Why Marriage Counseling is a Bad Idea, Vol. 1

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(Image/Huffington Post)
(Image/Huffington Post)

A wife asked her husband to read my ‘Shitty Husbands’ posts, which happens more than I’d like. (Because passive-aggressively telling your husband he’s not good enough WILL NOT improve your marriage.)

Then she wrote me an email asking for advice, which also happens more than I’d like. (Because I’m just some guy who doesn’t really know anything, and got divorced the only time I was married.)

In that email, she wrote: “He started reading and said: ‘Fuck that guy. Is he a therapist?’”

I assume MOST men have that response when they read those posts. It’s the same thing I would have said five years ago: Who cares what this idiot thinks? He got a divorce and I’m still married. I’m already doing better than him by default!

I don’t blame the guy for feeling that way. He suffers from the same affliction affecting most married men: Oblivious Husband Syndrome. (Which I totally made up, and could just as easily be called: Oblivious Man Syndrome.)

Our brains (both male and female) contain translators, so that when people speak to us, or we observe something, our brains can process what we’re hearing or seeing and apply meaning to it.

So when we see a “Don’t Turn on Red” traffic sign, we understand it to mean that at particular traffic intersections, we are not allowed to make right turns when the light is red, even though American drivers are accustomed to doing that. We know what the color red looks like. So we’re not sitting there avoiding right turns at green lights while a bunch of pissed-off drivers wait behind us.

Our translators are good at stuff like that.

Sometimes though, our translators are shitty. Sometimes, we need information in English, but it gives us Portuguese or Mandarin or Arabic instead.

And that’s because a member of the opposite sex is talking to us. And because men are from Mars and women are from Venus, and because men are like waffles and women are like spaghetti, when a man says something to a woman or acts like himself around her, or a woman says something to a man or acts like herself around him, it’s not uncommon for neither person to know what the hell the other person is talking about or trying to accomplish.

Men often don’t understand women because women often speak and act in code. Other women know exactly what the code means. Because of this, many women don’t understand why their husbands or boyfriends don’t get it also. The only conclusion is that he’s a stupid moron. And in the context of the way her mind naturally works, it’s a perfectly logical conclusion.

But it’s wrong.

Women often don’t understand men because men are often lousy communicators. We stay quiet about our feelings for a variety of reasons, and we have a hard time patiently listening to problems or stories because we have a tendency to problem-solve. When our wives or girlfriends are telling us a story, the ENTIRE point for them is the act of telling the story and having their husbands or boyfriends listen to it and acknowledge it.

The problem is, the men listening tend to not be interested in the nuance in her story, and are more interested in whatever “the point” is. Once they understand the point, the men can provide solutions to their wives’ or girlfriends’ problems, or solutions to whomever the story is about. That’s his goal. To solve the problem and eliminate the need for discussion.

The process is painful to the guy because he tried to help and listen, but she didn’t want him to help, and now he’s frustrated and feeling unappreciated.

It’s painful to his wife or girlfriend because, once again, he’s demonstrating insensitivity and an inability to really listen and be there for her in matters big or small.

The man thinks he was being helpful. The woman thinks he’s an insensitive dick. The only conclusion for the guy to come to is that she’s overly dramatic, emotional and crazy. And in the context of the way his mind naturally works, it’s a perfectly logical conclusion.

Men with Oblivious Husband Syndrome aren’t always stupid and aren’t always assholes. Often, they just don’t know.

This is just one all-too-common example of how men and women fail to communicate effectively with one another, and at the end of the day, it causes more breakups and divorce than anything else.

Men are not better than women. Women are not better than men. But men and women ARE different in varying degrees depending on environment, upbringing, genetics, etc.

The fundamental breakdown in a romantic relationship between men and women can be traced back to their inability to empathize with one another or to meet their partners halfway. Instead, we try hitting our partners over the head repeatedly until they finally “get” us, or concede that our way is best. (They never will. The most we can hope for are highly functional translators.)

Marketing genius Seth Godin wrote this today:

“Empathy doesn’t involve feeling sorry for someone. It is our honest answer to the question, ‘why did they do what they did?’

