Dear Dr. Yael:
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. After speaking for a while, the therapist said the session was over.
Upset and angry, we wondered if we should ever return for another session. My question to you: Is this the way marital therapy works? Does the scenario I’ve described make couples more upset and angry at each other? What is your approach?
We both discussed all of our faults – and it was so painful. Please help us.
The difficulty with marital therapy lies precisely with the issue you’ve brought to the fore. An obvious question is: How is a therapist expected to help a couple improve their marriage if they are allowed to speak disparagingly about and to each other?
I usually handle marital therapy by speaking with the wife and husband separately. I try to hear their individual views and then attempt to help both of them work on themselves – separately. This way, both the husband and wife can feel comfortable talking about what is bothering them, followed by my attempt to find a way to help the spouses – independently – change certain behaviors. My goal is to not hurt them unnecessarily. As a therapist, I have the ability to help each spouse work on areas that need improvement by using their strengths to help build them up.
Therapy can be a painful process at times because part of it is working through things that have happened to you that may be hard or difficult to share or deal with. But, generally speaking, a couple should not leave therapy feeling angrier and more resentful of each other than before they began the process. When a couple goes through therapy together, as you did, they will likely hurt each other. These hurtful comments cannot be taken back and may, in the long run, damage the relationship.
Thus, I always try to minimize the pain by seeing the couple separately in order to hear and work on the problems in the marriage. When the marriage is on the mend, I may request that they come in together so as to give both husband and wife a forum to practice compliments as well as to perform some of the positive changes each has been working on. Here’s an example: Shani and Yossi have come to see me because Yossi is often anxious and will snap at Shani for perceived infractions. Shani gets very insulted and will start to cry and scream in response. This often results in a fight, whereby hurtful things are said. Shani and Yossi want to work on improving their communication and minimizing the fighting.
In this scenario, I would see Shani and Yossi separately. I would listen to their grievances and try to help them work on the relevant issues. Had I, at the outset, seen them together, Shani and Yossi would likely have spoken about all of the terrible things they had done to each other. This would have caused a lot of embarrassment, possibly causing both parties to become enraged and spouting a barrage of complaints against the other. All that would have been accomplished is more of the same fighting that occurs at home, resulting in more pain for the couple.
Seeing Shani and Yossi separately often leads to greater therapeutic success. In that circumstance, Shani can describe to me what is going on from her point of view – without hurting Yossi. And for his part, Yossi can do the same regarding Shani’s feelings.
Then the real work begins with each focusing on his or her separate issues. As the mediator with no anger toward either party, I am able to be gentle and positive when articulating what improved actions are required. I am able to pick up on Yossi’s and Shani’s strong points and, as a result, help build up their self-esteem and self-positives. And I can use their strong points to help them work on their weaker points, helping make their marriage more successful.
Although joint communication is the key, Shani and Yossi need to work on their individual communication skills before coming together in session. Once they are equipped with new communication proficiencies, they can practice their newfound skills at home. Afterwards, they can boast their new skills by participating in the joint therapy session.