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Too many people go to marriage counseling for the wrong reason

Business Insider | May 16, 2018, 09.13PM IST

sad couple

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Think about what you can do to change.

  • In marriage counseling, many people try to explain how their partner is the source of all their issues, and how their partner needs to change.
  • But couples therapist Peter Pearson says he tries to disillusion clients, and help them realize that they might also need to change.
  • It's much easier to focus on what your partner is doing wrong than to focus on how you contribute to their problematic behavior.


After decades as a couples therapist, Peter Pearson says there are a few sentences he's never heard:

I'm here because frankly, I don't pay enough attention to my wife. I'm a slob around the house. I pay too much attention to electronic devices. I am here to prevent that from becoming a bigger problem and hurting our marriage.

The response he's heard too many times when he asks someone why they've come to see him?

She nags. Nothing I can do can make her happy. Whatever I do is never good enough.

That is to say, no one comes to couples therapy asserting that they need to change in order to improve their relationship. But just about everyone comes to couples therapy hoping to get their partner to change.

Pearson and his wife, couples therapist Ellyn Bader, are the cofounders of the Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California. He said many people arrive at his office ready to rattle off all the ways their partner has wronged them, thereby eliciting the therapist's sympathy.

"If they can be clear enough about how their partner is the problem, they expect and hope I will reform the partner."

Needless to say, it's not Pearson's job to decide which of the partners is at greater fault for destroying the marriage.

"Their perception and belief is that, 'My partner causes my problems,'" Pearson said. "I disturb that way of thinking and say, 'No, what's going to make you create a stronger marriage is by changing how you respond to what your partner does that's so problematic."

Many people are also afraid that their partner wants them to change - and won't accept them for who they are

Pearson's observations recall those of couples therapist Esther Perel. When she visited the Business Insider office last year, Perel said that taking responsibility for your own behavior is key to improving a struggling relationship.

Perel said: "It's so easy to focus on what's missing in the other person. It's so easy to go critical. It's so easy to think that if you were different, my life would be better, rather than sometimes to switch it around and think if I was different, my life would be better. And maybe if I was different with you, you would be different with me."

Hal Runkel, a marriage and family therapist, had an interesting twist on the idea that people want their partner to change.

Runkel previously told Business Insider that the real motivation for seeking couples therapy is that "people are scared that in order to be fully married to this person, they're going to have to become a different person themselves." Either they're afraid that they'll be rejected by their partner for being themselves - or they already have been rejected.

"What we're all searching for is this sense of validation," or someone who knows us and still accepts us, Runkel said.

Pearson thinks at least part of the solution lies in vulnerability. While each person wants to end their partner's problematic behavior, each person is also fearful of "letting go of their self-protective armory" that might be causing said behavior.

He shared a hypothetical example of a couple in which one person wants their partner to be more transparent and the other person wants their partner to stop nagging them about opening up. But if the closed-off partner did open up a little, their partner would presumably feel more satisfied.

"It's not just a matter of telling couples what to do or how to do it," Pearson said. "That's the intellectual part. Emotionally, we're terrified of giving up our self-protection."

NOW WATCH: A relationship psychologist explains why marriage seems harder now than ever before

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