Bad Marital Therapy, Good Marital Therapy

Q: Dear Dr. Hurd: My wife and I are looking to attend marriage counseling — not because our marriage is in bad shape, but because we want our marriage to be as vibrant and healthy as possible. When seeking out a therapist, which “school of thought” or which type of therapist should we seek? (We appreciate both you and Nathaniel Branden as well as Objectivism.) In other words, how do we go about finding a therapist who ascribes to your type of therapy? Thank you for any help and keep up the inspiring work!

A: Labels won’t help much. A cognitive-behavioral therapist or a solution-focused therapist is your best bet. These kinds of therapists, if they practice what they claim, will

focus on actual, measurable progress. They won’t tell you what to do or what to want. They’ll simply help you discover the best way to achieve what you want. Labels are guideposts. A therapist who describes him- or herself this way will be the one to consider, but you’ll have to evaluate if that’s what you actually end up getting. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know ahead of time.

The types of therapists to avoid are the ones who want to dwell on your family-of-origin issues. Aside from being time-consuming and needlessly expensive, these types of therapies won’t do anything to help you change what you want to change, improve in the present, and move forward into the future. Imagine going to a medical doctor for your sore throat or broken arm. What if the doctor wanted to spend multiple visits talking about your prior fractures and previous sore throats? A little background is always beneficial to understand the present, but to dwell on it, as a supposed therapeutic end in itself, makes no sense.

I also suggest that you prepare yourself for therapy so you can get the most out of it. This will help you select for a better therapist and know one when you see one. For example, come up with a concrete list of items which describe, “My marriage as it might be and ought to be.” First, summarize the strengths since you identified they’re already present. Be concrete and specific in what you’d like to see under the category of “improvement needed.” Ask your wife to do the same. A good therapist will be delighted you did this homework ahead of time, and help you build on this once you begin your sessions. Avoid the therapist who pushes this aside and instead asks you about your parents’ marriage, your childhood, your separation-attachment issues, and all sorts of things that aren’t relevant to what’s on that list. Any therapist who doesn’t like this exercise, and who doesn’t appreciate the fact that you did it, is one to avoid at all costs.

Bad therapists have a habit of stirring up feelings and emotions for their own sake. This sometimes leads a new client to think, “Wow. This therapy is really profound and deep.” Unfortunately, such therapists don’t have any methods or ideas for getting beyond this initial stirring up of emotions. As you get into session five, fifteen or fifty, you’ll still be answering the questions, “How does that make you feel?” and “How did that make you feel, twenty years back?” You’ll be no further along than you were before. Don’t be seduced by the false belief, “The more I feel, the more profound and therefore more effective the therapy is.” The notion “effective” implies the actualization of real, tangible results. With therapy it’s difficult because those real, tangible results can only be achieved by the clients themselves. Therapy does not “do” something “to” you; you do it yourself, with the guidance and focus of the professional therapist. His or her job is to help you clearly and objectively define what you’re trying to do, and then guide you in doing it. Tangible results are profound; dwelling on the past and on emotions is nothing more than pretense. All it does is make the therapist feel like he or she is doing something important.

In couples therapy nowadays it’s all the rage to focus on “attachment issues.” The premise of this approach is that everything lacking in your marriage is due to you and your wife’s inability to get over your hurt feelings about your parents. Oh, and according to this school of thought, you have hurt feelings over your parents whether you even know it or not. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach to psychology and marriage. It flies directly in the face of the reality that some people are over their parents’ wrongdoing, and some are not; and some people actually had parents that weren’t guilty of any wrongdoing at all. None of this has much to do with what’s going on in your marriage in the present. A relationship is a dynamic. The dynamic you had with your parents is different from the dynamic between two adults. Attachment-oriented therapists never got over the Freudian belief that childhood is all-determining. These therapists think we spend our whole adult lives playing out our childhood issues. Ridiculous.

A good marital therapist will help you identify solutions based on an objective plan that you and your wife develop, perhaps with the therapist’s help. A good marital therapist will also help you and your wife identify any misunderstandings or false beliefs to which you or she subconsciously subscribe, i.e., beliefs that inhibit and potentially undermine your marriage. False beliefs and misunderstandings are the number one killer of marriages. Yes, some of these false beliefs can be based on past false beliefs formed earlier in life, but it’s the false beliefs themselves — in the present — which must be identified and corrected by you and your wife. THIS is what a therapist is supposed to do.

You’ll love my new book, BAD THERAPY, GOOD THERAPY (AND HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE). I illustrate all of these points in detail, including specific examples of therapists who will cause you trouble through their attitudes, false beliefs and viewpoints. I also write extensively about how to internalize a rational philosophy of life, every day. After reading it, I believe you’ll have even less of a need for a therapist than you do now.