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by Neil J. Lavender, Ph.D.
Guess what? Marriage is hard, real hard. In marriage, one must try to love and support one who is basically driving them crazy. It is true that when couples are fighting they truly believe their perspective is the correct one and would desperately like that to be validated by a third-party. They will begin the marriage counseling session with a litany of complaints against the other: they are mean, they are controlling, they are nasty, they are sloppy, they are an adequate parents; the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, their spouse has a similar list.
It would be a mistake for the marriage counselor to choose one side over another. While there are some important exceptions to this, such as addictions and infidelity, this remains true. It is not the therapist’s job to settle arguments. The therapist job is to help couples resolve their own differences.
And, in case you haven’t noticed, you and your spouse are incredibly different. I have stated previously that “marriage begins with irreconcilable differences” and should not end with them. Most marital problems exist because couples have failed to work out those differences. Believing their way is the correct way, they conclude that their spouse is wrong. When the spouse does not respond to their admonishments, they become angry, then bitter, then distant.
Before you were married, you invested a good deal of effort into becoming the person that you are today. Finding yourself, who you are, what you want to be; everything from what is your favorite music and favorite foods and dress to what your life’s work is going to be– is one of the most important things you will ever do in your life.
Here are just a few examples of important differences couples may fight over. Research has shown that people have different sensory thresholds, for example, and what is too warm for one person is too cold for another. (Have you had thermostat wars in your car or house?). Introversion and extroversion are also at inherited traits. When an extrovert marries an introvert it would be ridiculous indeed for a marriage counselor to suggest that the extrovert is correct because one should go out on a Saturday night rather than stay home. This often happens because the therapist might be an extrovert themselves. One of the big arguments that couples have is over neatness. What the husband considers neat and what his wife considers neat are usually two different things. Whether or not the husband wants all the dishes put in the dishwasher immediately after usage while the wife feels that the sink should fill before the dishwasher is loaded is simply a matter of taste. Marriage counselors would make a huge mistake if they were to side with one or the other simply because it is what they would do or, worse yet, solve the problem for them just so they stop them from fighting. Yet, believe it or not, that very thing happens all too frequently.
Sin Number Two: Your Marriage Counselor You as Two Individuals Rather Than a Couple.
Surprisingly, many psychotherapists have not had training in marriage counseling. It should not be surprising that psychotherapists are like most people who are in business; they are looking for money to support themselves. They will often take on a marriage counseling case in order to build up their practice. Another possibility is that an individual case might morph into one requiring couples counseling. And while the therapist has the option of referring to a marriage counselor, this is often an expensive and time-consuming option that patients usually do not choose.
It is important to understand that the techniques involved in marriage counseling are very different than those required for individual counseling. In individual counseling, an individual has a problem which the therapist is trying to help them with. One would be tempted for example, in marriage counseling to treat a couple as two individuals; each with a particular problem which the marriage counselor would try to resolve. This would be a mistake. In marriage counseling, the problem is almost always a “we” problem in which both individuals contribute something. Most couples are very good at pointing out the other’s problems and not seeing their own contribution. In a “we” problem, it is impossible not to contribute. Or quite simply speaking individuals deal with what goes on inside of us while marriage counselors deal with what goes on between us. While there is a great deal of overlap between the two, they require two separate skill sets.
Sin Number Three: The Marriage Counselor Mistakenly Sees Her Own Problems in that of Her Patients.
Sin number three is perhaps the greatest sin of all. We marriage counselors have our own issue. A well-trained psychotherapist is capable of separating their issues from the issues of their clients. Unfortunately, many marriage counselors see their own problems lodged within the problems of their patients. For example, a marriage counselor who is unfairly dominated by her husband might feel that her female client needs to stand up more to her own husband. Or a male psychotherapist who has to alleviate his own fears of intimacy with his own wife by drinking a glass of wine before they have sex might suggest that his male counseling client do the same.
Marriage is serious and should not be taken lightly; neither is marriage counseling. It is most likely one of the most important things that you will ever do in your life so choose wisely. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your psychotherapist in the beginning. One question, for example would be to simply ask “how much marriage counseling do you do in your practice?” The answer should be “A lot”. Different marital counselors often have different training experiences and different theoretical orientations. They approach your problems differently. Ask which one they use.
And, as in all vocations, experience matters. While experienced marriage counselors are often difficult to get an appointment with, it might be worth the wait. Another important thing is that you should have a sense of comfort and support and should not feel attacked by your marriage counselor. Although a marriage counselor might seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on your issues, this should only be for a while and you should still feel supported while you are the focus. And bear in mind that your marriage counselor might want some individual sessions with them for a time. This is common. It does not mean that you are to blame. Indeed, it might mean that you are the one who was most hurt in the relationship or the one that could help the relationship the best at that particular time.
And finally, you will need to do your part. One way to look at marriage counseling is that you are both the athletes and the counselor is your coach. It is especially important to bear in mind that no matter how much or how well you are coached, eventually you will have to want to play to win.
And with that attitude, you can’t go wrong.