The useful answer is rarely, ‘because they’re stupid.’ Or even, ‘because they’re evil.’ In fact, most of the time, people with similar information, similar beliefs and similar apparent choices will choose similar actions. So if you want to know why someone does what they do, start with what they know, what they believe and where they came from.

Dismissing actions we don’t admire merely because we don’t care enough to have empathy is rarely going to help us make the change we seek. It doesn’t help us understand, and it creates a gulf that drives us apart.”

All of this is leading me to my strong belief that the vast majority of couples make a huge mistake going to marriage counseling or couples counseling together. I hope marriage counselors don’t get upset with me for writing that, but some probably will.

I started thinking about it when a husband whose wife is just about to leave him said: “Fuck that guy. Is he a therapist?”

No. I’m not a therapist. And I don’t know the secret to fixing troubled marriages. And I don’t know for sure that I will ever have a successful marriage.

I don’t give advice. I just tell you what happened to me.

There are marriage-counseling success stories. Just like sometimes, people actually win the lottery. Because some counselors are great, and some people are blessed to be married to partners willing to humble themselves and learn to empathize.

But most of the time?

It’s a gut-wrenching, resentment-building, bank account-draining affair that drives couples further apart because men and women frequently demonstrate an inability or unwillingness to understand one another.

I think couples counseling is a bad idea.

Soon, I’ll tell you why.

To be continued.

35 thoughts on “Why Marriage Counseling is a Bad Idea, Vol. 1”

  1. I have to agree that in most scenarios I know of, counselling did not impact the end result. Sometimes it made people more aware and able to acknowledge their own role in something, but it didn’t actually change anything.

    A while back I came across a quote from a counselor who said that most couples come to him 2-3 years later than they should have.

    Maybe that’s part of the problem. We keep our heads firmly planted in the sand for too long, and it’s only when we are at a breaking point that we consider looking for help. By then the damage is often so entrenched that it’s hard to get out.

    1. I think you nailed it, Drew.

      It’s made worse by the fact that (in a situation like mine which I believe to be the most-common form of a marriage ending), you’re totally oblivious to how serious the disconnection is until you’re way down the road.

      I’m not blaming wives for that. It’s just that wives often say and do things that should trigger in our brains: “Holy shit! This is a five-alarm emergency and this needs fixed immediately!” But the things the wives are saying and doing DON’T trigger that reaction in us.

      It’s because we have Oblivious Husband Syndrome (which I’m looking forward to writing more about because of how true and prevalent it is).

      We accidentally don’t take the warning signs seriously because we don’t interpret them as dire warning signs.

      By the time we figure it out, the wives have often checked out. Given up.

      That’s what the vast majority of divorces look like: Simple, often not ill-intentioned neglect combined with poor communication.

      It doesn’t have to be this way.

  2. A few months before I left my marriage, I brought up the idea of counseling. My ex decided that he would never go to individual counseling (even when I said I planned on doing it for myself, too). He originally freaked out over the marriage counseling alternative, because he didn’t want to be ganged up on and beat down. My reply was that if he really thought that was what I wanted, why would he even want to be married to me?

    In a situation like that – I genuinely don’t believe marriage counseling can work unless both parties are equally invested in trying to solve the problems and figure out their ‘translation difficulties’. (Love that example, by the way.) Marriage at times requires humility, and an openness to introspection. On both sides.

    I realized, for myself, that forcing my ex to go to counseling would never accomplish what I wanted. I think too many people look at it as the ‘easy fix’, and dropping the problems in someone else’s lap, or sometimes even the desire to use it as a tool to change the other person. You simply can’t force someone to want something they have no desire for.

    On the other hand, there are people like me who recognize that the marital ‘translator’ is not functioning on both sides, and want to do everything they can to fix it. I knew things were broken, I just didn’t know how to fix it. Ultimately, I chose to fix myself the best I could. I think, really, because I was in an emotionally/verbally abusive relationship – my Ex was probably right that it would not have worked for us in any case. His safety and comfort were the most important things to him, and my attempts to explain I didn’t feel safe or comfortable met with deaf ears and dug in heels. But that really just goes back to my earlier point – both parties have to be invested for counseling to work. Unfortunately by the time it is suggested, usually things have gone beyond the point of no return. It’s become too much of a last resort.

