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Page Contents: Accepted standards of care in marriage counseling.                    


My husband was married when he was 19 as the result of pregnancy of his college girlfriend. As it happens in many of these situations they didn’t make it. We [got together, then] broke up a couple of years ago because it was apparent to me that he had issues with anger and he told me that he didn’t want a family (children). We got back together and moved in together. We made goals together, talked about his anxiety with having a family and he agreed with me that he would like to have a child. [We were married a couple months ago.] Ever since we got back from the honeymoon my husband is sabotaging the relationship. He says he can’t stand the thought of being married and he keeps grasping and exaggerating issues to make it seem as though we will never make it. . . . He doesn’t seem to be concrete on his reasoning. . . . He is agreeing to marriage counseling and we have been to 2 sessions. Our counselor . . . encouraged him to get counseling for his issues from his past, he refused doing that. I think he is scared to face it alone. I talked to her today and she said this week she was going to recommend that we go to individual counseling for a while. I asked her if we could also continue the couples counseling since that was really the only arena in which we talk. She said she would continue to see us every 2 weeks or every month. My question to you is, do you think this approach is correct? I think my husband does want help because he is agreeing to go to the couples counseling. I think he is very afraid of individual counseling. . . . Are there any words I can say to encourage him to go and deal with his issues? I believe his main issues are his repression of emotion, anger, and he has a tendency towards OCD, mainly through cleaning and making sure everything is in it’s place.

The function of marriage counseling is to create a safe and respected environment in which the husband and wife can communicate with each other without hostility. If, after understanding the needs and desires of the other, one person refuses to accommodate the other, then individual psychotherapy can be prescribed, so as to uncover and heal the cause of the resistance to fair and charitable cooperation.

So, from what you say, your counselor is within the bounds of accepted standards of care.

In your description of the problem, you touch upon two rather unpleasant aspects of marital difficulties. First is the axiom that “What you see is what you get.” That is, if your husband was angry with his first wife, and if he was angry with you as your boyfriend, then you have to expect that he will be angry with you as your husband. Many people seem to believe that marriage will magically change a person’s behavior; well, it doesn’t.

And this leads to the second principle: “Common love does not cure anything.” There really is nothing you can “do” to “make” your husband change. I have learned from experience that people change for only one reason: sorrow. When people recognize how they have hurt others, and when they feel sorry for what they have done, then they can change any behavior they want. But until they really want to change—out of heartfelt remorse, rather than out of fear or coercion—they won’t change no matter how bad it gets. Even when someone says, “I can’t,” it really means, in the deepest unconscious sense, “I won’t.”

So what can you do? Well, as difficult as it is, all you can do is focus on yourself. If you want to help your husband change, then show him, through your behavior—not just in what you say to him—how to live charitably and peacefully with another. Learn, in the words of Saint Francis of Assisi, to accept the world’s injustice, cruelty, and contempt with patience, without being ruffled, and without murmuring. If you can do that, then perhaps your husband will come to recognize—and mourn—the fact that in his anger—and in his avoidance of it with obsessive-compulsive rituals—he defiles love itself. If he sees in you what he lacks, he may be motivated to explore his inner experience enough to change his behavior; but if he sees in you only his angry, unstable, and unprotective mother, then nothing will change.

In the end, the provocation of anger—and violence—is a subtle dance between two people. If through charity you can avoid provocation, then you have a chance. Otherwise you may need police protection.


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Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.
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