Dear Dr. Yael,
I just came home from a first marital session with my husband, where I was seen at a clinic. Since we are having some issues, and we do not have a lot of money, we went to this Orthodox clinic for marriage counseling. We were seen by a very young woman who clearly was never married. We discussed all our grievances in front of each other and we both left very upset with each other. I am a real fan of your column and have been reading it every week for years. I also save your old columns that I like. I came home and found your column Marital Therapy: Solo Or Joint [Magazine pg. 5; March 22, 2013]. I re-read the column and started to cry. Precisely what happened to the writer in your column, happened to us. “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.”…The therapist then ended their session and they left upset and angry. The writer wondered if this is how marital therapy works.
I am so upset with myself. Why did we do this? We really love each other. I wish this therapist would have your views about separating couples when they are angry in therapy so they do not hurt each other. Please Dr. Yael tell me what to do. I really wish I would have re-read this column before I went. Now my husband is not speaking to me and we are both so angry at each other. What do I do next? Please respond.
Dear A Fan,
Thank you for your kind words and helpful question. 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 a therapist. 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 that it would be a good idea to talk to your husband in a loving way and tell him that you feel that it would be better if you went for help somewhere else. Make sure you clarify that you will be careful in the future 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 couples separately especially in the beginning. At times I will split the session and then at the end have the couple talk about positive things they feel about each other and how they can do more things to help one another. My own theory is to never open up issues that I cannot close that day as I do not want my clients leaving my office upset or hurt.
It takes a certain sensitivity to do marital therapy. The therapist should try to put themselves in the client’s shoes and try to be careful not to open up issues that the couple will have to live with later and not have the tools to deal with. In general, I look for my clients’ strengths and use them to help my clients build on their areas of weakness. I try to help my clients overcome their problems by focusing on their strengths. I often take issue with therapists who tend to only focus on problems and weaknesses. Of course it is important that people feel heard and understood, but therapy does not only involve people talking about what bothers them. It also involves 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 those issues; however, with a positive approach people are able to climb out of their problems more easily than with a negative, pessimistic approach.
It may be helpful for you to repair some of the hurt by telling your husband what you love about him. Ask your husband if you can both try to erase this negative experience and look to become more positive with each other in general. I often tell my clients to make sure to compliment each other three times a day. This will help foster a more positive relationship.
I would recommend that you look for another professional who is a better match for what you’re looking for. In your first session, you should request that you and your husband not be allowed to say hurtful things in front of each other. It is better if you try to express whatever is negative when you are speaking to the therapist alone and let the therapist help you deal with it effectively. If need be, your therapist can help you reframe the negative things into a more positive statement, which will be easier for you and your husband to swallow.
It sounds like you and your husband are both in a lot of pain right now. Please do not let this one experience stop you from trying to improve your marriage and get the proper help. I wish you hatzlocha in getting the right help and may you continue to work on your marriage always.
One of my favorite lines is “Marriages may be made in heaven, but we must work on them every day here on earth.” Most people who are married happily for many years will tell you that they are constantly working to better their marriages. May this new year bring you much success in your marriage and I wish you hatzlocha in achieving true shalom bayis!