People who are unhappy in their marriages may turn to mental health professionals for help, unaware therapy could in fact make things worse. I’m not talking about bad couples therapy, although therapists who lack training in effective couples therapy certainly can do more harm than good. What I’m referring to is bad individual therapy when the focus of treatment is an unhappy relationship.
There are some good reasons people in an unhappy relationship might seek individual therapy. Sometimes a partner may be unwilling to come to couples therapy, leaving individual therapy as the best available option. Some people may feel too frightened or unsafe to speak openly in front of a partner. By beginning with individual therapy, they may develop more self-confidence and feel better prepared for couples therapy. And for some people who are uncertain about whether to continue working on their relationship, individual therapy can provide a safe, private place to talk through their feelings and concerns.
However, while some therapists help unhappy partners gain a new perspective that can help both themselves and their relationship, others—especially therapists with no training in couples or family therapy—may further undermine shaky marriages. Many unhappy partners are influenced, either inadvertently or purposely, toward ending a marriage that could be improved with effective couples therapy.
How do you know if your therapist may be harming your marriage? Here are five warning signs:
- Your therapist allows you to focus almost exclusively on your partner’s flaws, with little attempt to help you understand your role in your unhappy relationship. Regardless of your partner’s shortcomings, every relationship is the result of a pattern created by two people reacting to one another. When the focus of therapy is only on what your partner does, you may feel increasingly hopeless about the relationship and powerless to change it. If you do decide to end your marriage, you will also have lost an important opportunity to learn from this experience and avoid repeating ineffective patterns in the future.
- Your therapist labels, diagnoses, or criticizes your partner without ever meeting them. Any well-trained couples therapist knows each partner has a unique perspective, and a full understanding of a relationship requires knowledge of both partners’ experiences and perspectives. Even objectively indefensible behavior such as name-calling, shaming, and threatening can usually be addressed much more effectively by understanding and addressing the underlying feelings and dynamics than by labeling the person who has behaved this way.
- Your therapist does not help you understand your partner’s “bad” behavior in context. There is a world of difference between a partner who purposely uses name-calling, shaming, and threatening to manipulate or control, and a partner who erupts in anger and then feels ashamed or remorseful for losing control. Sometimes the partner on the receiving end may have a difficult time distinguishing between these two very different patterns—another reason therapists should avoid judging or labeling people, especially those they haven’t met.
- Your therapist clearly prioritizes your individual needs over the marriage and family. While no one should tolerate a relationship in which their own needs are ignored or dismissed, neither should they expect to have a healthy marriage and family if they don’t also attend to the needs of others. An individual therapist who focuses only on the feelings and needs of the person in the room may implicitly discourage the kind of compromise and interdependence that characterize healthy families.
- Your therapist encourages you to end your relationship for any reason, other than to protect your physical safety, without an adequate trial of couples therapy. Many serious relationship problems can be addressed with the help of a well-trained couples therapist. Therapists who do not recognize this possibility do a disservice to couples and families who may never get the help available to them. It can even be helpful for you and your partner to discuss such “deal-breakers” as a serious, active addiction or an ongoing affair with the help of a skilled therapist before making a final decision to end a relationship.
How to Avoid These Pitfalls in Individual Therapy
If you are unhappy in your relationship and are seeking individual therapy, either because your partner is unwilling to come with you or you are not ready to talk with your partner, there are several steps you can take to minimize the chances of further damage to your relationship:
Many unhappy partners are influenced, either inadvertently or purposely, toward ending a marriage that could be improved with effective couples therapy.
- Choose an individual therapist who is also trained in an effective model of couples therapy, such as emotionally focused therapy. Most trained couples therapists also practice individual therapy, and they can use their understanding of couples dynamics to help you gain a clearer perspective on your marriage. If you have been unable to get your partner to come with you to therapy, a therapist who understands couples dynamics may also have suggestions for new ways to approach your partner without putting them on the defensive.
- Ask your therapist directly for help in understanding your partner’s perspective. Your therapist may feel a primary responsibility to be supportive of your feelings and needs, and thus may be reluctant to bring up your partner’s experience. By directly asking for this input, you give your therapist permission to help you understand your relationship from a broader perspective, including how you may unknowingly trigger unwanted reactions in your partner.
- Focus your individual therapy on your personal growth rather than on your partner’s shortcomings. Focusing on changes you want to make for yourself is the most constructive way to use your time in individual therapy. As it turns out, it is also often the most helpful thing one partner can do to improve a relationship. And if the relationship ends, your increased self-knowledge will help you move forward in healthier ways.
There are, of course, many other signs of questionable therapy, as well as indicators you’ve found a good therapist. If you decide to reach out to a therapist, be sure to ask plenty of questions based on what you’ve read to help you determine which side of the spectrum they fall on.
© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ruth Jampol, PhD, therapist in Newtown, Pennsylvania
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