Part 1. Marriage Therapy

As my marriage started to head south in 2004, I did what many people try to do and sought a marriage therapist.  All in all I think I went through about five or six different therapists, a bunch of books, online sites and forums.

 At the end of all this, do I think therapy is a waste of time and money? My answer is no, but …

In some cases (mine included) the other party has such a serious problem that therapy has a very low success rate in curing the underlying situation causing friction in the marriage. These problems include drug and alcohol addiction, physical violence, and various mental disorders. At the end of the day, both parties must want to change and be capable of change.

 OK, so what did I get from the different therapies – which were useful and which were not?

My central problem was that it was impossible to negotiate anything in good faith with my ex-wife. Every substantive agreement we made, she broke. In the events leading up to the divorce, there were two major financial commitments that she had broken and I had reached the end of my tether.

 My initial approach was to take the low cost route and use the Employee Assistance Program provided by my employer to see a therapist (the first four sessions were free). This therapist took a behavioral approach – which means reward desired behavior and punish undesired behavior. Her analysis was very superficial in my opinion – trying to solve the problem as quickly as possible or refer us to someone else.  We only attended one session.

After some further reading, I discovered Imago Relationship Therapy. This therapy is based on a theory of several stages of childhood development and the notion that we may get wounded or stuck at a certain stage. This, in turn, creates a patterned response to certain stimuli that trigger these childhood wounds. The goal of therapy is to identify the stages, discover where you are stuck, and teach your partner communication skills so that the wounds are not irritated (imagine if you stuck your fingers in someone’s real wound and you get the idea of the response you provoke when you disturb a psychological wound).

As we got more into Imago, we attended a nice two-day seminar held in Ojai, CA. Here I discovered I had no problem talking about my feelings but that my ex-wife was completely unable to talk about hers. On the way home she described the workshop as the most traumatizing therapy she had ever encountered (and she had barely scraped the surface). The problem was that Imago did not have a stage for people who didn’t keep their promises. Moreover, if she was unable to talk about her childhood wounds then no progress could be made.

One of the reasons it was so hard to live with my ex-wife was that I constantly felt that I was a giver and she was a taker. Reading more about how to deal with this problem led me to Marriage Builders (MB). MB is a wonderful system that is rooted in the Principle of Joint Agreement.  Couples should only do things that make them both enthusiastically happy. The theory is that by negotiating win-wins that gives both sides positive feelings then love grows rather than dies (and vice versa). Thus, we give to our partner’s taker at the same time they are giving to ours. We tried a single telephone counseling session of MB but the therapist did not seem as skilled in the ideas. My ex had a hard time reaching a win-win compromise but, as usual, an even harder time sticking to an agreement.

By this stage, I was feeling a lot of anger towards my ex-wifes inability to follow through. She suggested the problem might have been mine and recommended anger management. I went to a single session where the therapist said something profound – he asked if I was angry anywhere other than inside the relationship – to which I answered no. In a typical behavioralist fashion, he said, “Then you should remove the stimulus causing the anger” and end the relationship.

Around this time I decided that the relationship had to be brought to an end. In a last ditch effort to save our marriage, my ex suggested we see a catholic priest. After explaining my frustrations for about ten minutes (this was the fifth therapist so I was getting pretty good at it), he turned to my wife for her side. Her answer, “I don’t know why he is so upset”. To my surprise, the priest suggested we get a divorce!

Later, my wife contacted him for the name of a marriage-friendly therapist. After a few couple sessions with the new church recommended therapist, she asked to see me alone. She explained that she had begun her career with a borderline personality disorder patient and that my wife displayed all the symptoms of this disorder. She said that they were almost impossible to work with because they have no insight into their condition – blaming everyone else around them for their problems. She said that she could continue to work with me but no longer wanted to see us as a couple.  While you can read about BPD here and here, I did my homework and realized (after 20 years with this woman) what had eluded me for so long – the diagnosis was spot on – my wife was a high functioning borderline and I was her codependent partner.  To me, BPD is victim addiction – the afflicted is always playing the victim to garner resources and attention. The psychologist warned me that the forthcoming divorce was likely to be hell…

  TOTAL BILL $2000-$3000

Lessons Learned

 1. Not all therapists are created equal. There are a variety of schools of thought and differing levels of experience (and attitudes) among therapists.

