8 relationship secrets your therapist won’t tell you.
I’ve been a marriage and family therapist for more than 40 years. During much of that time my advice, though well meaning, often led to divorce. It also contributed to the ending of my first marriage and my second marriage. My present wife, Carlin, and I have been married for 35 years. Unlike many mid-life and older couples we know, we are more in love now than ever before and we’re convinced the best is yet to come. Too many couples seek marriage counseling to help their distressed relationship, but end up going their separate ways. It’s time to break the silence and tell the truth about why marriage counseling often leads to divorce:
Most counselors are trained to focus on the individual.
When I was in graduate school there were three divisions of practice: Casework, group work, and community organization. Casework was another name for individual counseling. This was the era where individual happiness was the focus and personal independence was the goal. This view was well summarized by Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy:
- I do my thing and you do your thing.
- I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
- And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
- You are you, and I am I,
- and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
- If not, it can’t be helped.
Though most therapist and counselors say they do “marriage and family counseling,” most have a bias towards helping the individual. It was assumed that if the therapist helped one person achieve success, it would help the partner as well. This assumption was wrong.
Most counselors have been divorced themselves and are biased in favor of divorce.
Like most therapists (and most people these days), I’ve been married and divorced before. I told myself that my own divorce didn’t bias me towards divorce as a solution to a couples problems, but I realized that it did. It’s difficult to accept that we may have made a mistake it our own relationships. It’s easier to believe that we made the right choice. So if our client says, “I’m no longer ‘in love’ with you, I want to leave,” we unconsciously lean towards that solution.
We have a “short-term” view of love.
Shortly after my first wife and I were married, we went to hear the world-renowned therapist Carl Rogers (along with Abraham Maslow, Rogers pioneered the field of humanistic psychology) talk about love and marriage. He had lots of good information from his many years as a therapist, but what touched me deeply was his personal sharing about the long-term relationship he had with his wife, who was with him at the talk.
At one point he turned to her and said,
“Remember when we had that difficult time in our relationship and we wondered whether we would get through it?”
I remember thinking to myself at the time, “Wow, even one of the greatest therapists in the world has problems.” I also thought, “How long could their problem have lasted, two seeks, six months, a year?” I literally couldn’t comprehend what he shared next.
“Those ten years were so difficult.”
Ten years? Why would anyone stay in a relationship that wasn’t working for ten years? At the time that made no sense to me, even though they seemed to be happy now and had been together for more than fifty years. Most of us have acquired a short-term view of marriage and bale out too soon.
We live in a trade-me-in culture.
In a culture based on the commerce of impermanence we go through our things rather quickly. We trade in our cars for the latest model. We give away perfectly good clothes that have “gone out of style.” We want the latest electronic gadget and demand the latest computer and software.
We don’t think consciously that “if it’s good to trade in my car, my clothes, or my computer for the latest model, why not trade in my wife/husband for one that I’d be happier with?” But its built into our way of thinking and acting.
Most counseling focuses on improved communication and problem solving.
The first question I was trained to ask was, “What is your problem?” The answer was usually some sort of communication problem.
- “My wife/husband doesn’t listen me.”
- “We can’t seem to communicate about sex.”
- “Every time we talk about money, we get in a fight.”
I’ve learned that communication is not the problem and focusing on problems actually leads to feelings of despair and hopelessness rather than greater joy and connection.
Most counseling takes place in an office where the therapist and client(s) talk.
In the time of Sigmund Freud patients would lie on a couch and talk to the doctor sitting behind in a chair. Modern day therapy practice has the counselor sitting in a comfortable chair opposite his/her clients and they talk. But talk isn’t the only way to heal. In ancient times, we would do things like dance and do ritual when there were problems in the life of the tribe or with couples in the tribe.
Today, some therapist believe that “talk therapy” may not be the best way to help a relationship. Patricia Love (how can you go wrong with when your last name is “love”) and Steven Stosny have written a wonderful book, How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. They say,
“Even with the best of intentions, talking about your relationship doesn’t bring you together, and it will eventually drive you apart.”
Most counseling is geared towards the way women communicate.
Most marriage counseling is initiated by women. Men often come reluctantly. We think of the format of counseling as being gender neutral, but it’s not. Women, as a group, tend to be more comfortable with face-to-face communication. Men, as a group, are more comfortable with side-to-side communication. Women are more comfortable with words, while men are more comfortable with actions. The counseling format is one that favors women’s comfort level.
The result is a setting that creates discomfort and conflict for the man. Counselors may conclude that the conflict is because the couple is just not compatible. The real problem may be the context of the counseling is not compatible with the needs of both women and men. Homosexual couples share these problems and also often work with counselors that may not truly understand their issues.
Women are assumed to have more “mental health” problems than men.
Most counselors believe that women have more mental health problems than men. Many studies over the last thirty years, for instance, have shown that women experience depression at twice the rate of men. The truth is that men and women are equal in having mental health problems. They just express their problems differently.
As a result we tend to see women as “sicker.” This causes counselors to focus too much on women’s mental health issues and too little on men’s. Telling the truth about our biases towards divorce can help us all improve our success rates in saving marriages that need to be saved. Let me know what you think and what your experiences have been with marriage counseling.
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