    Thanks for the blog, appreciate your perspective.

    1. You nail it with this:

      “I think too many people look at it as the ‘easy fix’, and dropping the problems in someone else’s lap, or sometimes even the desire to use it as a tool to change the other person. You simply can’t force someone to want something they have no desire for.”

      Followed by:

      “Ultimately, I chose to fix myself the best I could.”

      We’re all a little bit broken and messed up. There are a million different reasons why and no one has the time or money to get it all figured out.

      But if we can all be a little bit self-aware of our shortcomings (or at least our behaviors that tend to upset others, even if it’s only our partners), and work hardest on making ourselves the most whole, balanced, healthy, content people we can possibly be… we give ourselves an excellent chance.

      Two people trying to be the best versions of themselves they can possibly be will also try to give unselfishly to their partner and/or marriage.

      When two people give more to the other than they take for themselves, Happily Ever After happens.

      I realize how incredibly easy that is to write, and how incredibly difficult that is to execute.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. 🙂

  3. TO BE CONTINUED?!?!? Are you FREAKING kidding me?!?!? I was ready to read off the proverbial cliff and then…..”to be continued.” ….Am I gonna have to wait until FRIDAY?!?!? dude, you’re killin’ me…”to be continued”…SMH

    1. You’re, literally, the only person in the world who wants to read me ramble and blather on past 1,000 words.

      I had to cut it short to realistically expect anyone to read whatever it is I write tomorrow.

      Remember: I don’t plan these things. I just think of it and go. It’s probably a really bad strategy.

      Thank you for reading and caring and stuff. It’s much appreciated.

  4. As a therapist who frequently meets with couples, I agree and disagree. On one hand, couples in fact do come when they’re at the point of no return. In which case, it’s too little too late. One side is super resentful of the other, and sessions end up being one huge argument that’s also draining on the therapist. On the other hand, if both parties are agreeable to being wrong, to doing the exercises and are committed to being better; or if one person is affected by something like ADHD, then counseling is informative and helpful. But the research says that most couples counseling is successful if the people come BEFORE there is a major problem, not after. We’re not magicians and we can’t break down people’s defenses in one or two meetings. We can’t force them to do the homework or use the tools. Our job is to be a passenger in a car that you are driving – we point out things along the way you have missed bc you know where you’re going and are less likely to look for landmarks as a result. But we don’t control the car.

    1. This comment is really well stated. My mother has been a marriage counselor for over 30 years and has helped thousands of couples and individuals. Sometimes with couples, the result is a stronger relationship; other times, it’s best to end the marriage for any number of reasons. But either way, the counselor is a guide, not a dictator or professor. It seems to me that there are three key ingredients to marriage counseling success: two willing and invested partners, and one skilled therapist (just like with any profession, there are the good, the bad, and the inept). Many couples seek counseling as a way to gain tools to improve their relationship even if it’s already good. Others do it to validate “what they already know.”

      Your observations about the differences between men and women are a good start, but are too general and objectified to be a basis for dismissing counseling altogether. In my opinion.

      1. No doubt, it’s too general to dismiss counseling.

        It will be much clearer in the follow-up post. (Few people are willing to read 1,000+ word posts so I cut it short.) I think counseling and therapy are very good things. I just think it’s most effective on an individualized basis.

        As someone else said, couples counseling would be GREAT if couples attended under healthy, typical, emotionally stable conditions. NOT when everyone’s freaking out, sleeping with other people, or already has a foot out the door.

        Putting two sad and angry people in a room with a stranger who asks them to explain out loud, in detail, how the person next to them (who gave up their entire identity as an individual to pledge a lifetime of love and support to them) is making their lives miserable, strikes me as a very bad idea. VERY bad.

        I’ll talk about why Friday.

        Thank you very much for reading and commenting. I’m not dismissing counseling, therapy, or seeking help. Those are really important.

