How to Tell Your Spouse Marriage Counseling Isn’t Working


Welcome to another episode of the exEXPERTS DIVORCE etc… Podcast where we give you all kinds of information and tips on everything divorce. Why? We’ve lived it, so we get it! We’re T.H. & Jessica.

Jessica: So welcome back to another episode of the ExExperts podcast, where you know that we are here to offer you all kinds of tips and advice on everything divorce-related. Our deal is we’ve lived it, so we get it. I’m Jessica.

TH: And I’m TH. Welcome to the podcast, today we have Dr. Michele Weisman joining us. She is a Ph.D. who is an adjunct faculty at NYU for over 30 years. She is also a licensed clinical social worker and specializes in couples and family therapy. So welcome to the podcast today.

Michele: Thank you.

Jessica: So this is such an interesting conversation that we’re going to be having today. In our talk on the phone a few days ago, one of the things that we were talking about was that when people are in marriage counseling, oftentimes there comes a point in that process where at least one of the people will decide that they’ve worked as much as they can, and they’ve tried as hard as they can. For whatever reason, good or bad, they’re kind of done, and so it’s such an interesting concept that we want to ask you about. So how can a person, I don’t want to say use their therapist but get the right kind of help and support from their therapist to be able to broach that conversation at that time in therapy when it’s a scary conversation to actually have to say, I’m done?

Michele: Well, I think that the first step is that some people actually come to therapy because they don’t know how to broach this subject. They come to do couples therapy hoping that they’ll either find out that they can make their marriage better or that they need to separate and that the spouse that doesn’t want the separation can be helped. I think one of the things that feel good to couples is to know there’s somebody who’s objective in the room that can help hold both of them during that process.

TH: It’s hard because I would imagine when couples come to see you, one is dragging the other there, and one doesn’t want it and the other does. As we know, it only takes one person to get a divorce. You don’t really need a team on board to get this done. The person who’s speaking with you and encouraging this probably has had time to process and accept and choose or not choose to take responsibility, otherwise, point blame. How do you manage that? It’s not fair to that other spouse who’s kind of like, hold on, this is way more than I’m ready for.

Michele: Well look, the process of therapy, no matter what, is that we are going to look at ourselves. And so I, as a couples therapist, always start by saying my goal is not to keep you together or tear you apart, it’s to find out who you are and what you want. That is the process. Everybody comes to therapy, and I don’t know if you know this or your audience knows this, but most people come to therapy wanting something. They have a goal, and they have something that they want to get out of it. For couples, one person wants the couple to be in therapy to either make things change, to make them better, or to pull out of the relationship, and they don’t know how to do it. And so what I do is facilitate. They’re looking at themselves and the relationship and where they are in the relationship. There’s a certain point if somebody is entrenched, one of the members of the couple, and they’re not going to change, then we have to look at what that means to the relationship.

Jessica: What do you mean by that, entrenched?

Michele: Well, if you’re in a relationship with somebody, and again, remember that our relationships are formed by our early relationships and the things that are modeled for us. Many of us repeat the relationship our parents had in some ways even though we don’t want to. The unconscious, if you believe in the unconscious, which I do wholeheartedly, is unconscious. It’s guiding us, but we don’t really know what’s guiding us. And personalities, so sometimes people will come in and they want their partner to change. I mean it can be somebody who is being unfaithful and says, I’m not going to stop being unfaithful, I like fooling around. She’s got to accept that, and that’s part of who I am. Or he has to accept that that’s part of who I am. I mean that’s an unusual example, but it happens. Somebody will come in and say, well, he doesn’t hang up his clothes, and he doesn’t do this, and he doesn’t do that. I want him to do that because that’s part of being married. They don’t want to change. He says I come home, I’m tired, I just want to sit down, and I don’t want to do the laundry. They either have to find a compromise and a way to talk about it, which is really underneath all of it, or they don’t, or they can’t.

Jessica: So my question is when you have people that come in because as you’ve already established, people come in with some kind of a goal, maybe ulterior motive–

Michele: Agenda?

Jessica: Exactly! An agenda, that’s a perfect word, because it doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation. Everyone has an agenda. Presumably, coming in with the idea of is there a way to salvage this? Is there a way to make it work? Do you feel that you often can tell, even though if that’s what the partners are saying, that there is one partner who’s kind of thinking, I’m really just here to go through the motions because what I really want is to be able to get out in the end?

Michele: I think I don’t know that the moment they come in, if it’s people that I don’t know anything about, but my assessment a couple of sessions in, I pretty much get a sense of what’s going on. And let me say that sometimes some people will come in wanting to get a divorce, one person wants to get out of the relationship, and they start to work on it and see that they don’t want to get a divorce. It happens that way as much as it happens that people come in to try to stay together, and they decide that they can’t stand each other.

Jessica: I love that! People come in thinking that they think it’s over, and then they realize they actually have the foundation and they have, deep inside, the same goals to be able to stay together. That’s awesome. So for the people who come in, or who’ve worked through it, they’ve been in therapy for a long time and it could be a year or more and they have come to that place of acceptance. When someone decides that they don’t really want to work on it anymore, what advice would you give to people in terms of what that process should look like? Do they then try to meet with their therapist alone and have that conversation? You don’t want it to be like you’re plotting behind someone else’s back, so I don’t know what that kind of process would be like.

