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Revealing the Hidden Motives in Marriage Counseling

May 11, 2010

While waiting for my flight to be called in an airport, I checked my cell phone. I dialed the voice mailbox and found there were three urgent messages – all from the same man. He was the husband of a woman I had been counseling and he told me he needed to talk that afternoon. Of course, he had no way of knowing I wasn’t even in California at that moment, so I forgave his presumption that I would be able to drop everything to see him. As I was listening to his last desperate voicemail, he called in live time.

“Mike, I’m glad I finally got you on the phone. I need to see you immediately.”

“Bill, I’m in Arizona right now. Can you tell me what is going on…perhaps one of my co-workers can help you with your problem.”

“Mike, it really has to be you. I’m sorry to be so insistent, but no one else can help with this”. I should stop and say I already knew what this was about and that this was no emergency. Bill’s wife had asked him for several years to go for marriage counseling. He refused, for a number of reasons, and absolutely would not admit there was anything wrong with their relationship. So she decided to seek out help for herself instead. After seeing a couple of other counselors (and physicians) she also came to see me to help her with the marital problems. After working together for a month, she found a place of mental peace, rest and inspiration. She committed herself anew to her marriage, but she also committed herself to not going back to the way things had been for years. Even though she was doing emotionally and spiritually well, Bill did not like the “new Patricia” and became belligerent and verbally abusive to her in front of their two children.

I contend that you can change a marriage by modifying the perspective of just one member of that relationship. When people leave behind their lies and walk instead in peace and truth, that transformation changes the dynamics of their marriage. But these changes are not always welcome by the spouse who is not in counseling. Sometimes, bringing health to one person in a marriage will upset the equilibrium so much that the marriage status may become critical. This is exactly what was happening with Bill and Patricia.

“Mike, Patricia just left me and our marriage. She has taken the kids and gone to live with her sister for now. I need to see you. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Perhaps you’re thinking this was the perfect opportunity for me to counsel Bill as I had his wife. But this was not why Bill was phoning. I could tell immediately when he refused to talk to anyone else but me. He didn’t want me to help him change his life. He wanted me to convince his wife to move back in with him. Probably he assumed he could win me over to his “side” and that I would want to convince Patricia to go back to Bill. In essence, he wanted to do with me what he had been doing with his wife for years. He had no idea when he called that I have no commitment to save his marriage.

Yes, you heard me correctly. I have no intention of helping anyone save their marriage. It doesn’t work and it isn’t even a biblical concept. Nowhere in the Bible does God offer to save people’s marriages. He does offer to save our souls and our lives, transform our passions, decisions, morals and beliefs. God certainly grieves over divorce, but never does he offer to save someone’s marriage. For years, I tried to convince people to stay married. It never worked: not once. Unless a person wants to be married, no one else will change their mind. Marriage is a free choice and not even God will violate that.

Good counseling with people who have marital problems will focus on who the person is, what they believe and why they react the way they do. I only seek to help a person get closer to the God of Truth and then let them decide if they want to stay married. Since I started to practice this kind of counseling, I rarely see the kind of marriage break-ups I saw when I was desperately trying to hold couples together.

As Bill and I talked, I made it clear I wasn’t going to help him save his marriage. That was his job, not mine. He became angry with me over the phone and started to accuse me of being part of the process to end his relationship. I waited out his diatribe and then asked him a question: “What were you expecting me to do for you today?” He blurted out his answer before thinking: “I wanted to start counseling with you so I could call Patricia and tell her”. In summary, he wanted leverage to pressure his wife to do what he wanted. This is a common motivation for people entering marriage counseling – but it is certainly not the only one.

Though many people say they go to counseling to save the marriage, that is almost never the real goal. Let me lay out the more common reasons people choose to engage a marriage counselor as a couple:

  1. Story-Telling: When a person has endured pain, grief or difficulty, they desperately want others to both understand what they have endured and to be sympathetic to their hardship. When there are marriage problems, each person wants their spouse to understand what they have been through. I find that people seek out a marriage counselor to provide a safe place where they can tell their story. Most spouses no longer hear any version of the marriage story other than their own. When couples come to me for marriage counseling, they hope my presence will force their spouse to listen to their version of the “story”. What they don’t realize is I cannot make a person listen to something they don’t want to hear. Even if I restate what the person is saying, their partner rarely hears what I hear. Marriage counselors I know who do this sort of three-way counseling spend so much energy attempting to sync the stories so it represents some semblance of the same marriage. Unfortunately, it is most often a fruitless task. Neither party listens nor budges from their version of reality.
  2. Recruitment: I rarely meet anyone in marriage counseling who say “It really is my fault.” As I mentioned in the last article, couples expend a great deal of energy convincing the counselor why they are the injured party. The worst part is that almost all counselors do draw conclusions somewhere along the way, revealing their own weaknesses, prejudices and gender preferences. This is the most heinous motive for going to marriage counseling.
  3. Closure: Dave came into my office for another marriage counseling appointment. I had made an exception with Dave and his wife, helping them because they were in ministry. Not much was accomplished so far, but this appointment started out differently. Dave listened intently and allowed his wife to talk as much as she wanted. Normally, he interrupted her at every turn. He seemed to understand and showed empathy and compassion. I was satisfied that real changes were happening with them. That’s when I gave Dave an opportunity to talk about how the marriage was going from his perspective. Instead, he dropped a bomb on me. “Mike, I wanted you here so I could say what I need to say to my wife: I am getting a divorce. I no longer want to be married.” I felt like punching him in the face. I was simply a witness to his selfish, hard heart and the hurt he wanted to lay on his wife. Many, many people agree to marriage counseling so they can be satisfied they gave their doomed marriage every chance. I can often tell by body language and attitude that one or both spouses have already hardened their hearts. Perhaps you are asking “Why would someone want to go to counseling when they have already given up?” Perhaps we all fear failure and we don’t like to see ourselves as quitters. As a result, many people use marriage counseling to assuage guilt over a failed marriage.
  4. Concern for Children: Many couples couldn’t care less if they stayed with their spouse, but they feel an obligation to their children. They don’t want the stigma of a divorce attached to their kids. Though this sounds like a noble motive, it is also doomed. Ultimately, marriage counseling cannot keep a couple together when neither spouse focuses on their own problems. They may stay together longer to help the kids, but ultimately they will leave when the kids leave. The counselor really has no impact other than agreeing the family needs to stay together at all cost.
  5. Leverage: Every person in a troubled marriage believes their spouse is a controlling person. There are very few exceptions. For the most part, everyone is right. Most people live out their marriages as a “zero-sum game”. What that means is when one person wins an argument, the other loses. When one person gets their way, the other does not. Very few people in bad marriages work cooperatively or seek compromise. The worse the marriage gets, the more each person fears losing control of the situation. To compensate for this fear, they try and control their spouse, whether actively or passively. If they still cannot control their spouse, they seek a counselor to help them get back in control. Both men and women do this. This is what Bill was trying to accomplish by contacting me. He wasn’t the least concerned about anything I would say. He was confident in his ability to convince anyone to support his point of view. As soon as he found out I wanted to give him to another counselor, he wasn’t interested. Another counselor would have no leverage with his wife and that went against his real motive.

Next time, I will present a better rubric for solving the crises of marriage.

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2 comments

  1. great thoughts mike. I’ve gone through some marriage counseling training recently and this really puts a lot of things in perspective.


  2. Vince: I wish you all the best in helping people traverse the dangers and difficulties of saving their own marriages. Not easy, but definitely rewarding.



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