Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
As you can imagine, my husband and I have been struggling since our only child, our 19 year old daughter, Mary, was killed in a tragic accident–automotive–over a year ago. Recently I started seeing a therapist, who is wonderful, wise and empathetic. I can tell that my husband is hurting as much as I am, but he says he doesn’t need therapy, and that our marriage is “just fine.” I agree that we have a strong relationship, but I also see us grieving in different ways, and don’t want this tragic loss to lead us to drift apart.
I talked with my therapist about this, as well as about some of the other advice you gave on the AfterTalk site, and she suggested that I write to you and ask for your thoughts about whether I should press my husband to come to therapy too, either on his own or with me. My therapist says she also sees couples, and since she’s seen me only a couple of times, is open to seeing us both, though she could also refer my husband to a colleague. What would you suggest?
I can easily believe that the tragic accident that took your daughter’s life has also changed and challenged your own, both as a mother and as a member of a couple. And very likely there are both deeply personal and intricately relational implications of this loss that you are sorting through, some of which include how you manage the powerful emotions you both must feel at times and how you hold your sense of connection to Megan. Grief, in this sense, must arise between you as well as within you, and it is fitting that you consider some joint sessions to reflect on what each of you needs and can give to the other going forward.
The stumbling block may be your husband’s conviction that there is nothing wrong with your relationship or with how he is grieving–and he may be right. But ironically this might be just the reason to invite him to therapy, so that the two of you can consider with your therapist’s guidance how you can draw on your respective strengths to support one another in this crisis, and in reorganizing your lives in its aftermath. As an entree to therapy, your therapist might send a note home with you (or its verbal equivalent) inviting your husband to join you for a session simply as a consultant, rather than as a client or patient in his own right. In a strength-based approach to therapy the three of you then might discuss his observations on your resources as a family before the accident, and what he sees happening with the two of you since. You can listen appreciatively to his perspective, seeking common ground, and also add your concerns. Your therapist can then guide you to request of each other what you need, and to brainstorm compassionate and caring responses to jointly acknowledged challenges. The session might close with an expression of gratitude for your husband’s engagement, and with the extension of a standing invitation for him to join in future sessions when he believes that might be helpful, coupled with the therapist’s seeking permission to ask for his consultation again in the future if it is needed. I would not suggest individual therapy for him, as he is not motivated to pursue it, and might well feel that he is being singled out as a problem in the process.
In my experience, reluctant spouses nearly always accept such terms, as long as they are not made to feel deficient or confronted with some form of “brokenness” in the marriage that feels blaming or pathologizing. Another way of saying this is that when the therapist and more engaged spouse position the reluctant partner as a resource rather than a liability, meaningful engagement of the partner is far easier to secure, sometimes evolving into ongoing couples or family therapy. It sounds like the strong bond you have with your therapist and her openness to working with either individuals or couples should make this a smooth transition for all of you, as you seek to reconstruct a family system shaken by shared loss.