Starting couples therapy can be scary. Since 1995, when I was licensed as a marriage and family therapist, I’ve heard complaints from couples who’d been ready to make their relationships better, only to end up in the office of a well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful therapist.
Over the years, I have had the privilege to work with many courageous couples who have worked hard to save their relationships. I find couples work to be incredibly satisfying because of the dedication required of partners. Many couples start counseling in distress and often in some kind of crisis. But some of the saddest stories I’ve heard involved couples having experienced poor advice or guidance from previous therapists.
The following are some of the most potentially harmful things a therapist can do with a couple facing serious relationship challenges:
- Focusing on negotiation and compromise rather than working for real change. A counselor who sees it as their job to mediate what each partner gives up may only be adding to the arguments the couple is having at home. This might sound something like, “You cook on even days, you cook on odd days,” or “You agree to have sex more often, you agree to share financial information,” or “You go to your in-laws for the Fourth of July, you go to your family on Thanksgiving.” Bargaining and negotiating are based on giving in and on the notion life needs to be fair, with no concern for feelings or intimacy building. If each partner feels invisible, unloved, or unimportant, all the behavioral compromises in the world will not create connection and harmony.
- Allowing secrets in therapy. Real connection and healing in a relationship can happen only with transparency and openness. If a partner has a secret and is unwilling to be transparent with the other person, each partner would likely benefit from seeing a therapist individually until the one with a secret is ready to disclose. The partner with the secret may push the therapist to do therapy with the couple anyway. But a therapist who tries to do therapeutic work around the secret-keeping will have a hard time facilitating real change in the relationship.
- Not checking in on each partner’s commitment level. Some couples go to therapy even though they know the relationship is over. They may do this for a variety of reasons—to say they tried “everything,” to gain acceptance of the breakup or divorce from family, to try to get a professional to sanction the separation by saying they are incompatible, or to try to get a diagnosis that can be used in court. If a therapist doesn’t ask if each person is motivated to work on the relationship, a couple may waste time and money.
- Emphasizing the resolution of surface issues rather than teaching real skills. Ideally, the couple will be able to work through their issues on their own for years to come. It is hard work learning to communicate better. It is far easier to go over and over an issue until a couple just “puts it down.” But without new communication tools, couples will likely soon be back in the same place, going over the same, tired things.
- Implicitly agreeing to be “the principal’s office.” Some couples want a therapist to decide which one is “right” and which is “wrong,” and then scold the “wrong” one into behaving “right.” An ethical therapist should explain that determining who’s right and who’s wrong is not their role. True couples counseling is never about figuring out whose fault the issues are; that’s what couples are already trying to do on their own time. Professional counseling is about developing the skills to communicate effectively about emotions and hopes for the future. Making one partner “wrong” does not serve this goal.
An ethical therapist will welcome your feedback and will work to get your therapy on track. If, however, you find your therapist defensive or unwilling to discuss your concerns, find another therapist.
- Sharing personal stories. A therapist’s job is to be there for the people they serve, not to process their own issues. Professional counselors may share personal stories at times, but only about situations they have resolved, and only ones that are pertinent to helping couples understand or work through their issues in therapy.
- Getting swept up in the more outspoken partner’s perspective. Introverts and extroverts typically communicate differently. Some people may go on and on about how they reached a conclusion. Others may share only their conclusions, with little of the thought process leading up to them. Observant therapists make sure the quieter partner is not interrupted and has ample opportunity to talk about their concerns. This may mean overriding and possibly upsetting the more verbal partner. A good therapist knows productive therapy is not necessarily about making everyone happy every time.
- Skipping over resentments that have built up over the years. Every conversation or argument happens in a context. If couples are fighting in a context of resentment or mistrust, the context generally must be addressed before other progress can be made. Resentments can be healed in therapy, but the hurt feelings and lack of boundaries must be addressed first.
- Seeing a couple after seeing one of them individually and not making that known. Good therapy cannot happen if there are secrets. If a therapist has seen one partner individually, they must insist that the other partner know before scheduling a session with both.
- Getting sidetracked by the blaming of one or both partners. History taking is important in conducting productive therapy, but talking about the past can at times turn into a meandering distraction from the real issues. A therapist who is focused on assisting a couple will redirect back to the issues at hand.
If you find yourself in therapy with a professional who is making any of these mistakes, consider talking about it with the therapist. Tell the therapist how you feel and what you’re wanting out of therapy. An ethical therapist will welcome your feedback and will work to get your therapy on track. If, however, you find your therapist defensive or unwilling to discuss your concerns, find another therapist. Therapy should be a safe place where couples get to practice new ways of communicating—with their therapist and each other. A good couples counselor can help you bring trust and caring back into your relationship.
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