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How to Get the Most out of Marriage Counseling

A guide for Orange County couples on the brink of divorce

Many couples come to me after they’ve tried traditional marriage counseling. They’re usually frustrated and depressed. One of the most common things they say is: “We tried marriage counseling and it didn’t work!” 

If you feel this way, you’re not alone. But, as you’ll see, there’s hope at the end of the rainbow.

What’s wrong with marriage counseling?

I don’t think there’s anything particularly “wrong” with marriage counseling. (If I did, I wouldn’t still be offering it to Orange County couples on the brink of separation.)

The problem with traditional marriage counseling isn’t related to the therapy itself, or the way it’s delivered. The problem with marriage counseling involves whenit’s delivered.

All too often, however, both parties aren’t fully committed to their partner and the relationship.

In situations like the one described below, even the most skilled therapist and well-planned program doesn’t stand a chance!

Meet Michael and Suzanne

Michael and Suzanne came to a regular marriage counselor following discovery that Michael had been having an emotional affair at work. Suzanne wanted to work on the marriage but Michael said he was out of love and had absolutely no energy to work on it.

Michael was convinced that he and Suzanne were basically incompatible. Because of this, he said that no feelings were left for her. The relationship had been more about raising the children than paying attention to each other. He felt disconnection, emptiness, and loneliness. Suzanne, for her part, still loved Michael and desperately wanted to try to repair things before filing for divorce. 

In this case, Suzanne was more motivated for marriage counseling because she had at least one very strong reason (among others) to want the marriage to work: she still loved Michael. But, why would he want marriage counseling to improve communication in a marriage that he thought ultimately was doomed because of core incompatibility? From his point of view, this was akin to going through the pain of cancer treatment when the outcome was bleak to begin with. He had to decide if it was worth it or not.

Mixed-agenda couples

Michael and Suzanne were a mixed-agenda couple. They were not committed to divorce, but they weren’t equally committed to working on the marriage either. Many couples are in this category. They often seek marriage counseling with disappointing results.

Research shows that mixed-agenda couples represent a meaningful subset—up to 30%–of couples presenting for therapy. Mixed-agenda couples respond differently to therapeutic interventions than couples who both want to work on the relationship.

Yet, until now, there has been a lack of treatment protocols in standard marriage counseling to work with these couples. As a result, mixed-agenda couples remain at high risk for divorce.

Leaning-in versus Leaning-out

The partner who is highly motivated to work things out is described as “leaning in”. In our example, this would be Suzanne. She was willing to forgive Michael and examine her role in the demise of their marriage.

Michael, however, viewed her as over-controlling, needy, and critical. Suzanne made him feel like a scolded child in his home. This was theoretically fixable!As a leaning-in partner Suzanne was ready to start therapy to stabilize her rocky marriage.

Michael, was the “leaning-out” partner. Like many leaning-out partners, Michael was almost “out the door” emotionally, but was hanging in there basically for the children. On the brink, he wasn’t sure what to do. He was miserable and confused; he saw no hope or possibility for change on the part of Suzanne. He feared that his feelings for Suzanne were gone, especially when compared them to the swelling of feelings stirred up in him when interacting with his peer at work with whom he was having an emotional affair. Simply put, Michael was resistant to therapy.

Leaning Out partners need a reason to want to participate in traditional marriage counseling.But, often they have lost their emotional energy to engage in the process of marriage counseling. They no longer want their partner enough to personally go through the pain of counseling – even though they don’t want to lose their family.

With such low motivation, traditional marriage counseling is doomed to failure, frustrating both the clients and the therapist.

Each partner needs their own reason to participate

For any chance of success, mixed-agenda couples first need a process wherein each partner individually (instead of together which often occur in regular marriage counseling) can be helped to understand their different contributions to the marital dysfunction.

They also need to explore and see more possibilities of ways each might changeto give the marriage hope for survival. They need to try and change their attitudes and perspective of change itself….and the possibilities that might bring.

As a leaning-In partner, Suzanne’s motivation to participate in successful marriage counseling would obviously be to save her marriage which she still values. She still loves her husband and has a lot of hope that things can turn around.

