Going to Marriage Counseling Alone

Colleen Sheehy Orme

Woman in pink with suitcasePhoto by Julia

Years ago I made a pivotal decision in my marriage. I would continue in couples counseling alone. My husband refused to go back to therapy and our relationship was at an impasse.

I was stuck between two truths. I was excruciatingly unhappy. But I wasn't prepared to end my marriage. This isn't uncommon. One partner who's willing to work on the relationship while the other is not. Or one spouse behaving badly while the other tries desperately to reach them.

In the article, Why Going to Couples Therapy by Yourself Can Still Help Darren Haber, MA, MFT, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles explains an average relationship counseling occurrence.

"It happens often: a potential client, usually female, calls to see if I do couples counseling. I say yes, we set an appointment, she calls back to cancel. The reason? Her partner feels counseling is unnecessary or is unwilling to come. She’ll get in touch again if her partner has a change of heart."
"Usually that’s the end of it, but sometimes I follow up, and I’m told the relationship has ended."

In the Psychology Today article, Haber explains the benefit of individual marital counseling.

"I’ve now come to the definite conclusion that the person who calls would benefit from coming in anyway, with or without her partner."
"But why? After all, it’s not what she wants. She wants to work on the relationship—and how can that happen if her partner doesn’t join her?"
"Except that she is half the relationship, so any change she may make in herself—be it new behaviors, feelings, or attitudes—will directly impact the other person, potentially prompting him or her to adjust to a new dynamic."

This makes sense. If we are experiencing difficulty in our relationship and our partner is unwilling to work on the conflict at least we can work on ourselves. This was the reason I decided to continue in marriage counseling by myself.

However, Haber gives a more thorough explanation of this.

"The American myth of individualism is just that—a myth. We have autonomy, yes, but are not free-floating, detached “units.” We live in relationships to friends, family, coworkers, partners, even the natural world itself. How we treat nature, the way we drive or behave in public—it all has an impact on others. And we do tend to attract what we “promote,” consciously or otherwise. The best way to bring more kindness and sensitivity to our relationships is to treat others with kindness and empathy, and set appropriate boundaries when others fail to treat us respectfully. Easier said than done, especially when you feel that respect isn’t coming back at you despite your efforts. Which is why talking about those efforts with someone, about how and why they should or shouldn’t continue, can be helpful. Because the therapist (or trusted friend or advisor) is now part of “the system” as an outlet, and can help diffuse tension."

I also had personal reasons for continuing in marriage counseling alone. My father was an alcoholic. I understood his illness and I spent my young life trying to avoid repeating my mother's mistake. However, I didn't understand what my mom brought to the table. I realized this put me at a disadvantage. Had I known all sides of the puzzle I may have avoided marrying a man with a different type of unpredictable personality.

I remained in marriage counseling for myself and for my children.

I wanted to increase the likelihood of them experiencing a healthier relationship.

I discovered, much like my mother, that I was an enabler. An enabler is an overly caring individual who will tolerate repeatedly bad behavior. They will make excuses for the one they love. In favor of continually seeing the best in them. Enablers lack healthy boundaries. Not unlike the average overly compassionate person, I confused kindness with enabling.

My counselor taught me kindness is forgiving bad behavior once or twice and enabling is forgiving it over and over again. He taught me about myself. It was invaluable. It moved away from he said, she said and onto the only person, I could control...myself.

In the article, Haber discusses how we get caught up in this dynamic.

"Who started it? Who keeps it going? Who is doing what to whom?"
"It is easy to get mired in these questions, and have endless discussions about parsing answers. In the end, most couples say, "Who cares?" But the better question is, “What can I myself do to make this situation better? How am I contributing to the overall relationship, pro and con?” Beginning to address those contributions—with or without your partner—will have an effect."

I loved my husband too much to leave him but his sudden disruptive behavior was causing chaos and distress within our home. I had stayed and begged him to address it. But it was a cycle. Nothing ever changed.

Ultimately, I continued to work on myself and made the decision to get out of a bad situation.

"It can be very hard to shake, however, the idea that life would be so much better if only they would change first. Often a caller says, “I’m a wreck and can’t be at peace until he/she gets it together.” But what if that takes months, even years? This is a recipe for resentment. Life is always more difficult under duress, so why not begin taking care of yourself now, since change is a process? Even if the “caretaking” person comes in for therapy alone, that itself breaks the cycle, offering a chance to find new perspective and solution," says Haber in the Psychology Today piece.

Not every marriage ends when an individual goes to marriage counseling alone.

Haber provides hope to couples by explaining it can produce a positive result.

"Sometimes romantic relationships, wonderful as they can often be, turn out to be disillusioning. Our ideals and hopes can feel dashed when we discover that the other person is, after all, only human. They may even have some of the qualities we least wanted to find in a partner. But this needn’t always spell trouble. It can mean there's an opportunity to have a new relational experience, however hard it may be to believe. I see it often: When one partner gives therapy or counseling their best shot, shifts occur—and the other partner usually agrees, over time, to come in or seek help in some way."

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Colleen Sheehy Orme is a National Relationship Columnist, freelance journalist, and former business columnist. She writes about love, relationships, and self-restoration. She has spent more than a decade in research and counseling on the topics of divorce, relationships, and Narcissistic personality disorder.

Reston, VA

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