        I just think there’s a way that might work, and a way that almost never will. Most people do it the way that almost never will.

    2. We don’t disagree. 🙂

      I just hadn’t gotten there yet.

      You’re right of course, Dr. Ali. In an ideal situation where BOTH partners legitimately want to be in counseling and are actively practicing empathy (or even BETTER, sort of preemptively seeking counseling or therapy early in their relationship and building new skills and learning new tools), I think it can work fantastically well.

      I don’t mean to badmouth the concept, nor the professionals out there legitimately trying their best to help people.

      I do mean to discourage people from doing what they normally do.

      We all know how that ends.

  5. I tried the counseling as a last resort but really, it was to make sure what I already knew was correct. I didn’t want to leave and then realize an answer was out there and I just was oblivious to it.
    Ultimately, I think you’re correct about counseling unless both parties are going to learn BEFORE they have serious, deeply-rooted resentments and issues.
    I’m thinking that if both people listen and respond in the beginning, they can continue to keep their relationship healthy If and Only If they both know that. Whatever you want has to be evident from the start. The trick is – knowing what you want and how to be that way yourself – FIRST. (That is my next hypothesis to prove or disprove in this game of Life.) I feel sorry for you being people’s “therapist” : ) , but it makes great posts. Thank you.

    1. “Ultimately, I think you’re correct about counseling unless both parties are going to learn BEFORE they have serious, deeply-rooted resentments and issues.
      I’m thinking that if both people listen and respond in the beginning, they can continue to keep their relationship healthy If and Only If they both know that.”

      That’s precisely what I believe, Jayne. Thank you for reading and commenting!

      1. okay…but having been through divorce, as I have, and having witnessed many people aware of the danger, still fall into that black hole of complacency and taking each other for granted… Do you believe you yourself can keep a relationship “good”. As I wrote “you, yourself” I had part of my answer and that is that it’s not possible to do all by yourself. Sooo much thinking on this subject and sooo much evidence of miscommunication makes me think most of it is driven by chance. Relationships seem to start by “chance” and even with our knowledge and intellect, they can’t be formulated for success. Sometimes I do believe that relationships aren’t supposed to last forever and this is proof. When you think about it, there is a lot of proof for that.

        1. Chance favors the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur famously said that in the 1800s. And I think he was right.

          Sure, there’s a lot of chance and bullshit that affect our lives.

          But when we aren’t lazy, when we put in the time and effort to psychologically prepare ourselves for ANYTHING (a project, a new job, a new town we’re moving to, learning a native language before visiting a country, etc.), but certainly a committed relationship, I think we give ourselves an excellent chance for success.

          I have no idea whether I’ll ever marry again. And all of the preparation in the world can’t guarantee it will last forever.

          But my would-be fiancee and I will spend a LOT of time talking about these things, and working on them, and demonstrating self-awareness and empathy.

          Anyone I end up having “the same fight” with over and over again? It’s likely going to be her stubbornness or my stubbornness that prevents us from breaking that cycle.

          In either case, that will be a sure sign to NOT get married.

          If I get married again. She and I will have these high-level talks and will have, repeatedly, over many weeks, months and years, demonstrated the ability to communicate effectively and behave unselfishly even when it’s inconvenient.

          Sure, I may divorce again one day.

          But it won’t be because I made the mistake of going into it not properly armed with the tools and information I need to be a good husband and succeed.

          Fate gets to decide whether I live or die five minutes from now.

          But it doesn’t get to decide how I treat the people I love.

          1. Amen. Thanks for indulging my thoughts here. I do believe in love. I just like kicking the tires of it every once in a while, especially with someone like you who writes about it. xo, Jayne

  6. i went to marriage counseling with my husband because i was unfaithful and our marriage needed a LOT of help.

    from our therapist i learned three huge things: 1. my husband is perfect, and 2. i am a whore and must be fixed, and 3. i am incredibly lucky as a dirty whore to be married to such a perfect and forgiving man.

    it was SO helpful. maybe i should call and schedule a refresher.

