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Need Help Getting Husband
Into Couples Therapy

QUESTION: I am recently married and love my husband very much but I worry about our communication skills. We both came from troubled families so I am sure that has a lot to do with it. We seem to only be able to bring up problems, but nothing ever gets resolved. He gets angry and I back down. My problem is that I don't think that we can work it out without help and he refuses to seek help. Should I go to therapy on my own? Could that ever work?

ANSWER: While it is true that you have work of your own to do, it is important that your husband not view your willingness to seek your own counseling as an indication that you are the "problem" in the relationship. The fact that you both come from "troubled" family backgrounds does suggest that your difficulty is likely rooted in unsatisfying relationship patterns learned in childhood. Although it would be preferable for your husband to be a part of the solution from the start, it is also possible that he will respond to the growth and new communication skills that you introduce to the relationship.

Any change in your capacity to interact which positively "contaminates" the relationship will inevitably challenge him to respond in new ways. You upset the "status quo" when you initiate change in your response to your husband. If you find ways to calmly continue to assert yourself, rather than merely "backing down" in response to his anger, he will be forced into new territory. But much will depend on his respect for your leadership in this area and his willingness to learn from you in the midst of struggle. If he disrespects your insight, expect things to get worse, before they get better!

Let your husband know that you are willing to seek your own help, but that it will take both of you to work on the marriage! If he chooses not to accompany you to counseling, ask him in what other ways he will be working on improvement in the relationship. Ask him to do something towards his own contribution to the problem, such as reading Harville Hendrix's "Getting the Love You Want."

Ask your spouse for some specific effort towards safely sustaining the discussions you are currently aborting together. Point out that you "back down" to his anger which stops the discussion. Let him know that you will be working on continuing rather than "backing down", and perhaps he can begin to look at why his anger results in intimidation rather than discussion. His willingness to accept your retreat reflects that he is willing to get his way by being angry! Perhaps your husband does not yet see the price tag attached to "getting what he wants" in this manner. His ability to intimidate you will cost him affection in the marriage. For intimacy is damaged when either partner experiences negotiation as "unfair." And "backing down" creates a backlog of silent resentment which cools the passion in any marriage.

Use your individual counseling to explore why you stop yourself in your discussions with your husband, and identify effective ways to get your messages and needs across in your marriage. Reflect on patterns you may have learned from your parents' interactions that may be contributing to your own "backing down" in your relationship.

Whether it be developing skills in communication, showing empathy for your husband's position or articulating what intimidates you about his expression of anger, there is something that is stopping you from finishing the discussions you begin. Try to get underneath why the effect of his anger is causing you to react by truncating the discussion. Are you afraid of his anger? Or are you afraid of expressing your own anger? What frightens you? Find out what his anger symbolizes for you.

Perhaps you are reacting to fears of what occurred in your parents' arguments. But avoiding conflict will not solve the problem anymore than ineffective escalation. Perhaps you and your husband are avoiding finishing discussions because you fear a negative repetition of your respective parents' marriages. If so, you get credit for trying to do something different! However, it is not enough to protect by avoidance. Increase your own capacity and skills to fully express yourself, and ask your husband to simply listen and understand. Then listen to his full expression and attempt only to understand, rather than "fix" the problem. Through empathy, you are more likely to achieve a successful compromise.

Research reveals that most couples divorce due to prolonged unresolved conflict. Couples also report that what they want from their spouses more that anything is "understanding." Successful negotiation and empathy are critical ingredients in a satisfying longterm partnership. And communication skills are not a luxury, but essential tools for keeping your marriage healthy. Invite your husband to be a part of the solution, rather than a possible marriage statistic!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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