Couples Therapy: Madness or Sanity?

Marital counseling and couples therapy are often a flop. This holds true even if the therapist is a pretty good one. Why is this?

There are two common reasons. One is that couples wait until at least one of them knows it’s too late. In fact, one or both have decided it’s too late. “I’m going to do this as one last chance. At least I’ll be able to say I did everything.” This would be like waiting half an hour to call the fire department if your house is on fire, and then finally doing so saying, “I want to say I tried.” Then, when your house is burned to the ground for sure, you can complain that the firemen weren’t capable or “God wasn’t on my side.” Nobody does this with a fire, but a surprising number do this when it comes to their marriages. Go figure.

The other reason marital therapy usually fails is because one or both partners care more about persuading the therapist that he or she is right than trying to correct his or her own thinking and behavior. Therapists call this “triangulation.” Triangulation happens when sessions degenerate into courtroom like dramas in which otherwise grown adults compete for the validation of the therapist that “I’m right and reasonable and my spouse is an idiot — of course you see this, don’t you?”

This is unhealthy and wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to start. First of all, why do you need a therapist — often a stranger you don’t even know, and about whose work you might not even have an informed opinion — to validate, in Pope-like fashion, that you’re right about everything and your spouse is wrong about everything? Why can’t you accept this is the truth if you already know it to be so?

Also, if your spouse really is wrong about everything and you’re in the right, then why go to a therapist at all? The therapist will plainly see that you’re right, and your spouse is going to simply go on being wrong. What makes you think that if your spouse won’t do as you say without the therapist involved, that he or she is going to suddenly do as you say with you and the therapist ganging up in such a fashion? What is this — third grade? Did you run to the principal’s office and get the principal on your side? Or get mommy to side with you in a battle against your sister? It’s really sad to watch otherwise grown, often highly educated adults act in this way. It’s a major lapse of introspection, thought and even obvious common sense.

For these and other reasons, I usually suggest that couples consult me separately, not together. It’s still couples therapy in the sense that I keep no secrets from the other. I talk openly about the session with the first spouse when I’m with the second. More than that, I actively encourage each spouse to talk with the other about every last thing discussed in our session. Everything is open, but also civil.

There are many advantages to this approach. For one thing, each partner gets all the time with me. There’s no temptation to interrupt, because it’s just the client/spouse and myself talking, as in individual therapy. It’s a lot easier for the therapist, when triangulation starts to occur, to move the discussion immediately back to, “What role did YOU unintentionally play in this problem? What are you doing or saying that’s ineffective, and at odds with your own goals in this marriage?” Since the other spouse is not in the room, there’s no opportunity for anyone to feel defensive or humiliated, as people often do in couples therapy sessions.

If you’re seriously considering couples therapy, I strongly advise you to keep all this in mind. Ask your therapist if he or she would consider separate sessions, with the understanding that open disclosure is allowed.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. This is the problem with many marriages, and why many couples are seeking professional assistance in the first place. Don’t make the same mistake with your couples therapy.