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Blame. Shame. Shifting the focus. Resistance. Outright refusal to participate in counseling.
These and other dysfunctional tactics are used by couples in crisis. It’s not hard to see why. If your mate blames you for all the problems in your relationship, chances are you’re going to strike back. Chances are you’re going to feel resentful, bitter and angry with them for focusing all the ills of your relationship on you.
Shaming is another particularly harmful tactic taken by an embittered person. Shame makes us feel small and inadequate. It makes us resent the one seeing him/herself as bigger, stronger, smarter or in some way better than us.
As damaging as these tactics are, one of the most lethal weapons unleashed on a mate is resistance---the outright refusal to participate in counseling. A forty year-old man shared his story with me during a counseling session.
“She’s angry and says she is tired of working on our relationship,” Tory said. “Maggie doesn’t think she plays any part in our problems. She can be incredibly stubborn. So, she says ‘go ahead and go to counseling, but I’m not going.’”
“How long has she been frustrated like this?” I asked.
“To be honest, she’s asked for counseling in the past, but I haven’t really wanted to go. Now she’s pulled away and I’m the one asking for it and she won’t go.”
“So, she’s out of gas,” I said. “I see this quite frequently in relationships. It means you have to take the high road and may have to do most of the work for awhile, until she sees that you are serious about the relationship.”
“That’s not fair,” Tory protested. “She is just as much to blame as I am.”
“Well,” I said slowly. “This isn’t about what is fair, or who is to blame. You’re going to want to convey that you are dedicated to the relationship, that you’re willing to look at yourself for awhile, even if she isn’t willing to look at herself.”
“But,” he continued, still uncertain about having to do all the work. “Doesn’t it take two to tango? Doesn’t she have to do her share too for this to work?”
“Yes and no,” I said. “I’d much prefer for her to be involved in the counseling. But, for a season, you may have to do more of the work. When she sees how much you want this relationship to work, she’ll likely join in. If she doesn’t, we’ll address her resistance. When you get your side of the street clean, we can approach her about her side of the street. But, let’s focus on your side of the street first, okay?”
For the next several sessions we outlined what he could be doing to ‘clean his side of the street.’ For as much as he wanted things to be ‘fair,’ and ‘for her to face her issues,’ he struggled to stay on his side of the street. We outlined his tasks.
First, he had to be clear about his issues. He had to let go of any notions about "right" and "wrong," "fair" and "unfair." These would not serve him well. He had to focus on the damaging behaviors he brought to their relationship. He had to take a fearless inventory into his issues, setting out to correct them.
Second, he had to resist any temptation to shift into blaming or shaming her. We talked about how to assertively confront her when she said hurtful things or engaged in hurtful behavior. Rather than responding in kind, which was his habit, he would kindly confront her. He would gently correct her.
Third, he must offer words of kindness, catching her doing things right. It can be tempting to focus on the negative, when there is much positive taking place. Find ways to enhance the positives in the relationship. Scripture tells us, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act.” (Proverbs 3: 27)
Fourth, he must show that he is committed to this corrective course of action. He noted that his mate was used to him changing for a short time, then reverting back to old behavior. She would be watching to see if he could ‘stay the course.’ Filled with doubt and disbelief, she might be waiting for him to fail or fall back into old patterns. He must now show that he is sincere about maintaining positive change.
Finally, should she ultimately refuse to participate in counseling, after he had made necessary changes, he may have to enforce boundaries of his own. Only after he has made necessary changes could he insist she participate in counseling. Then, after he has established a clear and convincing path of change, could he approach her regarding the importance of her joining with him in changing their relationship.
Scripture tells us that what we reap we will sow. Just as surely as Tory would reap blessings from changes he was making in his life, his wife would reap the effects of her behavior. Again, if he kept his side of the street clean, holding himself gently accountable for his own behavior, chances were very good that she would begin to change as well.
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Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.