I'm in Chicago this weekend celebrating my dad and step-mom's fiftieth anniversary. We had a wonderful celebration last night and I'm heading back home today. I appreciate all of you.
Question: My husband and I have been going to counseling for several months now. The man who is counseling us doesn't help a whole lot. He is a Christian and is a doctor; however he uses very little scripture to help us. He mostly tells us stories about his life and his family. He has helped us in a small way.
Our problems are various and too many to begin to type in this brief email. I cannot afford your fee, but any free advice or some direction to any free info would be helpful. We have been married nearly 29 years on July 1. My husband is a good man but is controlling, and manipulates. He does not see it nor does he agree that he does this on purpose. For all of these years, I have sat and listened to him and eventually would “agree” with him on things because it saves the peace. We also have 9 children most of whom are grown now. One major issue is that my husband feels that our grown kids are not spiritually mature. However, ALL of our close friends who have been involved with our family for many years do not agree. My husband crushes our kids and me with his words. He has gotten better these past 6 months. He believes that the boys are free to go and do what God leads them at age 20, but the girls are to stay home until married. They would like to do that, but he is so oppressive and has done many deceitful things in their lives that he feels were right but they do not, neither do I. As a result of this turmoil, 4 kids are out of the house–two sons and two daughters.
I know that this is not much information but I need direction.
Answer: First let me applaud you for wanting to do things differently as, if you’ve read much of my writing, change begins with you. You have been an accommodating peacekeeper most of your married life and realize that it has only enabled and empowered your husband’s blindness to his control, manipulation and verbal abuse.
Something has brought these things to the surface (although you did not tell me what) as you’re both in counseling and you say he’s gotten better over the last six months. So whatever it was that began to get his attention, you must continue. You also said that the counseling has been helpful a little bit. What specifically did the counselor do or say that you found helpful?
I can’t answer your questions specifically, but I do want to give you some direction and a couple of things to think about based on what you did say.
First, you’re falling into the same role with your counselor as you did with your husband. You’re being a passive accommodator. You’re not happy with the counseling you’ve been receiving yet you have not spoken up and said “this approach is not working for me.”
Most counselors welcome such feedback. As counselors, we can’t read your mind and sometimes we have a “style” that doesn’t suit a particular counselee or couple’s needs. Once that is out on the table, the counselor can either adjust his or her style to meet your needs better or refer you to a colleague better suited to what you are looking for. Why waste your time with someone who is not helping a whole lot? Before you have this discussion with him, I want you to get really clear on what you want from counseling.
Sometimes clients have unrealistic expectations for counseling. A counselor’s first task is to create a safe environment in which you can look at yourself and your life or relationships and see what’s wrong. When someone is guarded and defensive or unable or unwilling to look at themselves as part of “what’s wrong,” this process may take some time.
You said your husband does not “see” or agree that he’s controlling and manipulative although it sounds like some people (including you) have given him this feedback. Perhaps one of the reasons your counselor is sharing personal stories from his own life is that he wants your husband to know that he too doesn’t always have it all together or do everything right in his own marriage or family. Your counselor’s honesty and vulnerability may free up your husband to admit that he may have a few problems too. However, if the stories are irrelevant to your situation or not applicable to learning to look within, his self-disclosure is taking up your valuable counseling time and is not helpful.
The counselor’s second task is to establish “what are we’re working on?” If there are no stated or agreed upon problems, then there can be no goals, no direction and no homework. Be as specific as possible. You don’t want to be “working on your marriage” or “working on better communication.” That’s too vague. If your husband was asked the question “what are we working on in counseling,” what would he say? If he doesn’t know, then you haven’t gotten to this step of counseling.
Based on your question to me you might say, “I’d like to work on how to handle it when my husband refuses to allow me to say ‘no’ and he pressures me and pressures me until I finally give in” or your husband might say, “I want to work on learning how to speak to my children about some concerns that are in my heart without being verbally abusive toward them.”
The counselors next task is to figure out with the client what strategy would best help them to get from where they are now (the problem) to where they want to be (the solution). So again, specificity is helpful rather than vagueness. If what we’re working on is a bad marriage and where we’re going is a better marriage, we still don’t exactly know what defines your marriage as bad and what specifically would you define as good. I suspect your husband wouldn’t define your marriage as “bad” as you would.
Therefore, I’d like to encourage you to ask yourself, “why are you in counseling?” and “what is the problem that you want to work on with the counselor?” Such as, “I need to learn to stick up for myself” or “I need to learn to be a true peacemaker instead of a peacekeeper,” or “I need to learn how to set better boundaries with my husband’s unacceptable behaviors such as ____.” Your goal can’t be “I need to learn how to change my husband.” Although a good goal might be “I need to learn how to communicate my needs, feelings or opinions more clearly and directly in the hopes that he’ll listen.”
Once you’ve figured out what you want out of counseling, what’s worked so far, what’s not working for you and what specifically you want to work on or what you’d like your counselor to do, it’s time to have a conversation with him. You can say something like this:
“I appreciate your willingness to meet with us, but I’m not getting as much out of our time as I’d like to. I’d like to get more specific direction from you from God’s Word on what we’re doing wrong or where we are blind to destructive behaviors in our relationship. I’m not always sure all your personal stories are as helpful to me, and I’d rather us spend more time talking through how we can communicate better as a couple. For example, when I feel manipulated by my husband and he swears he’s not doing it on purpose, what should I do? Or perhaps you could give us some homework to do in between sessions so that we can try to practice implementing some new communication skills that don’t feel so manipulating and controlling.” (Here’s where you can say, “When you did ____, I found that very helpful to me.”)
You also asked what else I might have available to you as a resource. My free resource page www.leslievernick.com/free-resources on my website www.leslievernick.com is full of articles that you may find helpful. I’d also encourage you to scroll through my past blogs at www.leslievernick.com/blog as well as to go to another blog site I write at http://christiancounseling.com/blog/2171 (can also be found by going to www.christiancounseling.com, clicking on their blog tab and then clicking on Leslie Vernick) where you can read various blogs having to do with emotionally destructive marriages. If you haven’t signed up for my free bi-monthly newsletter, please do so on my home page at www.leslievernick.com. Instantly you will receive a free webinar on how to become a happier person. You will also receive regular email articles from me that will help you with your relationships.
Friends, what would define a good counselor or a productive counseling session to you?
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