Michele: Well, in couples therapy, at least the way I do couples therapy, I’m very clear that if we’re meeting separately – so there are several ways to do couples therapy. Sometimes I will just meet with the couple, and each person in the couple might have their own therapist, and I’m just doing couples work. In that situation, I’ll refer them back to their own therapist. If I am the therapist and I’m doing the couple’s work, and I meet with each of them alone, I will tell them that what they tell me is part of the couple’s work. If it’s something they don’t want to be brought into the couple’s session, and they tell me that, I’m pretty much not going to keep that confidential because I am there for the couple so I can’t keep with it. If somebody tells me that they’re having an affair or that they want out of the marriage, I can’t do couples work with them if they’re not going to bring that into the session, which will help them get out of the relationship really, right?

TH: Right. Or at least move forward.

Michele: Right. So that’s how I do couples work, it has to be that way. If then they make the decision or there’s a blow-up let’s say, sometimes the one person in the couple will want to stay in therapy and work that through. Sometimes they’ll need a referral to go out of the couple session, and I’m not going to be the therapist that they’re going to see. They’re going to see somebody else to work through that. There are so many different configurations of what will happen when they finally decide to separate. If they’re staying in treatment with me and they have children, I’m a big believer that you’ve got to figure out a way to co-parent. That’s often my agenda and my goal. They can separate, and they don’t have to hate – They may not like each other, they may not be able to sit in the same room with each other too long, but if they can co-parent, and if they can be civil to each other, it will be very positive for their kids. It doesn’t happen. I mean, it’s my agenda, but it’s not how it often goes because children are pawns [yeah] and it’s also the family. The reason I say I’m a family and couples therapist is because I really do look at the whole family. Even when I work with an individual, I usually will do a family tree so that I know where they’re coming from because we repeat things over and over again. There are all kinds of dynamics in families and in couples. I’m sure you both know that kids get pulled in one direction or another, and they often feel like they have to, if their father is aggressive, they feel like they have to protect their mother or they identify with the aggressor. There are always alliances in families and triangulation.

TH: The emotional component of divorce complicates everything.

Michele: Exactly.

TH: It slowly makes the process, in my experience, more expensive and longer than it needs to be. As soon as you can take the noise out, which I think is what the critical role that you serve, for families and for couples, is teaching people how to either put the noise in a corner with a boxing glove or whatever, or run, or hanging out with friends, so that you can handle the business of the divorce, which would include your family and your children and your own life. But how do you temper, or teach people, and coach them how to manage the emotional part of it, especially for the person – I’m the one who wants to divorce, but he’s coming along with me, we’re in different places, and then managing where they are at that point in time when they come to see you and then also managing for themselves. What kind of advice do you give for that?

Michele: [Laughs] Well, that’s a big question.

TH: I know. It’s a big question. A magic wand would be great.

Michele: Yes, and I do keep one in my office, however, it doesn’t really work. There’s rage, and under all the rage is the emotion and what’s going on really psycho-dynamically for each person. But it’s so hard to get past the rage, and that’s the work. Once the couple is in a rage, and they’re angry and rageful at each other, they’re not going to do the couple’s work pretty much. I do think that that’s a good time for each of them to be in their own therapy with their own therapist so they can start to look at how they could get past this rage. I think there are a lot of tools and TH you talked about a lot of them: exercise, punching, screaming and cursing. There’s a lot of different ways to get out your rage, but you have to understand what’s underneath it and it’s usually hurt. It’s usually pain. More often than not, those are the two big things, and it’s that there’s been so much pain created in the relationship.

TH: Right.

Michele: I’m sorry, Jessica. Did I answer the question? Okay.

Jessica: I was going to say, I do boxing and I do different kinds of activity that I think helps emotionally with so many different things. But are there tips that you give to people who come in if you can tell that they’re feeling enraged with what’s going on in their relationship and are having trouble getting into the mindset of being able to move past that? Are there any simpler tips, whether it is journaling, or yoga, or mindful breathing, or things like that, that you feel actually have a tremendous impact on people? Or is that not really going to help you get to where you need to be?

Michele: Well, I think all of those things help you to deal with your rage. I think that it’s according to how much the person is willing to look at their rage. There are really good cognitive-behavioral techniques like looking at your thinking errors and looking at how to how to change the way you think about certain things. But none of that – the problem with being a therapist, and I’m sure you both have heard the joke, how many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

TH: I haven’t heard it quite like that. [Laughs]

Michele: One, but the light bulb has to want to change.

TH: Right.

Michele: So that’s the problem. Because sometimes the rage it’s what propels you to move forward as a person. If you’re not rageful, you’re going to feel the pain, you’re going to feel the hurt, and you’re going to feel the disappointment. You’re going to feel the aloneness and the fear and we don’t want to feel that, none of us do. We will do anything not to feel that. I think what happens is, to answer your question, all of those things work but when the person is ready. My job is, if they stay in therapy, to help get them ready. It’s the reason that the process of divorce when they made the laws, they were thinking about how people work in life. The reason that it used to be 18 months before you could finalize the divorce was so that people had a chance to work through a lot of these feelings and get to where they could actually maybe talk to each other.

