Our Marriage Counselor Isn’t Helping. Help!


Morning Friends,

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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  1. janet tobler on June 24, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    hello there, I agree with Miss Leslie’s recommendations, they are a great start. I would also like to recommend her books to read and if you are new she has a new one coming out soon on destructive marriages. I would also like to recommend a book by Lundy Bancroft called why does he do that. I really like the examples in the back of the book that helps with identifying real change and also gives examples of how counselors can continue the cycle of abuse if they don’t understand controlling, manipulative men. I would also like to recommend a Christian book from Craig keener called Paul women and wives. this book uncovered many untruths which are supported erroneously in the Christian community regarding marriages. I would start with Leslie’s book the emotionally destructive relationship and then how to act right when your spouse acts wrong. I would start with those first. then keener’s book and then Lundy’s book. this is the order I read them in. I have found that knowing god’s truth for myself through study is what helped me see things for what they are. these books helped me. also, the best relationship to compare to is that of god and Jesus, Jesus and his disciples, Jesus and the world and god and his people. ask yourself questions like, does god make me believe everything he says, did god make jesus go to the cross, does god demand his way, does god step on me to get his way, does god allow me to have my thoughts, does god enjoy who I am, is god patient with me, etc, etc. when you compare your current relationships now with how god is to you.. YOUR EYES WILL BE OPENED. what you hear about god and what you know about god from the bible are two different things. please be patient with yourself and when you know the REAL TRUTH OF WHAT GOD TEACHES, you will be like an oak with deep roots and unshakeable. I am in the same boat it has taken a while to sort this all out. but you have the spirit inside you to lead you. never doubt the spirit. let no one cause you to doubt the leading of the spirit. I am sorry my sister. please visit often when you need a boost and a place to release. it is hard and I am sorry… your sister in Christ, janet

    • Leslie Vernick on June 25, 2013 at 12:20 pm

      Thanks Janet for those book recommendations. The person who asked the question was looking for free resources so if anyone else knows free resources that you believe are helpful, let us know.

      • mommy0f3 on June 26, 2013 at 7:52 am

        I know the book by Lundy Bancroft “Why Does He Do That” can be checked out at the local library. That is what I did! Perhaps the others might be available as well..

  2. Brenda on June 24, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    I am seeing a Christian Counselor that I began seeing when I knew that I needed to make a decision whether or not to stay with my controlling, verbally and emotionally abusive husband and it has worked out quite well. She uses different ways to present information, the Bible,recommending books written around my situation, personal experiences, questioning me and my responses to those questions, and warning me of situations that could be coming. We also know a bit about each others families, churches and interests. She is the friend I’ve hoped for years to find. That is if I weren’t paying her.

    After a good session I feel energized and more confident. I am focused in a positive direction with an action plan. Three weeks ago I left my husband. I needed confidence that what I was doing was Biblical and for the best for everyone. My husband doesn’t believe he has a problem and refuses counseling.

    Since leaving he calls me 20 and as many as 50 times a day. He calls me many times a day at work. (Fortunately I have an understanding boss who realizes it is not my fault.) He has called and told me that he has found personal items and they will be by the front door. He waited down the road and blocked me in the driveway until he was finished with his verbal assault. (Initially he changed the locks until he finally realized that I would and could brake in legally) He never leaves for the 10:30 worship service until 10:00. I went to the 9:00 and he arrived at 9:55 and followed me to my car begging me to come back. By design? I believe so. He shows up at my job when he knows no one else will be there.

    And he wants to know why I left.

    And he wants to know why I left.

  3. Dora on June 24, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    Hi. I agree with what you said Leslie. I would want to feel comfortable. I would want to think that the counselor was Godly and had the same type of beliefs in general that I do.

    I have gone to counseling in the past with my husband. She was a secular counselor at the time, this was many years ago. Now I am seeing a christian counselor alone just to address a few things but I’ll probably ask my husband to join me. I am also on the passive side. So it is difficult for me to bring out things that is troubling me about my husband. So I would hope that the counselor could help bring those things out.

    I think it is important to get to the root of things and not just deal with surface issues. Sometimes people will look at the sin.. like overeating and try to get the person to diet, but never deal with why they are overeating. etc…

    Also it is important if you agree with what the counselor is saying, take action on it. It can be very hard, but if you don’t make changes in how you act, you will not change anything. As Leslie says it is about changing you, because you cannot change your husband. However when you change it should change the dynamic of your relationship. At least that’s how I understand it. I am working on speaking up myself. I had become so numb in order to cope with things, I am having to assert myself and stand up for myself so that I do not allow myself to be walked on. Not that he is even doing it purposely.. I just have always allowed it.

