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Emotional Abuse: Why Your Marriage Counseling Failed

Why is marriage counseling risky in angry and abusive relationships?

If you live with a resentful, angry, or emotionally abusive person, you most likely have tried marriage counseling that made things worse at home.

By the time couples come to our boot camps for chronic resentment, anger, or emotional abuse, they have been to an average of three marriage counselors. A major reason for their disappointment is that marriage counseling presupposes that both parties have self-regulation skill—the ability to hold onto self-value while they regulate guilt, shame, and a state of inadequacy, without feeling entitled to blame them on one another. In our age of entitlement, fewer couples seem able or willing to do this.

Another strike against marriage counseling is manifest in an old joke among marriage therapists: We all have skid marks at the door from husbands being drug in. 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. In cases of normal relationship distress, this extra effort to keep the man engaged isn't usually a problem. But in verbally or emotionally abusive relationships it can be disastrous. Here's an example:

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. 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, because when we do that, we're both in better moods and there's no yelling." (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: I don't mean to be judgmental, I just want him to get the point.

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 yelling 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. At home, of course, it was another matter.

In a less reactive relationship, the therapist's advice wouldn't be so bad. If Gary could regulate his emotions and sense of entitlement, he might have appreciated Estelle's efforts to consider him in the way she phrased her requests; perhaps he would have become more empathic in response. But in the day-to-day reality of their walking-on-eggshells relationship, Gary felt guilty when Estelle made greater efforts to appease him. Without self-regulation skill, he blamed his guilt on her—she wasn't doing it right, her "I-statements" had an underlying accusatory tone, she was trying to make him look bad, etc.

Many abusers assail their partners on the way home from the therapist's office for bringing up threatening or embarrassing things in the session. One couple came to our boot camp after being seriously injured in a car crash that resulted from arguments on the way home from their therapist. I'm willing to bet that if you've tried marriage counseling in a relationship rife with resentment, anger, or abuse, you've had a few chilly, argumentative, or abusive rides home from the sessions.

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 lawsuit 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 and inaccurate implication that people are abused because they don't have the "skill to set boundaries," this kind of intervention completely misses the point. Your partner's resentment, anger, or abuse 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.

You will protect yourself, not by setting 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 derived from your partner's behavior, a powerful conviction will emerge; you will overcome emotional reactivity and return to the person you were before the relationship went bad. Then your partner will get it: He must change the way he treats you to save the relationship.