Michael, on the other hand, as the leaning-out partner would need a lot of work to be convinced that there are reasons for him to put forth effort to save his marriage. This would be done individually and would involve helping him see the potential for change. He would be asked to consider his role or contribution to the emotional distancing that had developed between him and Suzanne over the years.  

Michael would need to explore ways he could change those things and see that it may be possible to do so. He would also need to explore what he may have overlooked through the years in terms of ways that he and Suzanne might develop more common interests instead of just focusing on incompatibilities.

Discernment counseling before marriage counseling

Recently, after years of research, Dr. William Doherty, at the University of Minnesota, has developed a process called Discernment Counseling.

Discernment Counseling is a highly-focused, short-term (1 to 5 session) protocol that paves the way for successful marriage therapy.

Its goal is to help both partners decide with increased clarifyand confidencewhat direction they, as a couple, should take. It also increases each partner’s understandingof their own role or contribution to the state of their marriage.

Once these issues have been dealt with, it is easier for couples on the verge of breakup to decide which path they should take regarding the future of their marriage: intense marriage counseling is just one of the paths.

Three paths mixed-agenda couples can take

Discernment Counseling helps couples make better decisions in less time, with fewer angry sessions. There are three possible outcomes to Discernment Counseling:

  • Path 1 – Keep things as they are.Few couples who come to counseling take this path. Some, however, see it as a temporary solution until they are able to “get their ducks” in a row. They declare a truce until the kids graduate from high school, home price values increase, or a job promotion comes through, etc. Research shows that the average person filing for divorce waits 3 years after their decision before actually doing so.
  • Path 2 – Divorce or Separate: About 40 percent of couples who start discernment counseling ultimately choose this path. This path is not seen as a failure, as long as they both have increased clarity and confidence in their decision. They now have a better understanding as to what went wrong in terms of each partner’s contribution.
  • Path 3 – Commit to a period of time (usually 6 months) of intensive marital counseling and/or other work (like anger management training or parenting classes) with DIVORCE OFF THE TABLE. Going down this path, the couple could receive traditional marriage therapy. But now therapy would seem to have a much better chance of succeeding. Therapy can be done by the discernment counselor or by another marital therapist familiar with the process.

The Eight Tools of Anger Control

It seems that anger is everywhere in our society. One just has to read the newspaper daily or watch the evening news to conclude that controlling one’s angry feelings is a major challenge for many adults, teens, and children.

Uncontrolled anger is a major factor in domestic violence and spousal abuse, in aggressive driving violations, in workplace rudeness and disruption, and in marital conflicts and family fights. Several large and respected studies have shown that one-third of couples studied at least one incident of domestic violence during the course of their marriage. The same study found that about 1, 500,000 children per year are severely assaulted (kicked, punched, beaten up, burned) in their homes.

Managing angry feelings requires mastering specific thought and action skills and then practicing these skills on a daily basis. The costs to persons who do not learn how to regulate their negative emotions are high and include increased risk of relapse, loss of relationships, conflicts at work, loss of respect in the eyes of loved ones, and lowering of self-esteem.

A particularly high cost of anger is on your children. The effect of children witnessing extreme conflict in the home can be devastating—more harmful most of the time than a parental divorce. It is estimated that between 2.3 million and 10 million children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year in the United States alone.

Although many adults believe that they have protected their children from exposure to domestic violence, 80-90% of children in those homes can give detailed descriptions of the violence experienced in their families.

What is Anger?

We view angry feelings as a normal emotional reaction to frustration in our everyday world. It is natural to become angry when we have a goal and this goal is blocked in some way. Anger isn’t just one emotion, but a family of emotions that are related to each other both in our brains and in our behavior. People often give a variety of names to their angry feelings, which range from mild irritation to rage.

Once anger begins, it generates changes in our expressions, our faces, our voice, and changes in the way we think. It also creates impulses to action. In fact, the purpose of emotions such as anger is to organize and mobilize all of our bodily systems to respond to our environment in some way.

Anger, like all emotions, is regulated by that section of our brain called the “limbic system” (located in our mid brains beyond our inner ear) Emotional memories are stored in the “amygdala” and other structures which are located in this limbic system.