    That’s what I can think of for now. Also, to the precious woman that wrote the question. God Bless you. God must be pleased with you as a mother and a wife who is dedicated to her children and wanting to make her marriage better. Stay rooted in the Lord. He will be your comfort and your guide as well. 🙂 Praying the Lord does a powerful work in your lives!

    • Leslie Vernick on June 25, 2013 at 12:18 pm

      Thanks Dora for your advice about getting to the root of things. Sometimes we can learn surface changes and it helps but when we have longstanding and repetitive problems, we need to address the roots.

  4. Idig442 on June 25, 2013 at 7:19 am

    Thanks for posting this question and your feedback. I think many of us find it difficult to choose a counselor that we feel is helpful and trustworthy. Styles are certainly different. Your information about the “tasks” of a counselor was great info….as well as the fact that its ok to give feedback or express concerns regarding styles to the counselor.

  5. Ellen on June 25, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    My experience with couples counseling has not gone well. Taking a manipulative,Selfish, dominating, abusive or controlling spouse to counseling is like jumping in a pool with a shark. Many times the good advice I received from the counselor was used against me at home to verbally tear me down by my spouse. Other times he so impressed the councelors that they didn’t believe me and thought I was the perpetrator based on the lies my husband told. Most times he found an excuse to quit going and dropped off first chance he got. Looking back what would have helped is if I had gone alone, by myself. I did not understand then that if I could learn how to change the ways I was reacting to his behavior that slowly over time he would find out it wasn’t working for him any longer. Reasoning, crying, or hoping that he would have a visitation from the Holy Spirit never worked for me. Changing my reactions to his insensativities did. Finding strength and self respect in myself helped. It took a while for me to retrain me. Having a coach during this long transition would have helped. However, I am thankful that God was guiding me and helping me to get just the resources I needed. Maybe others out there were more successful with couples counseling than me and I’m sure you Leslie are a huge help in this but for me personally it didn’t work. I should have saved myself the heart ache and gone alone.

    • Leslie Vernick on June 25, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      Ellen, you’re not alone. Couple’s counseling isn’t effective when one spouse is totally blaming the other spouse for all the problems in the marriage. There is no perfect partner so he will always be able to deflect on something you have done wrong or haven’t done right. Plus if it creates an unsafe environment later at home with the things you disclose, it is not recommended. Individual counseling however can be helpful to get you to understand how to speak up as well as learn your role in enabling this destructive pattern to continue. In other words, why are you allowing him to treat you this way with no protest or consequences? This may feel harsh, but until you answer these questions for yourself, you won’t be strong enough or courageous enough to stand up for yourself and against abuse.

      • Annie on June 29, 2013 at 11:28 pm

        Your words “why are you allowing him to treat you this way with no protest of consequences?” stood out as I read the comments. I don’t know about other survivors, but I must say that I never “allowed” him to treat me this way, but any protest of consequences would not have worked. As long as I was married to him, he could do whatever he liked. The only way I was able to stop it was to leave the marriage. Why didn’t I do that earlier? Because I didn’t know you could. So my answer to anyone who asks that question these days is, “I thought marriage was for life, and that divorce was not permissible.”

        • Brenda B on July 2, 2013 at 7:51 pm

          Definitely, marriage being for life is the best thing, but it is not necessarily advisable in all situations. I have been gone for a month and will be so relieved when the divorce is final. There are no children involved so it is only suppose to take a couple of months. However, I don’t believe it is going to stop there.

          I told my husband about 2 weeks ago that if he didn’t stop calling me at work and on my phone that I would be forced to seek a restraining order. After that he started emailing. There were also times that he found a way to get me in an area where I would be forced to talk to him. That has happened 3 separate occasions.

          He was warned by his attorney today that if he didn’t stop that a PPO would be filed on Monday. This afternoon he has emailed me 3 times. Each one saying that if I were godly I would not want him to go to jail, how much I hate him, I set him up and I am breaking up our home. About 5 minutes after the: “this is the last email or phone call” where he stated that I set him up, but if that isn’t true I’m sorry for this email,the phone rang. Of course it was him. I did not answer. I was torn between wanting to defend myself for his blaming me for it all and relief that maybe he would stop calling.

          I no longer have any thought of my marriage being restored. Over the years I spent all of my time working and taking care of my family. There was no time for me to make friends. The only people that I saw were wives of his friends who I really had nothing in common with including the partner of a gay friend who I really had nothing in common with.

          I don’t have local support. I can call my Mom, sister, daughters (who are not his children), but it would be a blessing to have a supportive friend locally. I have prayed for this, but so far my support system is long distance. My Lord is always with me and I feel very comfortable in my new surroundings. My counselor is wonderful and she allows me to email her when things get rough, but I feel like I am taking advantage if I use this option too often.

