I generally recommend to couples that if they are having relationship problems, couples therapy is more likely to be helpful than individual therapy. If your spouse, however, is telling you "No way will I go to a therapist," all is not hopeless. Here's three cases of couples each of whom took a different route to radically upgrading their relationship.
Case I: I'll get help myself
Jason refused to go with his wife Ariella to see a marriage counselor. Fourteen years and five children later, he still was refusing. Finally Ariella said to herself, "Something has to change." She found the name of an individual therapist, and went by herself to treatment.
Ariella told her therapist about Jason, how he was strikingly tall, handsome, smart, funny, athletic and earning a great income, but also controlling to the point that she felt by now totally suffocated by him. Her affection for Jason was gone. She was staying with him just for the sake of their children.
"That's narcissism you're dealing with," said the therapist.
Ariella checked out narcissism on the internet. That was Jason, fitting almost every item on every checklist she found.
But was the narcissism label helpful or hurtful? Actually, now that she had a word that summed up what made living with Jason so frustrating, Ariella felt all the more hopeless. Maybe there was nothing she could do to make their relationship better. Worse, the websites mostly said that narcissists don't change in therapy.
Ariella continued in treatment. Her therapist said, "Therapy is to help you to learn and grow. If Jason is not willing to come in with you, he's at risk for getting left behind. But spending your time in treatment talking about what's wrong with him will get you nowhere. Your best hope is to learn to deal with Jason in new ways."
Ariella's therapist taught Ariella to speak up more assertively, hoping that standing her ground would up the odds that Jason would listen to her. For years Ariella had become increasingly silent about anything she wanted, given that Jason just disagreed with whatever concerns she expressed. So she tried the new assertiveness training at home.
Bad idea. Ariella's new assertiveness triggered Jason to escalate his anger. Now things were worse. In addition to feeling smothered, Ariella began had begun to feel scared. While Jason often said mean things to her, now for the first time she began to worry that Jason might, in a fit of rage, do something impulsively that could hurt her physically.
Next Ariella's therapist helped her to explore what about her past led her to choose a man who was so unresponsive to her concerns, so "all about Jason." The parallels with her dad, who like Jason had been so special and yet so self-centered, struck her first. She realized too how similar Jason was to her older brother Ted whom she had always adored. That comparison triggered even more hopelessness for Ariella. Alas, if she had chosen poorly, what more could she do?
"I'm afraid he's never going to change," Ariella told her therapist, "and that I just can't stand living with him any longer," Ariella realized. That night she told Jason she had decided to seek a divorce.
Fortunately, in spite of her therapist's semi-helpful, semi-problematic interventions, Ariella's quiet announcement of her decision provoked an unanticipated reaction from Jason. He was shocked. And suddenly motivated to make changes. The idea that his wife, whom he adored, might leave devastated him, and at the same time woke him up from his self-centered bubble.
Jason and Ariella started in therapy that very week. Once there, Jason proved to be a dedicated learner. Now, just three months later, their relationship is getting closer and closer to the marriage of both of their dreams.
Case II: Skill-Building
Janet and Harold chose a different route. Janet in this case was the one who said, "No way. I'm not going to do therapy. I hate going to doctors, and a therapist sounds even worse."
Harold had read that when just one spouse goes to treatment, the odds go up that the marriage will end in divorce. Worse still is if both spouses go to separate therapists.
Harold though was a do-it-yourself'er by nature, much like his wife. So Harold scoured the internet for how to fix a relationship. To his delight, Harold found that skill-building is an alternative strategy to therapy for marriage mending.
Janet noticed that her husband was spending extra time at the computer. She also noticed that he seemed more tactful when something bothered her, and more interested in hearing her perspectives. One evening she looked over his shoulder when he was concentrating on something on the computer that had a video on it. Turned out he was working on games and quizzes on a marriage skill-building website. He was learning how to talk more cooperatively, how to listen like a teammate instead of like an opponent, and how to interact only in a calm and constructive emotional state instead of in the bickering mode they used to do. Before long Janet and Harold both became equally engaged in learning new collaborative communication skills.
Janet and Harold fit the adage, "If we knew better, we would do better." Talking now in a far more cooperative and open way, bit by bit they both felt increasingly safe sharing more, dealing with their differences, and even radiating more open affection with each other.
Case III: Go positive.
Judith had tried for years to get Peter to "shape up" as a husband. The more she suggesed, cajoled, or criticized, the less he seemed to learn. Finally, she gave up.
Better yet, Judith did a flip. She decided that the only person she would try to change would be herself. Instead of suggesting that Peter could fit more dishes in the dishwasher if he loaded it with all the dishes facing the same way, she herself loaded the dishes her way, and then said, "He's not me. It's okay with me for him to do it his way."
As she felt more relaxed around Peter now that she was no longer trying to fix him, Judith one evening had an astounding realization. She was looking at Peter's chaotic arrangement of dishes that he had thrown into the dishwasher when the thought came to her that she sure was lucky to have a husband who voluntarily cleaned up the kitchen after meals. Judith rose up from where she'd been resting, walked shyly over to Peter, and hugged him warmly.
"I sure am lucky to be married to a man who's such a willing participatant in keeping up a clean house," she murmured, kissing his ear.
Guess how this marriage has turned out?
Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution on therapy as a process of conflict resolution, and The Power of Two.
A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is an interactive website for learning the skills for marriage success, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.