You may experience anger now in your life which may actually be caused by a mixture of what is triggering it now and experiences you have had in the past—even if you don’t remember them. This “old anger” is activated by your brain in its attempt to protect you— even though the original danger is no longer present.

It is up to the thinking part of the brain, our frontal lobes, to find a way to deal with the angry feelings the amygdala and other brain structures have set in motion. Fortunately, as thinking human beings we have the unique ability among mammals to have choices regarding how we will deal with our feelings.

My Model of Anger Management

In our view, anger management is NOT about never getting angry—that would be an impossible and ridiculous goal because angry feelings are “hard-wired” in your brain and probably serve a protective and survival function.

Rather, anger management is about learning how to regulate and express those natural angry feelings in a way that makes you a more effective human being. Persons who manage their anger well have better relationships, better health, and more occupational success than those who manage their anger poorly. They also get more of their needs met without antagonizing loved ones or colleagues.

Learning to manage anger involves mastering the eight tools of anger control that we have found to be highly effective in our local anger management classes. This model of anger management is not therapy and does not dwell on the past or the underlying reasons for anger. Rather, our approach is psycho-educational, skill-building, and practical drawing on recent research and findings in neuroscience, marriage/relationships, stress management, and the emerging science of happiness and optimism.

The Eight Tools of Anger Control

Tool 1 – Recognize Stress
Stress and anger tend to go hand and hand. The higher one’s stress level, the easier it is to allow our anger to get out of control. It is a challenge for most of us to manage our stress levels in a complex world with many demands and expectations. Learning stress management techniques us an effective way to reduce the physical, behavioral, and emotional problems caused by too much stress.

Stress is often the trigger that takes us from feeling peaceful to experiencing uncomfortable angry feelings in many common life situations. Whether the stressor is external or internal, scientists have discovered that the major systems of the body work together to provide one of the human organism’s most powerful and sophisticated defenses; the stress response which you may know better as “fight-or-flight”. Before your stress response turns into anger or aggression, use stress management strategies to get it under control.

Tool 2 – Develop Empathy
Have you ever been in a restaurant and noticed that the customers at the table next to you were speaking louder than anyone else? It was as if they had no idea that they were being so loud and intrusive to the rest of the patrons. This lack of awareness is often a sign of not being emotionally or socially alert. Or, have you ever been in a situation where you tried to express your feelings and it backfired in some way?

Some of us are very good at knowing how we feel and expressing it, while others struggle to do so. It is crucial to express emotion in order to relate to those around us. Our ability to know how we are feeling as well as our ability to accurately sense the feelings of those around us help us make positive connections with others. This characteristic is often called “empathy.”

To empathize is to see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, and to feel with the heart of another. Lack of empathy leads to poor communication and a failing to understand others. To manage anger, it often helps to see our anger as a combination of other people’s behavior and our lack of empathy toward them or their situation.

Tool 3 – Respond Instead of React
Many times we become angry because we find people and situations that literally “push our buttons”, and we react just like a juke box that automatically pulls down a record and starts playing when you make a selection. Rather than reacting to anger triggers in this fashion, you can learn to choose how to deal with frustrating situations — to respond rather than automatically react like that juke box.

There are many advantages to learning to how be more flexible in dealing with the stresses and frustrations of life. At the top of the list is a sense of empowerment. It just feels good and powerful to know that you are in charge of your response, rather than being controlled by other people or circumstances. Many people notice their anger level going down as their feeling of empowerment goes up.

Tool 4 – Change That Conversation With Yourself
“For some reason whenever I get upset I am always putting myself down” said one woman in an anger management class. “Even my friends tell me I am just too hard on myself”, she said. When I get upset, I will often say things like, “I’m such a loser”, or, “if I don’t make it on time, everyone will think I’m a jerk”, the woman explained. “Sometimes I even tell myself that I am worthless and stupid when I make mistakes.”

A crucial tool in dealing with angry feelings is that of challenging that conversation with yourself. Like the woman described above, you are constantly telling yourself all kinds of things which cause you to have certain feelings or emotions—even though you may not realize it. Learning to change that “self-talk” empowers you to deal with anger more effectively in terms of how strongly you feel the anger, how long you hold onto your anger, and how you express your anger.