TH: Right. Be in a better place.

Jessica: I wonder if there’s a point when you have your couples that come in if there’s an indicator for you that is sort of universal. When you see this one type of behavior or another, some signals that you pick up on, where you’re kind of like we’re at the end of the line here, and it is really a fruitless exercise in terms of trying to make it work, because you can just tell for one reason or another that they’re not going to work. I wonder if there’s anything that you can say for people out there who feel like they’ve been going through the motions in therapy for so long, maybe they don’t necessarily feel like they’re making progress, but they’re not sure where do I go from here? I’m not suggesting that you make a suggestion in terms of who should get divorced or not divorced, but I’m saying is there something that would be helpful for someone to think about when they’re at a certain point in the process of the road ends here, which way am I going to go?

Michele: That’s a hard question, but I’m going to give you an answer anyway. I think that when you feel stuck like things aren’t moving, you’re going every week, and nothing is changing, it’s time to say what’s happening in this therapy? I think so many people go to a therapist, like when I was a kid, we used to go to doctors, we believed what they said, we’d never questioned a word, and we just kept doing what they told us to do. Sometimes, therapists, their agenda is to keep the marriage together when these two people can’t be together. And so it goes on and on, and you feel stuck in that. I think that as a member of a couple who’s ready to leave and feels that the therapy’s not working and not changing, that’s the time to say that in couples therapy. That is the answer to your question. It’s that you need to speak up. You need to say something’s not right here, this isn’t working for me, and I’ll tell you why. And that’s great. You have to be brave to do that. You have to know that if you’re with a therapist, you trust the therapist to be able to hold the session together and to hold you and your partner together. [Right] I mean, that’s the whole purpose of couples therapy, in some ways is that the therapist can hold both of you and help you to work through some of these issues.

TH: Right. And it’s a safe space.

Michele: It should be, at least, yes.

TH: Right. And then what happens when they leave your office? Okay, so we just hashed this all out today, good, bad or ugly, and then if it’s ugly, you’re going to go separate directions? Is there any advice you give them once they leave? It’s like, okay great, Dr. Weisman just gave us all these great tips, so are we going to do this or we’ll just see what happens?

Michele: Well, it’s according to, again, who the patients are. I often give homework assignments and people don’t do them. If they don’t do their homework assignment, it tells me that they’re not ready to do that kind of work. But if they’ve left the session angry, really angry, and sometimes you just can’t stop that. As much as I’d like to say I sum up every session and I try to make nice, people do leave angry. I will say to them if you’re angry, and I just feel this is important, don’t talk about what you talked about in the session. When you leave, whether you’re angry or not, you need to sit with it. You need to think about it, you need to figure out what you got out of it, and then the two of you can discuss it. I actually give out a little, I don’t have it in front of me, but I give out a little handout about the rules of expressing anger.

TH: That would be very helpful.

Jessica: I was just going to say we should get a hold of that.

Michele: I’ll give you a copy.

TH: Yeah. And share that with our listeners.

Michele: I stole that from somewhere, it’s probably plagiarized.

Jessica: Full disclosure!

TH: [Laughs]

Michele: But I will tell you that I think there are four rules and I think they really are very helpful. One of them is when you’re feeling so angry that you can’t listen, you need to walk away, stop, and say I’ll come back and talk about it when I’m not so hot under the collar. I do think that’s an important thing, especially for divorced couples. Once you’re at that point where you’re hating each other, you can’t talk about it and you can’t make any decisions, walk away and come back when you’re calmer and can talk about it.

TH: So that you’re saying things that you’ve had time to process, you’re not just acting on emotions and speaking from that scary place.

Michele: Right. Because when we’re angry, what the neuroscientists talk about is flipping your lid. When you flip your lid, basically, you’re all impulse. There’s no ego covering over so you’re thinking about what you’re saying and I’m not going to hurt anybody’s feelings. You’re just spewing.

TH: Right, there’s no filter.

Michele: Right. Thank you. And so we want to make sure that we can walk away and figure out and process and get our filter back in place before we say things we don’t want to say that hurt people.

TH: I think that’s great.

Jessica: Yeah, words to live by. I feel like there’s so much more to talk about and that we should definitely have you back for another episode because this is such helpful and useful information for everybody out there. And of course, the conversation can go on and on because there are so many different ways and directions, and again, everybody’s so different. If there are people that are listening that are interested in reaching out to you directly, are you taking new patients, and what would be the best ways for people to reach out to you?

Michele: Well, I’m only working virtually now so I will take some new patients, but I don’t have that many openings. I can certainly give you my phone number and my information or you can put it on the website.

Jessica: Okay. All right. Fantastic. Thank you so much, Dr. Weisman. We really appreciate it.

Michele: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

TH: Thank you.

Michele: Okay. Bye-bye.

TH: Bye.

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