Stacy and George walked out of the marriage counselor’s office angrier than when they arrived. It was their third session and this last fight over his ex-wife wasn’t going away. The fifty minutes spent embroiled in a detailed account of their battle only fired up their anger – and the counselor’s request to remember how much they love each other wasn’t helping. It would be a week before the next session and both of them were already talking about not coming back.
What went wrong? Too many struggling couples never seek therapy. But for many that do, marital counseling falls short. It’s easy to say it’s the couple’s fault; they weren’t committed enough, didn’t give it enough time or one spouse never had his or her heart in it in the first place. Any one of these reasons could be spot on, but doesn’t explain the whole story.
Marriage therapy fails for some clear significant reasons:
The Therapist Has Little Direction. This is the worst problem of all. Many therapists are good listeners, a crucial skill. But marital therapy needs a measure of leadership, and skilled listening has to be quickly and effectively turned into a deeper understanding of each spouse. Spouses in crisis are looking for direction, concrete steps to help them mend their problems. Through listening, the counselor needs to quickly assess what has gone wrong, explain this theory to the couple and chart a course for change.
The course doesn’t have to be completely figured out but must include an action plan and a time frame to accomplish the goals. In Stacy and George’s case, they had to be shown that the problem wasn’t his ex, but rather the lack of love Stacy was feeling from George. George had to recognize what he needed to change in order to help Stacy feel more part of a team instead of making her feel isolated. Stacy needed to recognize that her intensity and poor communication made George feel attacked, causing him to act defensively. These are serious issues that they needed to start discussing while learning specific tools to combat them. It would have led them to have greater insight on other issues as well.
Spouses Aren’t Asked to Confront Themselves. It’s helpful and often crucial for each spouse to understand his or her own relationship to love and marriage. The messages we receive from our parents’ interactions have everything to do with our expectations and actions in our marriage. There are therapists who believe one should not look to the past to explain or help change the present, but I find it necessary for each spouse to own his or her perspective so it can be examined and changed. We often act illogically and hurt our spouse when, in truth, all we want is happiness and love. Therapy is the place to start understanding the deeper reasons we might choose to behave in ways that don’t bring us all that warm love and fuzziness we say we want.
There Isn’t Enough Time. I’m often given a preamble of years of marital discord with immense crisis and I’m supposed to follow up with, “Let’s spend 50-60 minutes and get to the heart of this.” The weekly therapeutic hour (this commonly translates to a mere 50 minutes) just isn’t enough time to even begin to really solve and heal intense marital strife. Couples see marriage therapists as the “expert.” It’s the therapist’s job to assess how much time is necessary to accomplish the goals of therapy. Too many therapists are skittish about sounding too pushy, too self serving, too hungry for client hours, when in truth it’s their job to give it to the couple straight and tell them what is the ideal course. If the couple chooses not to follow that course, the therapist can either decline to help them or agree to try it in the manner that the couple wishes. However, a therapist should not agree to anything that he/she feels doesn’t give the proper time needed to help significantly.
My job is to turn this couple’s marriage around with changes that will last. I need to help them understand how much time is necessary for me to do that. I’m always happy to hear their thoughts and change my plan based on their circumstances, but I will often decline working with a couple if I feel there won’t be the time or commitment to make it happen.