Tool 5 – Communicate Assertively
Good communication skills are an essential ingredient to anger management because poor communication causes untold emotional hurt, misunderstandings, and conflict. Words are powerful, but the message we convey to others is even more powerful and often determines how people respond to us and how we feel toward them.

Anger expressed toward others is often a misguided way of communicating a feeling we have or a need that is not being satisfied by other people or situations. Assertive communication—as distinct from aggressive communication— is a set of skills to honestly and effectively communicate how you feel and how you are responding to things—without getting angry or hostile about it. 

Tool 6 – Adjust Expectations
Have you ever been told your expectations are too high? Anger and stress can often be caused when our expectations are too far apart from what is realistic to achieve. In other words, anger is often trigg

ered by a discrepancy between what we expect and what we get.Learning to adjust those expectations—sometimes upward and other times downward—can help us cope with difficult situations or people, or even cope with ourselves. In marriage, research shows that much anger is caused by trying to solve problems which are unsolvable and perpetual. Successful couples learn to live with each other around these issues rather than getting angry about them.

Tool 7 – Forgive But Don’t Forget!
Anger is often the result of grievances we hold toward other people or situations, usually because of our perception and feeling of having been wronged by them in some way. Resentment is a form of anger that does more damage to the holder than the offender. Holding a grudge is letting the offender live rent free in your head.   Making the decision to “let go” (while still protecting ourselves) is often a process of forgiveness – or at least acceptance – and is a major step toward anger control.

Tool 8 – Retreat and Think Things Over!
Jim and Mary Jones loved each other deeply, but often went into horrific verbal battles over any number of issues. However, they were unable to give each other “space” during an argument insisting they solve the issue immediately. Even worse, Mary often physically blocked Jim from leaving and would follow him from room to room demanding discussion. Needless to say, this is a dangerous practice as it can escalate levels of anger even further and cause partners to do and say things they don’t really mean and may later regret!

Research shows that we are pretty much incapable of resolving conflicts or thinking rationally in an argument when our stress level reaches a certain point. To avoid losing control either physically or verbally, it is often best to take a temporary “time-out” – and leave.  This tool of anger management works much better if (a) you commit to return within a reasonable amount of time to work things out, and (2) you work on your “self-talk” while trying to cool down.

Orange County marriage counselor asks: Is your marriage worth saving?

The Story of Mary and Bill

Mary and Bill were a nice couple empty nesters. Married 20 years, hey had built a nice life together. Their mortgage was low, their children were in college and doing well, most of the time they got along with each other fairly well. But one day Mary told Bill she thought maybe they should get a divorce. This rocked Bill’s world as he had no idea that she had still been planning this. Sure, she mentioned it several years ago, but then things had actually improved, so Bill figured the storm had passed.

For Bill, the marriage wasn’t perfect, but then he had lower expectations. Most of his unhappiness was in reaction to her unhappiness. He was happy to keep things as they were even though they had little in common anymore. Mary complained that she was emotionally lonely in the marriage, that Bill didn’t communicate with her, that he drank too much, and that he rarely paid attention to her anymore. She suspected he was having at least an emotional affair with a co-worker, though Bill denied this, pleading that they were just close friends.

Should this couple divorce? A look at some facts!

When a marriage is on the brink of divorce, commonly one person wants out more than the other. If couples divorce, seventy percent of the time it is the wife who initiates it. We call this a “mixed-agenda” couple because their interests are not aligned if one wants out more than the other. The “leaning-out” partner, like Mary, is convinced that there is little hope for the marriage, that they don’t want to live the rest of their lives in an unhappy and unfulfilling marriage. Who can blame her?

The “leaning-in” partner, on the other hand, like Bill sees things differently. Often they are desperate to save the marriage and are motivated to do almost anything. Yet, all the thing they are doing often makes things worse.

It is the leaning-out partner who calls most of the shots; in most states, a divorce cannot be prevented if one partner wants it.