2. Not all situations can be helped by therapy (conversely some situations can be improved with therapy).

3. Therapists are cheaper than lawyers.

P.S. A nation wide Directory of Marriage and Family Therapists can be found here


34 Responses to Part 1. Marriage Therapy

  1. Howard says:

    I’m fascinated by this story because it involves a person who tried doing Imago with a Borderline. I have found this to be an amazing catch-22. Not only are you doing Imago with the type of person perhaps least willing to do it in the world, but, if you believe Imago, you are destined to be attracted to another one the next time.

    I’m very curious if you found yourself attracting similar types in the future and how you feel Borderline and Imago reconcile. You can reach me through my site if you want.

  2. Jennie says:

    Thanks for your post Steve. My husband and I also attended an Imago workshop with the McCanns’ shortly before we married. I was considering breaking the engagement at the time. The workshop experience was great. With the help of the counselors my husband was able to talk about his feelings and show empathy for mine. Unfortunately, he did not follow through with the program.

    About a year ago I stopped trying to do Imago dialogue with him at all because he would just repeat back my words with zero empathy and call it a “dialogue”. This was very painful for me.

    I think the McCanns are very good, (although we also saw another Imago counselor who was horrid). But yes, some people have issues that they have to work through individually in order to be able to do the Imago work. And some people are so damaged that they can never sustain a healthy relationship. At least you know you did all you could. Sorry you are going through all this. I guess I’ll be facing the divorce maze soon too.

  3. stevphel says:

    Thanks for the comment, Jennie. Have you looked at marriage builders (MB)? I read some of your posts on your blog and you seem pretty angry with him. In MB talk, your Taker has eclipsed your Giver (and he is probably in the same place).

    I now demand Win-Win relationships (and its working). You might want to give it a try. However, I have learned (via my ex) that there are people who are pathologically incapable of keeping win-win commitments. If you have one of those then run and don’t look back.

  4. Jennie says:

    Steve, I just checked back and saw your comment. Husband doesn’t want to do any sort of program. He says that there shouldn’t be problems in a relationship if you are with the right person.

    I too thought the question a therapist asked you “are you angry anywhere other than inside the relationship?” was profound. Like you, I am not angry in any other area of my life.

    You are providing a lot of great info on your blog. Keep up the good work.

  5. Ed says:

    I finishged it; after two years of Axis II Personality Disorders. Cluster A, B and C and each disorder encapsulated and grouped into a Cluster.
    Married 20 years to a “BPD” and now seperated/divorced for 2 years. Too late by the time I realized she was “BPD”.
    Stayed close to the “BPD” ex-wife, and gained her trust. She know I understand her, but I failed to take the next step. I watched as all her ill-fated post-marriage relationships fail miserably, but it takes a husband to put up with such an illness.
    I am about to most likely lose a great girlfriend with potential, but 1 month versus 20 years.
    I was married for 20 years to a “BPD”, but lets clear this up. BPD is part of Cluster B. She has BP, but more specifically a mix of Cluster B and cluster C behaviors like histronic, avoidant, dependent, borderline, narcasistic, obsessive-compulsive with all the unpredictable behavior.
    Yet I have my self-confidence and I understand the risk. This time she will be told “no”. She need not fear me because I never abandoned her even after the divorce.
    I have the patients and she is by nature kind and gentle. She only knows she is defective and she hurts the men that love her.
    She knows she “needs” and “he must be patient and understanding” and in the last two years that I could give her as a “friend”. She knows my beliefs and I am steadfast that being married is intimacy around a 50/50 partnership; I desire my spouse be my best friend.
    She knows I will not idelaizing nor deamonizing. No more triggering me and I will politely walk away from a confrontation. She disassociates and I have pulled her back to reality with success. She knows I will care for her and give, and give back is what works. She listened to me as a friend, but am I a fool?
    I am resilent and know the price I could pay, but the other choice is a lifetime of wondering why I never tried.
    It’s me against the world; may God help me;
    Nobody including her family thinks I should go through what I did, but there is no more flase allegations because those cloest to her including our son know I took the high-road. I have been and will always be a good husband.
    Wish this fool good luck and a prayer….

