these programs really think women would be pleased that their men learned in anger-management class to fantasize about punching them with a foam bat?

Of course, there is a much better alternative to both “holding it in” and “getting it out.” In the Boot Camp section of this book, your husband will learn to replace resentment, anger, and abusive impulses, with compassion for you.

Hopefully, your husband did not attend one of these discredited classes on anger expression. But you might not have been so lucky when it came to the second worse form of anger-management: “desensitization.” In that kind of class your husband would mention your behaviors that “push his buttons,” things like you “nagging” him. The instructor would then work to make those behaviors seem less “provocative” to him. The techniques include things like ignoring it, avoiding it, or pretending it’s funny. Didn’t you always dream that one day your husband would learn to be less angry by ignoring you and avoiding you or thinking that you’re funny when you ask him about something serious?

Core hurts — not specific behaviors — trigger anger. If the class succeeds in making your husband less sensitive to you “nagging” him, he will nevertheless get irritable when you tell him you love him, as that will stir his guilt and inadequacy. Most important, you don’t want him to become less sensitive to core hurts. Quite the opposite, as he becomes more sensitive to them, he will be more sensitive to you, provided that he learns how to regulate his feelings of inadequacy by showing compassion and love for you, which the Boot Camp section will help him to do.

Desensitizing doesn’t work at all on resentment, which is the precursor to most displays of anger. Resentment is not simply a reflexive response to a specific event, to something you say or do. Resentment arouses the entire nervous system and works like a defensive system itself. That’s why you don’t resent just one or two or two hundred things. When you’re resentful, you are constantly scanning the environment for any possible bad news, lest it sneak up on you. Anger-management classes try to deal with this constant level of arousal with techniques to manage it, that is, to keep your husband from getting so upset that he feels compelled to act out his anger. “Don’t make it worse,” is the motto of most anger-management classes. If he was aggressive they taught him to withdraw. If he shut down, they taught him to be more assertive. What they didn’t teach him was how to stop blaming his core hurts on you and act according to his own deeper values. If attempts to manage anger don’t appeal to core values, resentful men begin to feel like they’re “swallowing it,” or “going along to avoid an argument.” This erodes their self-esteem and justifies, in their minds, occasional blow ups: “I am sick and tired of putting up with your crap!” Then they can feel self-righteous: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

In a love relationship, managing anger is not the point. You need to promote compassion, which is the only reliable prevention of resentment, anger, and abuse.