To make a decision about divorce, both the leaning-out and leaning-in partners should consider the following statistics:

  • Many unhappy marriages recover. In one study, 94% of married individuals – both men and women- who said that their marriage at some point was in trouble also said that they were glad they were still together.
  • According to marital researcher Dr Bill Doherty, there is good evidence to suggest that with the proper help and willingness on the part of both spouses, many marriages that might otherwise end in divorce can become healthy, vibrant and supportive.
  • For marriages to become happy again, it requires that couples courageously confront their problems, learn specific relationship skills, and commit to staying together for at least a period of time.
  • Studies show that, for the most part, those who divorced and even those who divorced and remarried were not happier and better off psychologically than those who remained married.

Source for some of material: Should I Try to Work It Out?Kindle Edition by Alan Hawkins, Tamara Fackrell, Steven Harris.

Most marriages end with a whimper-not a bang!

Most marriages do not end because of high conflict. Most end because of loss of emotional connection with each other. That is, the majority end with a whimper, not a bang. They end like icebergs break up….a tiny fissure that keeps getting bigger and bigger until the two iceberg halves just drift apart one day. Many times, partners later regret divorcing from this type of marriage.?

Should you judge your marriage with a snapshot or a movie camera?

A marriage relationship has developmental stages, just as children go through various stages of growth. Much marital discontent can be seen as “growth pains” as the marriage goes from one stage to another. All kinds of things change as the marriage matures: individual needs, demands on your time, occupational stresses, financial status, parenting responsibilities, partner health status, balance between emotionally merging with your partner yet maintaining your autonomy as a person, degree of empathy you have for each other, life dreams and goals.

Happiness or satisfaction in a marriage waxes and wanes throughout the marriage. It goes in cycles. Just because you take a snapshot of it today and see unhappiness, it doesn’t mean things will necessarily stay that way. Yes, things could get worse; but they also could improve considerably.

Many elderly couples say that even though they had many crises, they are glad they stuck it out because in the “movie camera” view of their marriage, things weren’t that bad and many issues were fixable that seemed hopeless at the time.

Five things each couple should consider before pulling the plug

The decision to divorce or not is often in the hands of the “leaning-out” partner.

Each case is different, so it is wise to seek professional help in sorting through the many issues involved in your particular case. Here are some things to consider:

  • High conflict or not. Some marriages end with a bang. We call these high-conflict marriages. Statistics show that unlike other kinds of marriages, high-conflict couples are happier over time if they divorce. No one should remain in an abusive relationship; most healthy people consider continual emotional or physical abuse as non-negotiable deal-breakers as to the continuance of the relationship! And studies show that children generally are better off if high-conflict parents divorce than if they stay together and continue fighting.
  • Hard vs soft reasons for divorce. Hard reasons include chronic substance abuse, domestic violence, infidelity, child abuse, or chronic financial irresponsibility. Soft reasons, such as described by Bill and Mary above, include “falling out of love,” “having nothing in common,” and “spending too much time with same-sex friends.” Hard reasons usually justify a divorce; soft reasons can frequently be changed so that divorce can be prevented.
  • Potential for change. What is the potential for change in either you or your partner? Some people can and do change; others don’t and have no intention to. Many people fail at marriage not because they are intrinsically bad people or bad marriage partners; it is because they have never learned the skills needed for relationship success. If you or your partner are motivated to learn better skills, the marriage may have a chance. Even if there is infidelity, 50% of marriages now survive – some are even better than they were before the affair!
  • How do you see your life improving with the divorce? Even though the grass may look greener on the other side of the fence, remember that the roots of the grass may be covered with manure. Are you miserable because of your marriage or because of you as a person? Remember, no matter where you go, there you are with yourself. Divorce may or may not make you a happier person, it may or may not improve your life.
  • Level of commitment for each of you to work on the marriage. Commitment to making a troubled marriage work makes all the difference in the world. Commitment means being willing to do whatever it takes for a period of time (maybe six months) to turn things around. Even if you do it mostly for your children, the important thing is to do it. This might include things like anger management training, getting sober in a rehab program, or devoting more time to the family or relationship.

Angry at narcissistic husband? How to cope short of divorce!

