If there's one thing those of us who have been married for a while know, it's that staying married over the long haul ain't always easy. Thank goodness for couples therapy, right? Or ... not? An article in The New York Times this weekend kind of blew apart the notion I had of couples counseling being the THE ANSWER.
Richard Simon, editor of The Psychotherapy Networker, says, "It’s widely acknowledged that couples therapy is the most challenging.” What therapists know but patients may not realize is that the therapists themselves "often feel confused, at odds with a least one of your patients, out of control."
"It's like piloting a helicopter in a hurricane," say couples counselors Peter Pearson and Ellyn Bader. Yikes, that bad? Apparently couples therapy kind of is up there with rocket science -- and there are so many things that can go wrong.
Therapists aren't used to being ninjas. A therapist's role is usually more passive. It's about them sitting back and listening while you do the talking. But in couples therapy the therapist has to take a more active role. "You have to like action. To manage marital combat, a therapist needs to get in there, mix it up with the client, be a ninja. This is intimidating," says psychologist and family therapist Terry Real.
Patients may disagree over the therapist. What if one spouse connects really well with the therapist while the other spouse not so much? "A brilliant therapeutic observation can blow up in your face when one spouse thinks you’re a genius and the other thinks you’re clueless — or worse, allied with the enemy," says William J. Doherty, University of Minnesota professor of family social science.
Therapists can get their timing wrong. "Let a couple interrupt each other for 15 seconds, and pretty soon you have them screaming at each other and wondering why they need you to do what they could do at home,” Professor Doherty says. Plus, a therapist can't stall to ponder the situation. Things happen faster in couples therapy.
Sometimes one spouse shows up already wanting what Doherty calls a “therapist-endorsed divorce.” They're not even there to give the marriage a chance -- they've already made up their mind that they want out. But they're not going to come out and be honest about that. Oh no -- they're going to waste everyone's time and make the therapist figure it out.
People usually put off couples counseling until things get really bad. Professor of psychology Brian D. Doss says the average couple is unhappy for six years before they finally start couples therapy -- by then the relationship may be beyond repair, or at least much harder to fix.
So what's the takeaway? If you think your relationship is struggling, get help early, find an active "ninja" therapist, and be really honest with each other and your therapist about what your goals are.
Have you ever tried couples therapy? Can you relate to any of these counseling problems?
Image via apdk/Flickr