    1. Infidelity or otherwise, EVERYONE commits some kind of crime in their marriage.

      Therapists shouldn’t spread the blame around equally when one person got screwed over, but they also shouldn’t not ask the right question.

      People think I “take on too much responsibility” for the end of my marriage. Right or wrong (and I think it’s wrong), it doesn’t matter.

      It’s ALL about responsibility and accountability.

      This would seem to me to be an obvious truth (this only applies to me, not all marriages): If I behaved every day in my marriage the way I have grown to believe a person must behave in order to have a healthy marriage, my wife and I would still be married, and probably with a second child.

      I’ve never said or typed that before. But I believe it strongly.

      That doesn’t mean it’s entirely my fault that we got divorced.

      It just means, I had a lot of control over my own destiny (and that of my wife and son) and I squandered it through immaturity, irresponsibility and negligence.

      Thus, I’m now 36 and single and only see my son half the time.

      Even when our hearts are in the right place, we reap what we sow.

    2. I am not a troll but any woman who cheats on her husband is a dirty whore. In the past the woman that was married and cheated and the man who cheated were stoned to death publicly. If the punishment was to be stoned to death do you seriously think you would have cared about the new guys teeny weenie when you have a husband who knows how to love you in and out of the bedroom. There is a over 20+ things you could do to enrich your romantic life besides cheat. Lean tantric sex, be a swinger, have a threesome, attend bedroom confessions, go to strip club, buy a new house, go to club desire, take a anti depressant, I mean the list just goes on and on. I wish people would use their brains. – Signed victim of a cheater and a female rapist who raped her hubby while my kids were in next room while my wife was having emotional affair.

  7. It’s actually sort of amazing that people get married and have kids without ever having to prove they have a proficiency in either. Like maybe I should become a teacher and THEN when I’m not very good at it, I’ll go to some classes, see somebody about it. Or maybe I’ll become a brain surgeon… see how that works out. Because marriage is complicated and hard and we do it every minute of the day until one of us dies. I’m a great friend to my girlfriends because we don’t live in the same house, and we don’t share child-rearing and bank accounts.
    Never really thought about it in this way, but it is an incredibly interesting thought. Sort of makes one want to cut the poor sucker they married a break. (Thank goodness for date night.)

    1. Kids get married all the time. They might be 23 or 26 or 29. But in the context of mental and emotional maturity?


      At least I was at 25 when I got married.

      Kids don’t know most of the time what they need to know to succeed.

      They rush into marriage. Realize it’s not what they thought it would be. Then lack the maturity and/or knowledge and/or ability to work through it.

      They try marriage counseling as a last-ditch effort. And it doesn’t work at all because when two people sit in a room and badmouth each other, the results tend to be bad.

      Thanks for commenting, Jen. 🙂

  8. In the case of my marriage, counseling would have done no good at all.
    The reason for that is that my wife was abusive, and the reason she suggested counseling was more than a little underhanded. She was going to try to get the counselor to join her against me, and— I saw through this and would have none of it.

    My limits had already been exceeded. Hit in the face, called bad names, accused of sexually molesting a kitty cat— then the demand that I divorce her so that she could get carloads of alimony and my life would be destroyed (funny how that didn’t work— Illinois law doesn’t quite work that way).

    Counseling CAN work if the parties involved are able to be honest and are willing to work through the differences. It can’t work if one party is going to be deceptive and is trying to use the counselling as a weapon against the other party.

    That’s my take on the matter.

    1. “Counseling CAN work if the parties involved are able to be honest and are willing to work through the differences. It can’t work if one party is going to be deceptive and is trying to use the counselling as a weapon against the other party.”

      I couldn’t agree more.

      Relying on marriage counseling to save your relationship without putting in any effort or having the proper mindset is akin to hiring a personal trainer, never working out, and wondering why you’re still unhealthy and out of shape.

  9. Very interesting and well said. I look forward to your “to be continued.”

    I have very little experience with marital counseling, but three times now therapists have advised me to get a divorce. I suppose in a way it helped because it ticked me off and made me defiant enough to want to make marriage work, if just for spite. We’re pushing 30 years now, so we must be doing something right.

