Good therapy for your marriage

A reader emails that he and his wife want to attend marriage counseling — not for any specific reason, but just to make things ‘as vibrant and healthy as possible.’ (People often make appointments to simply ‘fine-tune’ some aspect of their life.) The reader goes on to ask which school of thought or type of therapist he should seek out.

It’s hard to tell a therapist’s viewpoint just by a label, but a cognitive-behavioral (solution-focused) philosophy is most often the best choice. Therapists who actually practice what they claim will focus on real, 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.

Don’t blindly believe any label. Carefully evaluate if what you’re getting for your money falls into the description above. Avoid therapists who 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 improve in the present and move forward. Imagine going to a medical doctor for your sore throat or broken arm, and he wants to spend multiple visits talking about prior fractures and previous sore throats. A little background is always beneficial, but to dwell on it as an end in itself makes no sense.

If you take the time to prepare for therapy, you’ll recognize a good therapist when you see one. I suggest to my clients that they come up with a list, which in your case might include, “My marriage as it might be and ought to be.” Summarize strengths and weaknesses, and be specific about “improvement needed.” Ask your wife to do the same.

A good therapist will be delighted that you did this, and will build on it during your sessions. Avoid any therapist who pushes this aside and starts quizzing you about your parents’ marriage, your childhood, your separation-attachment issues, and all sorts of things that aren’t relevant to your list. A therapist who doesn’t like this exercise or doesn’t appreciate the fact that you did it should be fired.

Bad therapists often stir up feelings and emotions for their own sake, leading a new client to think that the therapy is profound and deep. Unfortunately, such therapists don’t have any strategies for getting beyond this initial stirring up. As you get into session five, fifteen or fifty, you’ll still be answering questions like, “How does that make you feel?” and “How did that make you feel, twenty years back?” You’ll be no better off than you were before. Don’t be seduced by the nonsense that “The more I feel, the more effective the therapy is.’ Effective simply means achieving real, tangible results.

Results can only be realized by the clients themselves. The therapist’s job is to help you define what you’re trying to do, and then guide you toward that goal. Dwelling on the past and on emotions is nothing more than pretense, and all it does is make the therapist feel like he or she is doing something important.

Nowadays it’s all the rage to focus on “attachment issues,” i.e., 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 by the way, you apparently have hurt feelings about your parents whether you know it or not. This one-size-fits-all tactic flies in the face of the fact that many people have moved past their parents’ wrongdoing. Indeed, some people actually have parents who weren’t guilty of any wrongdoing. None of this has much to do with what’s happening in the present. Attachment-oriented therapists are stuck in the Freudian presumption that we spend our adult lives playing out our childhood issues. Ridiculous.

A good marital therapist will help you identify solutions based on an objective plan that the three of you develop. He or she will help you and your wife root out misunderstandings and false beliefs, the number one killer of marriages. Some false beliefs can be based on ideas formed earlier in life, but a good therapist will guide you toward identifying and correcting them in the present.

My most recent book, ‘Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)’ illustrates these points using examples of therapists whose false beliefs can cause you trouble. I also offer suggestions on how to internalize a rational philosophy of life. After reading it I believe you’ll have even less need for a therapist than you do now.