It happens all the time. A potential client calls about marriage therapy and says, “I don’t think my husband/wife will come in, should I come anyway?” The answer is always, “Absolutely!”
Why? The answer is found in how it will all play out …
Think of the family system as a machine. Family therapists think of a family as a machine with different pieces and parts inside, and each person represents a vital part of the machine. Some family machines function well, meaning people get along, are respectful, they communicate and are basically content. Family machines that don’t function well have characteristics that tend to run hot and cold; brawling, fights for power, disrespect, withdrawing and isolating. When a family is like that, the first place therapists look is at the parent’s relationship.
If one part of the machine changes, the rest of it will, too. Marriage therapists know that if we can get one person in the couple to change their actions and behavior in a more positive and functional way, it will affect the rest of the family machine positively at the same time, or at the very least will shake up the family, forcing them to change.
Spouse does therapy alone. Usually mom (yes, it’s usually mom) is unhappy with dad and tries to change the system by making a strong stand, and dad is having none of it. Feeling desperate about what to do, she comes to therapy alone for wise advice and strategies. We’ll teach her about what healthy relationships look, smell and taste like and to create that for herself.
Implementation. Mom takes the information home and tries to force a change in the system. This may mean that she no longer puts up with things she used to or she starts doing things she wouldn’t agree to do before. She might change herself, learn to set boundaries, and to be more engaged in the marriage. This is where the rubber meets the pavement. If dad isn’t responsive to her attempts to bring the family back into functionality, she may well give up and divorce him. If he is responsive, a marriage may be saved.
No matter what, the person who gets the therapy alone wins. Whether the relationship survives or not, the person who went to therapy alone will have the peace of mind knowing that she did all she could to improve and save the marriage. This peace of mind is essential for herself, and for the family and friends who will also be affected by her decision to divorce.
With all of that said, I personally get very sad when I become aware of when a husband or wife won’t accompany their spouse to couple’s therapy. I have thought about it, and the only conclusion I can come to is that some people are afraid of facing their personal and relational flaws and would rather look the other way than deal with them. Others are afraid of the unknown that comes with change, even when staying the same means staying unhappy. For them I can only say what I tell all of my fearful clients, “Fear is not your friend.”