    1. I like that story. Thank you for sharing it. 🙂

      I’m not trying to spite counselors. I just think people need their minds in the right place to succeed at ANYTHING. And if it’s not in the right place with their marriage, I don’t see how going to counseling and not having their minds in the right place there is going to solve anything except making you poorer and angrier.

      Congratulations on nearly 30 years. I love hearing those stories.

  10. Did you ever roll your hands in a , “c’mon with the punchline,” type way when your ex was talking to you? I’d impatiently wait for her to tell the story knowing the whole time there was an ending that would bring it all together but most of the time I just wanted to know the end. She’d look at me all angry or dumbfounded like, “seriously I’m trying to tell you this story and you are basically telling me to finish and shut up!” Sure that was a dick move, my bad. I’ve learned so much about myself during my “deconstruct and rebuild mode.”

    1. You remember all those moments at the dinner table, or driving in the car, or sitting on the couch.

      All those times. And all they wanted was for you to be quiet. Listen. Acknowledge that this thing happened and that it mattered to them. And move on peacefully, because, Mission Accomplished.

      But we’re oblivious idiots. We treat them like our buddies, and wait for them (often impatiently) to arrive at the point of the story.

      And there might not be a point, necessarily, and even if there is, they don’t want you offering up your “Smart Man Life Tips” on how to fix any of it.

      Most people don’t have any idea this is why innocent conversations turn into fights and resentment between couples.

      Everyone just thinks there’s something wrong with themselves or the relationship.

      And it often ends badly.

      Just because two people are talking and don’t understand how to behave, or empathize with how the other person might feel about any of it.

      It’s tragic.

      Always good to hear from you, Vince. I hope life is getting better for you through the natural course of time and healing similar to the way I’ve experienced it.

      Wishing you and your children well, always.

  11. Pingback: Why Marriage Counseling is a Bad Idea, Vol. 2 | Must Be This Tall To Ride

  12. Pingback: An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 11 | Must Be This Tall To Ride

  13. I so agree with so much of your analysis of both sides. My husband and I have at various times in our marriage unwittingly hurt each other deeply and felt in a vicious cycles of deeper hurts when we tried to resolve the issues. Through much prayer and help from a marriage counselor we took an empathetic listening course that gave us the tools to understand another person without having to agree or feel responsible for their emotions. We learned how to communicate emotions without blaming and reflect back what the other person was communicating. We don’t always use these methods but when we are going through something really big, it has been a marriage saver. It is amazing how just having the other person understand where you are coming from even if they don’t feel the same way, brings relief, a feeling of being known, and also an opportunity to brainstorm solutions if necessary that can meet both people’s needs. Marriage is not for the faint of heart! It takes the grace of God to help us all because we are not perfect and we are different. I have misjudged my husband by thinking he didn’t care. I was wrong. He does care, but he doesn’t naturally see things the way I do, and vice versa. It is scary to me how quickly 17 years of marriage can be at risk. God is so faithful to have helped us to address this quickly, bravely, humbly, and honestly. Marriage is powerful, wonderful, hard, and even very painful at times. His Grace is sufficient. As much as the enemy of our souls seeks to destroy our marriages, the One who created marriage is able to save them.

  14. that is why if they do not want a solution they should either talk to their female friends or mention this at the beginning. If the woman mentions she just needs someone to listen to her stupid moronic story we can think at something else while she talks.

  15. 2 points:

    Assuming you actually meant what you wrote in “Men often don’t understand women because *women often speak and act in code*”, that is women failing to be forthright, not men being “oblivious”. Putting all the responsibility on men to “decode” everything a woman says and does puts him in a position where he has to distrust her by default, and second-guess her sincerity at every turn. It’s insane. Just find a woman who can express herself openly. Apply the same selection criteria you would to a friendship or any other kind of relationship. This trope of the “oblivious husband” is a tool that dishonest women use to control naive men; don’t fall into the trap of playing along with it or letting it stick to your identity. Don’t give up your power to a manipulative woman by trying to score a goal between shifting goalposts. If a woman is sincere she will send clear signals.

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