I frequently get clients who tell me that their partner will not come in for counseling. They want to know if unilateral couples counseling, or just one person working on the marriage, is possible. Not only do I think this possible, but I think that unilateral couples counseling is preferable, especially with both partners involved. What sort of philosophical riddle is this? you ask. So let me explain what I mean.
It takes two to tango, and partners in a troubled marriage can certainly exacerbate each other’s worst qualities and push each other’s buttons. But when it comes to how to repair a marriage, I think it is an incorrect assumption that the best route is working together, with each partner giving 50 percent. I actually think that this type of “working together” is almost impossible in therapy. Instead, I believe that each person needs to give 100 percent to working on their own issues unilaterally. Giving 50 percent and waiting for your partner to chime in with his 50 percent is doomed to end up in the sort of dynamic where each person waits for the other to give something before they give something. And this will lead to an impasse. Neither partner wants to be the first to be vulnerable, or to give of themselves without a guarantee of emotional safety and appreciation.
Example, using Jane and John, a fictional Everycouple:
Jane: “I was going to have sex with you, but why should I? You aren’t nice to me. If you were nice to me, I’d want to have sex.”
John: “And I would do more chores if you didn’t nag me.”
In some types of couples therapy, the therapist would help John and Jane come to a compromise, or a contract. For instance, if she doesn’t nag him, he will try to do more chores. And if he speaks nicely to her, she will try to have more sex. The idea is for both to give a little and end up happier somewhere in the middle. Sounds good, but this rarely works long-term.
The paradigm is at fault, and this “if/then” sort of framework sets the couple up to fail. It is probably not true that Jane would jump right in to have more sex if John was nicer. She probably has some of her own issues surrounding sex that may be exacerbated within this relationship, but if they are not explored on their own, there is no hope for true change in this area. The same thing with John. He likely has issues with either chores, or, more generally, passivity that are being triggered by this situation. Jane’s nagging doesn’t help anything, but it likely does not “cause” him to not help out around the house.
Thus, in a 50-50 or compromise framework, not enough attention is paid to the individual family-of-origin issues that underlie the behavior of each partner. In the example above, Jane is excused from examining her own potential issues around physical intimacy because she gets to say that the only reason she won’t have sex is that her husband isn’t nice to her. And John gets a free pass from exploring his passive-aggressive side, because he can ascribe his lack of effort around the house to his wife’s nagging.
How would this change if each partner, even in a joint session, took full, 100 percent unilateral responsibility for marital change?
Jane: “When I think that my husband isn’t nice to me, the first thing I think to punish him with is sex. I wonder why this is the first place my mind goes. Maybe it is because I didn’t see my parents be very physically affectionate, so I’m not really comfortable with physical affection. Maybe it is that, honestly, my sex drive is in the toilet after having the baby.”
John: “I never saw my dad do any chores and my mom never complained about it. Sometimes, I get the disconcerting feeling that my dad would have made fun of me if he saw me vacuuming. So I procrastinate and try to get out of it.”
In what I’m calling “unilateral” couples counseling, each partner is delving deep into his or her own reasons for their behavior, rather than assuming every negative interaction can be explained by their partner having first done something to offend or hurt them. When you examine your own issues, your partner will become newly interested and engaged in the conversation. After all, you’re finally not blaming him or her for all of the marital problems. This interest and enthusiasm is essential to reinvigorating the marriage. It can spark a realization in both partners that proactive effort will likely yield positive results in even the most hopeless-seeming relationship.
So, take a minute and write a list of the Top Five Things You Do To Hurt Your Marriage That Don’t Have Anything to Do With Your Partner. (So, traits that originated in you long before you even met your partner, are innate, or are due to current external circumstances.) Next to each trait, write where it originated. Here’s an example of a good list:
- Perfectionistic: my mom taught me this. I was the oldest child and had to do everything right.
- Being sarcastic: learned this from how my mom and dad would fight.
- Withdrawing when stressed: I think this is because I’m wired to be a highly sensitive person.
- Not liking to be touched: I’m all touched out after a day with the kids.
- Not sharing emotions: My parents weren’t big on emotions and I guess I learned to keep them in check.
Then, present this list to your partner. Voila! You have engaged in unilateral couples counseling. I bet your spouse will be surprised, to say the least. They may even reciprocate, but, remember, that isn’t the point. The point is that you know you did something great for your marriage. And even without any concrete efforts at change, just writing that list out will make you realize that your partner is not wholly to blame for the issues in your relationship, and will soften your perspective toward him or her.