In a prior blog post I wrote about two experiences with marriage counseling in which couples were encouraged to separate when they both wanted to learn how to solve their marital conflicts. I cited an article by Dr. William J. Doherty titled, “How Therapy Can Be Hazardous To Your Marital Health.” Today’s post is a summary of four ways he believes counselors undermine marital commitment.
1. Therapists who are incompetent in marital therapy. Many therapists have no training in working with couples. They are trained in individual therapy in which they listen in a laid back manner, are empathic and clarifying. Clients feel heard and learn to think through concerns and plans. This approach works well with individuals but not in marital therapy. A married couple who are in conflict need structure and guidance. Their conflicts will overwhelm a passive counselor or one who doesn’t know how to focus on the patterns of interaction. The counselor will often decide the problem is due to individual pathology and suggest individual counseling for each person.
Incompetent therapists also will take sides and “beat up” on one of the partners. This frequently happens with men who aren’t in touch with their feelings “they just want to save their marriage.” Again, the counselor and wife decide they each need individual help.
2. Therapists who are neutral about the marriage. A neutral therapist will ask questions like “What are the pros and cons of staying versus leaving?” When someone is thinking of getting out of a marriage they use the language of individual self-interest, not the language of moral commitment. Neutrality undermines the marital commitment couples have made to each other.
3. Therapists who focus on pathology. One party in the marriage may go for help and the counselor, hearing complaints about the spouse will label the spouse, sight unseen, as “narcissistic” or “very dependent.” This shatters hope. Some therapists even pathologize the reason a couple married suggesting the marriage was a mistake from the beginning. Someone determined to work things out after their spouse has an affair can even be pathologized for their loyalty. A new pathology, Doherty says is ascribed to those who are “bored” with their marriage.
4. Therapists who overtly undermine the marriage. “If you’re not happy, why do you stay?” or “I can’t believe you’re still married.” This suggests to the couple that they are basically incompatible and there’s no way to help them. Undermining also occurs by direct advice. For example: “I think you should separate” or “For your own health you need to move out.”
Competent marital therapists have studied Marriage and Family Therapy where they learned how “systems” (groups of people such as couples and families) operate and they have had supervision of their work. In marital therapy the “patient” is the marriage. The main focus is on the relationship between the couple and the patterns and problems there, rather than on the inner conflicts or the childhood issues of each individual.
Couples seeking help should ask a counselor about their training in marital therapy. Also ask about the therapist’s attitude toward saving a marriage versus helping couples break up. If they say they’re neutral, look elsewhere. You need a counselor who values the marital commitment and focuses on the marriage relationship. Counseling with a pastor or Christian counselor who firmly believes marriage is a life long commitment to each other and to God will also avoid these issues.
Educational programs in my opinion and in Dr. Doherty’s opinion are often more helpful than marital counseling – especially Christian programs. I recommend you join The Third Option, Marriage Encounter or Weekend to Remember. These programs will help you understand your differences and how to change things. The most difficult issues can usually be worked out if both partners are committed to the marriage.
“Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.” Romans NLT