Dear Dr. Hurd:
My first wife and I had two wonderful children together. When they were young she wanted to be divorced. I objected and agreed to go to a counselor. The counselor’s position was, “If it makes you happy, then do it.” So, we were divorced.
I made an appointment with the counselor and asked for my money back. I’ve been told that I was rude. Should doctors of psychology be held (at least partially) responsible for their performance?
Dr. Hurd’s reply:
You’re implying that the therapist is to blame for your wife’s decision to divorce. Not so. The therapist cannot be responsible for your wife’s actions. The therapist could not coerce your wife to do anything.
Quite probably, your ex-wife wanted the therapist’s authoritative opinion to validate what she did. If so, you’re making the same mistake your ex-wife did. You’re both assuming that the therapist’s word is final. Your ex-wife happened to like that allegedly final word, and you happened not to like it. You both made the same wrong assumption about what a therapist is supposed to do.
A good therapist doesn’t make decisions for clients. Instead, a good therapist helps clients reason dilemmas out. ‘Let’s identify what will happen if you do or don’t divorce your husband, both short- and long-term.’ A therapist’s job is to help you do this, and to help ensure that you don’t evade or overlook (due to emotions) any relevant facts.
The therapist stepped outside this boundary by saying, ‘If it makes you happy, do it.’ This was a mistake. The counselor should have stuck to helping your wife look objectively at the pros and cons of staying with you. The counselor should have helped you do the same, examining the consequences of staying with a wife who possibly didn’t love you.
Obviously, you’re not happy with your ex-wife’s final decision. That’s why you wanted your money back, and that’s why you want to hold the therapist accountable for your ex-wife’s ultimate decision.
But think about it for a moment. Your ex-wife obviously wanted to divorce, and she was looking for external validation to give her ‘permission.’ But imagine if the therapist had said, ‘You shouldn’t divorce. Think of the kids and think of your husband, who doesn’t want you to leave.’ If the therapist had said this, you wouldn’t be asking for your money back but—on your assumption—your ex-wife would be entitled to do so.
It’s a lose-lose for the therapist.
You seem to take it as self-evident that your ex-wife was wrong to divorce you. Why is this? Also, why would it have been better for you to stay with a woman who didn’t love you? Would you have preferred that she pretended to love you, only having the façade fall away once the kids were grown and gone?
I’m sure the divorce was not easy for you. But living in a loveless marriage would not have been easy for you either, and sooner or later it almost certainly would have ended—or simply become a depressing existence with little kids no longer around to distract you.
Divorce is not easy on kids, and should be carefully considered. At the same time, exposing children to a loveless marriage does them no favors either.
I realize you might feel, ‘But I loved my wife and she should have kept her promise to stay with me.’ I agree that people should keep their promises. Maybe we should revisit the whole concept of ‘marriage vows’ as we know them. That’s a subject for another day. However, the reality remains: If your wife no longer loved you and was certain to be miserable with you, how could this very unpleasant fact be wished away by vows?
People are responsible for their actions. Your wife, right or wrong, ultimately chose to divorce you. She very likely would have done this regardless of what any therapist said. It would have been easy for her to eventually find a therapist who did agree with her, even if this one didn’t.
Asking for your money back implies you didn’t get what you paid for. You were paying a therapist to tell your ex-wife to stay with you. Your ex-wife—who, as events ultimately proved, wanted to leave you—was paying a therapist to say, ‘Leave if you want.’ She got what she paid for, even though you didn’t.
In my book ‘Bad Therapy, Good Therapy: And How to Tell the Difference,’ I say there are three approaches to therapy: One, ‘do-as-I-say’ dogmatism; two, ‘do-as-you-feel’ subjectivism; and three, an objective therapist who helps you identify and take responsibility for your actions using facts, reason and logic. It sounds like this therapist was a combination of the first two—each of those approaches an error, as I said.
If you want to be angry with the therapist, be angry for that reason. But don’t blame anyone else for your wife’s decision. And perhaps consider why she was unhappy with you in the first place.
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