Dear Patti,

It’s a tradition in our family for all of us to go away together on Labor Day weekend, including our children and grandchildren. Five years ago we stayed at a beach hotel that was so relaxing that I wanted to go there again this year. For weeks I’ve been talking to my husband, Mike, about how excited I am to return there.

I thought it was all settled, but I just found out that Mike changed the plans. Now we’re all going to the mountains because Mike wants to take our twin grandsons off road motorcycle riding. Without talking to me, he has already arranged everything, including putting a deposit on a cabin and renting the bikes. It’s too late to change the plans even if I insisted, which I wouldn’t do because now our grandsons are all excited about riding dirt bikes with their grandpa.

I’m really disappointed and furious because this kind of behavior is so typical of my husband. He’s controlling and selfish and makes sure he always gets his way. I wish he thought more about my happiness, but he rarely does. Mike would probably tell you that he was doing me a favor by making all the plans. He believes that he compromises with me all the time and that I’m impossible to please no matter how hard he tries. We’ve been married for 17 years, and although we’ll never divorce, we fight and bicker all the time.

My daughter says she doesn’t understand why we’ve stayed together so long. She loves both of us but doesn’t believe we’re a good match. I love my children and grandchildren, but I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had never married Mike. My son thinks we should seek counseling, but I’m worried it’s too late for that. I’m not trying to be negative, but I’m at my wits’ end. I can’t help but feel that we are way beyond the help of a therapist.

— Adrienne

Dear Adrienne,

A lot of couples will admit that they sometimes have relationship problems. It’s beneficial to reach out for help in the early stage of any marital issues. However, there are many distressed couples who only seek out therapy as a last resort, after the relationship has become a series of constant battles against each other. While it is more difficult and complicated, therapy can still be effective at this stage and with hard emotional work it can transform the relationship.

The quality of our intimate relationships has a significant impact on our well-being. Good relationships confer important mental and physical benefits, while bad relationships have harmful effects on health. I strongly recommend that you and Mike attend professional therapy with a trained couples counselor. Therapy should provide a safe space to begin to recognize the fear, hurt and pain that underlies your defensive emotional reactions so you can begin to shift your ways of being with one another.

It is typical for highly distressed couples to have a pervasive sense of hopelessness, despair or resignation, emotional and sexual intimacy problems, and mistrust of each other. Partners may not take responsibility for their role in the marital distress, and there may be habitual efforts by each partner to prove that the other is impossible to contend with. Other common destructive behaviors include criticism (e.g., attacking, blaming); contempt (e.g., name calling, sneering); defensiveness; (e.g.,denying responsibility; “yes-butting;”) stonewalling (e.g., ignoring and withdrawal); and ruminating about negative aspects of the relationship. All of these areas should be addressed in therapy as they come up.

A couple should expect the therapist to encourage a positive therapeutic alliance, in which you both feel that he or she has understood your most important issues, can tolerate your most disturbing feelings, accepts you in the distressed condition in which you arrive, and can instill the hope that change is possible.  

Your therapist will also educate you on both negative and positive communication styles. Examples of negative or “dirty fighting” include over-generalizing, cross-complaining, blaming, not listening, pulling rank, labeling, giving advice, getting even, leaving, or rejecting compromise. Your counselor should point out these behaviors as they come up and help direct you to more positive ways to communicate. Examples of positive communication include sticking to one issue, giving specific examples, thoughtful responding, showing a good faith effort to carry out compromise, and non-defensive listening, which is the ability to listen your partner in a positive or neutral way instead of responding with reactivity or defensiveness.

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her website,