  6. EPP1961 says:

    Wow, I read your posting and had the exact same situation, decisions and problems I have with my ex of 20 years. I was the giver and her the taker; still she is a sweet person stuuck someplace in her childhood. It was triggered and she turned on me, but I had no idea at the time. Wow, I thought it was an affair. Yup, me the codependent giver and her the BPD taker. I also did marriage builders and by the time I was able to get this all in perspective it was too late. Now she is mostly cluster C and B and even as a friend she will take all she can from me. She will never be ablr to recover unless we were to reconcile. Maybe I will take that with her next time I visit her and my son. Funny, I have learned to listen to her and now it’s all her fault, but is she genuine or looking for my empathy. Still lover her, but she is gone. I can do more as a friend then a husband.
    BTW that last post was a rant on my part. Just that I feel God had entrusted me with her and I failed. Who knows if I had known what I do now 10 years ago.
    HELP, am I going to fail and be hurt again. You know marriagebuilders is what I now use in my current relationship and it is a wonderful relationship. But 1 month versus 20 years.
    $57,000 of debt which was mostly my inability to regain control over my life. My son says “Mom divorced you and you deserve better”. My Psychiatrist says stay away from my ex-wife. The whole owrld says stay away, but my love is real, it’s genuine and I just don’t know. OK, one more evening with the ex-wife and this time take the extra step.
    All she can say is no and then I can live my life knowing I did all I could, and maybe that is when I will find peace.

  7. mary says:

    WOW! Reasons why the first Employee Assistance Therapist may not seemed to have worked or appeared superficial are that EAP’s are designed to be short-term brief therapy that would focused on immediate changes. If more in-depth therapy is needed then long-term therapy would be recommended which may mean a need for a referral. You did not give it a chance to see if the first feedback of behavioral changes would work because what seems superficial at first may be a good start to start immediate changes. If your wife is borderline than this type of therapy often works. Also I think what the last therapist did was very unethical. I am not saying her assessment was wrong but the way it was handled was. I am a therapist myself.

  8. Pirsey says:

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  9. Sherrie says:

    FINALLY!! I KNEW I eventually would find some other people out there, like me, who had doubts about Imago. “Imago works miracles” they say. “Imago is the only thing that can change an abusive spouse,” they also say.

    After 9 sessions, our counselor FINALLY caught on, and nailed my abusive husband’s tush to the wall.

    In beginning Imago therapy, I feared the vulnerability and resented the blame placed on me, but accepted it all and forged ahead anyway, dedicated to trying everything in my power to stop my husband from killing the marriage and driving away what may very well be his last chance for happiness. And, oh yes, the continued verbal abuse hurt even more than before because of my dropped guard, but now I know I have, indeed, TRIED EVERYTHING.

    Over a year ago, another counselor told me, “He is too damaged. Leave him. Get a divorce. Don’t even speak to him again.” But I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t tried EVERYTHING. But after Imago I now know I have, and now I can leave with a clear conscience and never look back.

    Through Imago, each spouse essentially becomes the other’s therapist. But there comes a point when a person is too deeply disturbed, and it isn’t fair to expect the healthier spouse to take on the role of therapist/whipping post. Thank goodness our counselor finally saw that in us, and now I am writing the last pages of our saga.

    Imago can only work when there is a sufficient foundational floor of mental health. Without that to work with, Imago will only increase the agony.

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  13. drcoachlove says:

    All therapists are Not created equally. Your research and persistance paid off in a resolution. As a clinical member of AAMFT—the marriage counselor assn. you link above and as licensed marriage counselor for over 20+ years, you bet I have insight lacking in newbies and those not trained specifically to work with couples. (I also am licensed as a professional counselor.) But also your “fit” with a therapist and their rapport building and engagement skills are critical. If at first you do not succeed, try yet another therapist until you do.

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  19. Melissa says:

    Thank for sharing your Marriage experience, you are right in that not all therapists are created equal. Sometimes we tend to go to therapy hoping that everything will be ‘fixed’, unfortunately some programs does not fit our personalities or our financial budgets.

    More power!

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