A marriage therapist’s job is to listen to couples’ frustrations and try to help each spouse work through his or her issues. Sometimes, that requires doling out some tough love, hard-to-hear advice.
Below, 10 marriage therapists share the most blunt — but constructive! — piece of advice they’ve ever given a couple during a session.
“A couple had struggled for a long time with the following stubborn pattern: their arguments started innocently over minor things. Despite the couple’s best efforts, the tension escalated until the man was raging at his wife, leaving her afraid and ashamed. Then she would regain her courage and wall herself off from her husband, freezing him out. The wife’s frustration and hurt had grown to the point that she was just about ready to leave their 22-year marriage when I suggested the following: The husband wrote out five checks of incrementally increasing amounts to a cause he despised (in this case, the Republican Party). The couple agreed that the wife would send in the first check for $10 if he raged at her once, the second check for $20 if he raged again and so on and so forth. The raging stopped. The wife held onto the checks for years but they were never sent in! ” –– Bonnie Ray Kennan, marriage and family therapist
“In my 35 years as a therapist, I have discovered that when one or both people have significant individual problems (an affair, depression or substance abuse, for example), we need to meet individually and straighten it out before I can really focus on the couple’s problems. I tell the spouses, ‘To begin marriage counseling without going through this process will be a waste of time, money and energy on the part of everyone.’ It simply isn’t possible to try to deal with major personal issues, and say, an affair, at the same time. Once both of partners are in a better place individually, we can began to tackle and hopefully resolve the relationship problems together.” — Beatty Cohan, psychotherapist, author of For Better, for Worse, Forever: Discover the Path to Lasting Love
“Couples all too often get caught up in the conflict and being right and lose sight of the triggering issue. When this happens, I tell them, ‘Give up on being right. Recognize this does not make you wrong! Do not deny your partner’s perspectiveto avoid being wrong. Be a good partner by validating his experience and understanding why he felt hurt. Give up on being right and focus on your partnerand the relationship. Work on being connected instead of being right.'” — Anne Crowley, psychologist
“This couple was in their late 40s and had been married for 18 years with two kids. The husband found out that his wife was having an affair for the better part of a year with a man whom she had met in a special art study program. They both wanted to understand what happened and how they could move forward — both partners wanted to save their marriage. Trust needed to be re-established. Almost always post-affair, the other woman or man must be removed from the couple’s life. But in this case, the wife was trying to assure the husband (and me) that it was possible for her to still see this man for coffee or lunch, just as a friend. I told her, ‘If you continue to see this man in any capacity — or if you have any contact with him (email, text, Facebook) — I can guarantee you that your marriage will not survive. You need to ask yourself how such contact would be right or fair or emotionally tolerable for your husband.'” — Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, marriage and family therapist and the author of A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage
“I was seeing a couple in their late 50s who had been married for more than 30 years. The husband had a major anger problem and was very controlling. His wife believed he had some sexual flings which he denied. She was at the end of her ropes with him and told him in the session that she couldn’t stand to see him, look at him or be near him and wanted out of the marriage. I told them quite honestly, ‘It seems the only option left for you is to go your separate ways but for everyone’s sake, please do it as amicably as possible.” — Michael Hakimi, psychologist, assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine
“Despite successful couples therapy with Kathy, his wife of 12 years, Jeff couldn’t shake the feeling that he should not have married on the rebound from a former girlfriend. He loved Kathy and their daughter but he could not answer with a clear ‘yes’ when she asked if he was committed for the long haul in the marriage. Kathy was confused, upset and nearing an ultimatum to commit or leave. I did everything I could with Jeff to help him look at his commitment resistance, including exploring his family of origin where he had lost his father at a young age. But he couldn’t get past his ambivalence, especially under pressure to pony up a definitive ‘I’m in it forever.’ Here’s what I said to him: ‘Jeff, you may always be ambivalent about commitment in relationships. It may just be your nature. The big question is whether this is the woman you want to be ambivalent with.’ He smiled and immediately answered ‘Yes.’ I asked why. He said, ‘Because I love Kathy and can’t imagine loving anyone more — and I love our family.’ Kathy wisely took it in — and it was enough.” — William J. Doherty, psychologist and author of Take Back Your Marriage
“Therapy isn’t very effective if both partners aren’t completely honest about what’s creating distance between them. In spite of being told this from the start, peoplealways lie about infidelity. But there are indicators and behaviors that advertise cheating to an experienced therapist. When I suspect it I’ll ask the person, ‘Are you distracted by a relationship outside of your marriage?’ And they always say, ‘Absolutely not.’ And I’ll say, ‘It is vital that we have the truth here, I can’t help you if you aren’t truthful.’ And they become incredulous and say, ‘I am telling you, I am not! When would I have the time? Who would it be with? My spouse always knows where I am!’
The denial goes on and on. When this happens, I turn to the other spouse and say, ‘If I were in your shoes I would sniff around and find out any way I could.’ Then I turn to the suspected cheater and gently suggest we schedule a lie detector test. ‘Schedule it,’ the person will say. The couple will leave and soon afterward they’ll call and tell me no lie detector test is necessary — the spouse has confessed. Now, I have a chance of being able to help them.” — Becky Whetstone, marriage and family therapist
“A husband liked to spend all his free time with his wife and she found it stressful. She needed some time alone to relax and recharge her batteries, as many of us do. I advised the husband, ‘Do more things on your own or with a friend. Think about activities you’d enjoy doing by yourself. You’ll be happier and your relationship will benefit. No one person can satisfy all the companionship needs of another.’ He started playing golf with a friend. He went fishing. He took scenic hikes on his own. It proved that all couples need to find a balance between together time and time spent independently.” — Marcia Naomi Berger, psychotherapist, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted
“A couple came to see me because the husband had had an affair and their marriage was in shreds. The husband was deeply sorry and wanted to do anything in his power to repair the marriage. The wife was, of course, devastated. She never expected it. Session after session, the wife claimed she couldn’t figure out how she could ever forgive him. Weeks, then months, went by. The husband hung in there. She asked him to move out while she determined what she should do. He did. She asked him to move back in. He did. Then, she asked him to move out again because she needed more time. He did everything she asked him to do but nothing seemed to move her out of her pain.
This merry-go-round continued seemingly endlessly. Finally, I said to her, ‘Look. You can stay in the marriage or you can leave. But you can’t spend the rest of your life — and his — in this cycle. You can’t punish him every day of his life for having an affair. If you think you can forgive, then do so. If you can’t — and that’s OK, too — move on. This isn’t fair to either one of you.’ The last I heard, they were still stuck in this cycle.” — Abby Rodman, psychotherapist, author of Should You Marry Him?
“When couples fight in my office, I tell them ‘You can fight for free at home, but you are here to work on solutions.’ The man will usually shut up because he realizes that he is wasting money!” — Caroline Madden, marriage and family therapist, author of After a Good Man Cheats: How to Rebuild Trust & Intimacy With Your Wife