Anger and partner narcissism: Betty and Jason

Betty and Jason had been married for 5 years and were now being seen in couples therapy because of almost constant conflict. Jason saw the problem as “Betty’s anger” which he couldn’t cope with and caused him to completely emotionally shut down. He constantly threatened divorce lamenting that he wished he had married a “sweet” girl. Betty said her anger was only because of him; she had many friends and no history of anger problems in any other relationship or areas of her life. But, she indeed was enraged with her husband who constantly berated and criticized her, tried to lower her self-esteem, could not satisfy her most basic needs as a woman, and constantly manipulated her by giving her hope for change and then completely reversing himself the next day. She called it “crazy-making.”

What is a narcissist?

Simply put, a narcissist(75% are male) is usually self-absorbed and preoccupied with a need to achieve the perfect image and have little or no capacity for listening, caring or understanding the needs of others. That is, they lack empathy. Wives of narcissists complain that their husbands are emotionally unavailable leaving them feeling lonely and deprived. Therapists who treat them see them as having variations of the narcissistic trait: they may be bullies; they may be show-offs; they may be an addictive self-soother (into alcohol, drugs, internet porn); they may present themselves as “the entitled one.” They are often easily offended by even mild “push-back” from their partners. Often, they are extremely defensive and spend an inordinate amount of energy just protecting their fragile ego.

How does narcissistic behavior affect their partner?

As they say, it takes two to tango. Almost no one can push people’s buttons like the narcissist can. No place is this more true than in the interaction of a narcissist and their partner. Narcissists have an uncanny ability to activate certain “schemas” or belief systems in your brain which you may be unaware of but still greatly influence you and how you react. For instance, you may have a schema of abandonment because of early issues with attachment (or lack thereof) with your primary caretaker as a child. Because you are so fearful of being rejected or alone, you will put up with the limitations and tormenting behaviors of your narcissist.

There are many other such schemas that may be “hard-wired” into your thinking. See “resources” at the end of this blog to learn more and gain understanding into why you may find yourself locked into a dysfunctional and maybe destructive relationship with narcissist even though you realize it is toxic.

Should you fight for your relationship with a narcissist or throw in the towel?

There are certain circumstances where an intimate relationship with a narcissist isn’t worth fighting for, especially if they are a threat to your (or your children’s) security, safety and stability. This is an issue of “discernment” –please see latest blog for discernment guidelines to help you gain clarity regarding the future of your marriage with a narcissistic partner. Or, see a discernment therapist in your local area.

How to deal with your narcissist if you decide to tough it out:

  • Your main weapon in dealing with a narcissist is something called “confrontational empathy”. This is close to something called “tough love” that you might use with your adolescent.
  • After your schemas get triggered, you may feel speechless and at the end of your rope. You may feel powerless, raw and just plain fatigued in trying to cope with him. But, you have to find a way to communicate with him to save your sanity. The key is “empathic communication-get inside his head.”

Note: DO NOT use this approach of empathy If you feel unsafe or abused; in that case, protect yourself and do not try to be empathetic.

Empathy is not simply compassion; it is communicating that you see things from the narcissist’s point of view, even though you may not agree with it. Remember that rather than tuning in to others, the narcissist remains caught up in the pursuit of approval. His focus is “all about me”, without caring much about you or others.

He is thinking to himself: “How am I doing? She really likes me. I think I nailed it. I think I impressed him. I wonder if they like what I just said. I’ll show them.” This “all about me” focus prevents the narcissist from truly engaging in interactions. He leaves you feeling lonely, empty and frustrated.

As Wendy Wendy Behary points out in the book “Disarming the Narcissist: Survivng and Thriving with the Self-absorbed” says:

Because empathy allows you to deeply understand who the narcissist is and why he is that way, it’s the perfect antidote, fortifying you to stand your ground, hold him accountable, and no take responsibility for his issues. Best of all, you can show up in interactions with him without the burden of exhausting anger, defensiveness, or submission. You get him. You may even feel badly for him and might even tell him that, but you can do so without giving in and without giving up your rights.

The strategy of confrontational empathy also involves setting limits, establishing what she calls the rules of reciprocity and the need to use time-out procedures to cool down before engaging the narcissist. Read more details of these strategies in her self-help book.