Couples Therapy: A Double-Edged Sword

The current “stay-at-home” culture of our community has generated a few interesting comments in my office. The occasional couple is finding that all this “together time” isn’t as easy as they thought it would be. But the truth of the matter is that marital counseling can have mixed results. Even with a skilled therapist, two factors usually stand in the way of success: First, many couples wait until one or both have decided it’s too late. I know it’s the kiss of death when I hear, “We’re going to do this as one last chance. At least we’ll be able to say we did everything.” This would be like waiting half an hour to call the fire department when your house is burning, and then saying, “I wanted to say I tried.” To continue the analogy, when your house is finally burned to the ground, you can then complain that the firemen weren’t capable, or that “God wasn’t on my side.” It sounds ridiculous when applied to a burning house, but a surprising number of couples do this very thing when it comes to their marriages.

The second reason marital therapy can fail is because one or both partners are more intent on convincing the therapist that he or she is right, rather than trying to correct his or her own thinking and behavior. This is called “triangulation”; when sessions degenerate into courtroom-like dramas in which otherwise mature adults compete for the validation of the therapist. “I’m right and reasonable and my spouse is an idiot. Of course you see this, don’t you?” More often than not, I don’t.

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

Furthermore, 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, but your spouse is still going to be wrong. If he or she won’t do as you say outside of the therapist’s office, then it’s not going to magically happen just because you booked a session.

Therapy so often degenerates into schoolyard spats where one of the parties runs to the principal’s office to get the principal on his or her side. I never cease to be fascinated by grown and often educated adults who engage in this obvious lapse in common sense.

This is the primary reason why I urge couples to start with separate sessions, rather than meeting me as a couple. It’s still couples therapy in the sense that I keep no secrets from the other. I talk openly about the first spouse’s session when I’m with the second (with everyone’s permission, of course). I also encourage each spouse to talk with the other about what we discussed in the sessions. It’s all out in the open, but (hopefully) civil.

There are many advantages to this approach. For one thing, each partner gets the full hour with me. There’s also no temptation to interrupt. Moreover, when triangulation does start to occur, it’s a lot easier for me to move the discussion 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 goals for this marriage?” Since the other spouse is not in the room, there’s no opportunity for defensiveness or humiliation, which can happen in couples sessions.

If you’re in a position to seriously consider couples therapy or counseling, keep all of this in mind. Ask your therapist if he or she will schedule separate sessions, with the understanding that open disclosure is allowed.

The classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. This is the problem with many marriages, and why many couples seek professional assistance in the first place. Don’t let this insanity doom your counseling to failure. It’s a waste of your money and my time.


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