          I started out writing this wanting to be supportive of others who had written and wound up venting about my own circumstances. I am sorry ladies. I am praying for all of you.

  6. Linda Stoll on June 25, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Finding the right Christian counselor isn’t always easy, because there’s different counseling philosophies out there, and every person has their own style, training, strengths, etc.

    I should know because I’ve been a pastoral counselor for about 11 years!

    These 10 little guidelines might help

    An old friend used to tell me, ‘there’s a lid for every pot,’ and it’s true for finding this perfect match.

    All that said, Leslie’s resources are fabulous – I use them all the time with my clients. While you’re looking for a professional to work with, please take full advantage of everything on this site.

    And if your husband refuses to go to counseling, please, by all means, head there yourself.

    Praying …

  7. Sherry on June 26, 2013 at 10:53 am

    Here’s a free resource(a blog)for the woman looking for help: http://cryingoutforjustice.wordpress.com/

  8. Kathy on June 26, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    I have been seeing a therapist for over 15 years of my 27 year marriage. I understand the importance of selecting the right counselor for you. Only until the last 4 years have I found a therapist that knows enough about verbal abuse to help me make good progress.
    I have found that couples counseling works very well if each spouse has regular sessions with their own individual therapists to identify and begin working on their personal issues. When you are both ready, then together see a therapist that neither one of you have counseled with. Especially, with a controlling, blind, verbally abusive husband you do not want to see ‘his’ counselor who may have a perception that you are a horrible person.

  9. tryingtodogood on June 27, 2013 at 11:48 am

    I have a long history of mental cruelty and abuse with my husband of 31 years, and I have been going to counseling at a christian agency for the last 3 years. I have been changing my behavior and reactions, and utilizing Leslie’s “speak up, stand up and step back” principles for several months now. However, a little over two years ago I told him I was thinking of leaving and he begged me to stay and promised to correct some of the things that were wrong, i.e. neglect, not letting me know he was going to be late etc. (I hadn’t yet realized the manipulating and intent behind his tactics). The improvement lasted for a short time and then he reverted as always, then I read Leslie’s 9 tactics of a manipulator and “Emotionally Destructive Relationship,” among others several months ago and the fog was lifted!
    So anyway I’ve been doing much better at not tolerating his abuses, but he tries even harder and has practically stopped doing anything around the house or thoughtful towards me (as has always been the case) because he realizes that it’s not “earning him any points” with me.
    My dilemma is that since I’ve changed myself and am healing and gaining self respect and esteem, and he still keeps trying to manipulate and control me, my feelings have changed. I don’t want to try anymore because he hurts my heart every time. I feel like after all these years, there are too many hurts that he has just apologized for but then repeats over and over. All I feel now is contempt for this unrepentant abuser who doesn’t seem to care one iota for my feelings, and who can’t see past his own selfishness. It’s in his value system, he was raised by a very misogynistic alcoholic who thought he was king of the house and those messages are embedded. And although my husband has never been a drinker, he now drinks 4 – 6 drinks a day (to add to our problems). There really isn’t any hope left, short of a miracle. My relationship isn’t getting any less toxic, it’s getting more toxic. I feel like my whole life has been wasted. I think I know the next step but I am so sad about it all, especially since nobody will understand because everyone thinks he’s such a great guy. A few that know me well and support me will though and that will have to be enough. And God is always with me. I just don’t relish losing more people from my life. I lost my mother many years ago, and never knew my father so the thought of more grief is almost unbearable, and there most certainly will be more grief.
    This whole situation has made me draw closer to God, and almost daily in my devotions I read something about Him being trustworthy to lead me in whatever I need to do. I know He will-He is so amazing! It is just difficult waiting…
    God bless you ladies, and thanks for your support 🙂

    • Gina on July 15, 2013 at 10:47 am

      I am new to Leslie’s website, and was told by a counselor (my first, after being married 34 1/2 years in a controlling/verbally-emotionally abusive relationship) to visit and read the site…to learn from it.

      I know exactly how you feel and what you are saying. I could have written what you have. Although I still love my husband, I know that I am becoming more and more less-sympathetic and prayerful for God to do His works in and through a person who knows all the Godly things to do and say, but does not live it out from his core being. He is too trapped within the love of his selfishness, and all that it sickeningly provides.

      I also feel alone in this, for he is charming, funny, and quite loved. So, Dear Sister,know that there is someone else standing up for herself, and who has been waiting to see the fruit of God’s work…but, God can only be there for everyone with His deliverance, grace, and mercy – my husband wants God to instantaneously deliver him of his sinful behavior so that he doesn’t have to do any hard work or self-control on his own part. If the individual is not willing to do the hard work to change, then they will only grip to what God has for them in the moments when they are ‘sorry’ and ‘caught.’

