Dear Dr. Yael:
My husband and I had our first marital therapy session and I am just beside myself. As we do not have a lot of money we chose to go to clinic run by a frum organization for marriage counseling. The therapist we saw was a young woman who very clearly had never been married. She asked each of us to list our grievances and, of course, we were each hurt by what the other one had to say. By the end of the session we were even angrier then we had been when we walked into the clinic.
I am a fan of your column for many years and have clipped a number of your columns. When we came home, I looked at one you had written on marital therapy (March 22, 2013) and was shocked at the letter writer’s description of her therapy session: “During joint therapy when the therapist asked my husband and me to discuss why we were seeking help, we both began speaking negatively and saying things that were hurtful.” This is exactly what happened to us.
Dr. Respler, I am so upset with myself. Why did we do this? We really love each other and just wanted someone to help us address some issues. I wish this therapist would have your views about separating couples in therapy when they are angry so they do not hurt each other. Please tell me what to do. My husband is not speaking to me and we are both so upset.
Hindsight is 20/20 and you cannot berate yourself for seeking help. You did the right thing by trying to work out your issues with professional help. All therapists have their own unique way of treating people and, although I generally disagree with seeing couples together at first, what’s done is done. I think it would be a good idea to speak with your husband in a loving way and suggest that you see another therapist. Make it clear that you will be careful in whom you choose so as not to say hurtful things in front of each other. As you read in that column, I try to minimize the pain in marital therapy by seeing each half of the couple separately, especially in the beginning. At times I will split the session and have the couple talk about the other person’s positive traits and how they can each do more to help the other. I don’t like to bring up issues that cannot be resolved in that session, as I do not want my clients leaving my office upset or hurt.
It takes a certain sensitivity to be successful at marital therapy. The therapist should try to put him or herself in the client’s shoes and be very careful to not address issues that the couple does not yet have the tools to deal with. As I have noted in previous columns, my true role model in practicing marital therapy is Aharon Hakohen, who promoted shalom bayis by sharing with both halves of the couple all of the good things the other spouse said.
It’s important for a therapist to focus on a person’s strengths as a way of overcoming his or her difficulties. Of course, people need to feel heard and understood, but therapy does not only involve people talking about what bothers them. It is also about helping people learn from their difficulties and make changes to better their lives. I honestly believe that people grow emotionally when they learn to focus on their strengths and build their confidence. This is true in both marital therapy and individual therapy. Positive reinforcement is a much healthier approach in therapy and in life in general. This is not to say that we should not deal with the negative issues and try to work through them; however, a positive approach will help people climb out of their problems more easily.