Stacy and Michael 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 embroiled in a detailed outline of the 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 returning for therapy.
Where did their therapy go wrong? Too many struggling couples never seek therapy. But for the many that do, marital counseling falls short. It’s easy to say that it’s the couple’s fault; they weren’t committed enough, didn’t give it enough time or one spouse never had their heart in it in the first place. Any one of these reasons for therapy failure could be spot on but it 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 quickly and effectively become a deeper understanding of each spouse. People in crisis are looking for direction, concrete steps to help them mend their problems. The counselor needs to quickly assess what has gone wrong, explain this theory to the couple and chart a course for change. This course doesn’t have to be completely figured out but must include an action plan and a time frame in which these goals can be accomplished.
In Stacy and Michael’s case, they had to be shown that the problem wasn’t his “ex,” but rather the lack of love and isolation Stacy was feeling from Michael. Michael had to recognize what he needed to change in order to help Stacy feel as if she was part of the team. Stacy needed to recognize that her intensity over this issue and poor communication made Michael feel attacked, which caused him to act defensively. These are serious issues that need to be discussed and combated.
Spouses aren’t asked to confront themselves. It’s helpful and often crucial for each spouse to understand his or her own feelings about love and marriage. The messages imbued by viewing a parents’ marriage has everything to do with a person’s expectations and actions. 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 spouses to own their perspectives so that each one can reexamine them and choose to change. We often act illogically and hurt our spouse and marriage when in truth, all we want is happiness and love. Therapy is the place to start understanding why we choose to behave in ways that don’t bring us all the warm love and fuzzies 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) isn’t nearly enough time to begin to heal intense marital strife. Couples see marriage therapists as experts. 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 the ideal course is. 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 s/he 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 what I need as far as time and their concentrated energy for me to do that job. I’m always happy to hear their thoughts and change my plan based on their circumstances. But I will commonly decline working with a couple if I feel I’m just not given the opportunity to truly help them.
About the Author: M. Gary Neuman is a psychotherapist, rabbi, and New York Times best-selling author. He is the creator of NeumanMethod.com video programs for marriages and parenting.
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