      Hugs, love and prayers!! Pray for me, too!!

      • Tryingtodogood on July 17, 2013 at 11:27 am

        I sure will Gina <3 Thank you for your encouragement. It helps knowing we're not alone.

  10. Kelly on July 2, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    My husband has finally agreed to go to counseling after 5 years. His motives are not to help our marriage, rather so our Pastor will continue to support his ministry. When I tell him our marriage is unhealthy, he says that I’m the unstable, unhealthy one, he continues to live in love and forgiveness for me. He has been controlling, manipulative, belittling, berating to name a few and when I tell him how I feel he calls me a baby. So no wonder I’m unstable I guess. Only God knows if his heart will change throughout. But my heart has actually been at peace about leaving this marriage and I almost hate that too. I feel this is just another reason to stall me because he’s putting many conditions on the counsel. He won’t agree to go to anyone that my Pastor has suggested because he doesn’t want to be controlled. My counselor and pastor have talked together (with my permission) to try to help more. My husband is willing to go to a “coach”, someone he’s known many years. My husband is a great man when it comes to ministry and serving outside the home. So I’m not sure how beneficial this is, but he refuses to see anyone else so I’ve agreed. Now he tells me we are going to only move forward and I’m not to bring up past things (even though they still happen on a continual basis). That they are all covered “under the blood” and there’s is no reason to bring any of it up. We will only talk about how to be better. If this guy doesn’t know where we’re coming from or out of how will this help? If I don’t agree then he won’t go. I also have to agree that I won’t talk to my Pastor anymore or go to my counselor and that they will not be allowed to know anything that happens in our “coaching” sessions. He claims his only spiritual authority is God and he doesn’t have to answer to our Pastor about anything except ministry. I’ve tried explaining that it is all these things from the past, as current as this morning, that are the problem. He just wants me to keep my mouth shut,and learn to love and forgive. I know this is required of me, but how can I forgive,and still live in this hell if he won’t repent and change? He claims repentance is before God, forgiveness is before people. I don’t agree, especially since Matt 3:8 says to produce fruit with being repentant. He twists so many things I have many times thought I was crazy and I hate that he still has this power over me to make me constantly feel wrong and helpless. Even though I have friends and a Pastor who support me, I’m CONSTANTLY questioning right and wrong. Honestly, I want to leave whether he goes or not, but again feeling guilty. I guess hearing from people I don’t know helps me to keep a little sanity. Any feedback will be helpful. Thanks.

    • Terri on July 3, 2013 at 10:50 am

      All of this sounds SO familiar. Been there, done that. I would strongly suggest you NOT agree to his terms on not speaking to your counselor or pastor. You should have the freedom as an adult to speak to whomever you want or need to speak with for your emotional health. I too get this not speaking of the past, while the same old stuff continues. It wasn’t until I worked with Leslie and learned new and healthier ways to think and speak that I’ve been able to make progress personally and a littlein my marriage. I understand this “power” that he has over you. I’m learning that when I change, and feel confident in the Lord, my husband has changed a little also. Forgiveness might happen on your part, put moving forward in a positive way has to involve CHANGE -BIG CHANGE!

      • kelly on July 12, 2013 at 3:54 pm

        Thank you! I have not agreed to his terms. I know that whenever i make any positive progress the expectations get higher for me and then he mocks me when im angry or frustrated. I am getting more confident in the Lord and he doesnt like it so its just this cycle that i keep falling into the trap. Thank you again.

  11. Kathy on July 2, 2013 at 6:32 pm

    Please read Leslie’s book, “The Emotionally Destructive Relationship”. Leslie gives an excellent explanation of what the bible says about marriage and submission.
    Her book set me free from the misinterpretation my husband has used for 26 years to control and manipulate me.
    I lived in a state of guilt and confusion because he would quote scripture to justify getting me to respond how he wanted me to, but I always felt that something wasn’t right in my heart.
    My husband was on the board of our church and has a lot of Bible book knowledge. When I approached him with new information I discovered from Leslie’s book, he was resistant and tried to debate. It actually caused him to study some more ~ to prove me wrong. He could not.
    Keep it simple, set a boundary for yourself, and trust in the truth.

  12. kelly on July 12, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    I had the book on my nook but somehow its been deleted. I have to figure out how to get it back. Yes he has a lot of knowledge and i try to approach him with truth but i feel like it backfires so sometimes i feel i have to stay quiet. Sometimes i think it would be easier if i didnt know any better but thats not God’s plan. He wants him changed as much as any and God’s going to use this situation to do it. Thank you.

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