It is not rare that I see couples who tell me how hesitant they are to walk in to my office. They'll share horrible experience they had with their last couples therapist, citing atrocious examples of bad advice or poor boundaries.
I know bad couples therapy. I've had it. I've done it. I've heard about it. Relationship expert Bill Doherty argues that even though about 80% of licensed mental health practitioners practice therapy with couples, few have received enough training to do it competently.
If you are not happy with your couples therapy, here are five possible reasons why:
1. Your therapist sees you alone.
Imagine you are seated on a stool. Someone approaches you without your knowledge and sneakily removes the third leg of that stool out from under you. What happens? You fall flat on your rear.
Couples therapy is like that stool. If you remove one leg (you or your spouse), you remove your marriage. Sure, it feels nice to complain about your spouse when she's not around. It's good catharsis.
It's also bad couples therapy.
There's exceptions to this, but if your marriage counselor is seeing you mostly alone to treat your marriage, keep in mind that it is difficult to sit on a stool with only two legs.
2. Your therapist is your teacher.
Relationships don't change because they are taught to change. They change because they have new experiences. Sometimes I'll briefly teach a concept or an idea, but only to facilitate a new experience.
Your couples therapist is not smarter than you.
In my best sessions, my clients talk to each other more than they talk to me.
The more you experience new ways to talk to your spouse, the more curious you are. The more curious you are, the more you change. The more you change, the more hopeful you become, and hope is love's favorite cup of coffee.
3. Your therapist tells you to get divorced.
Would you like to know how I discovered the fast-track to losing a client? I suggested divorce. This is difficult for me to admit, but at the time, I thought my client and I were on the same page, that we had a great therapeutic relationship, and that divorce was the reasonable solution.
As it turns out, despite the ongoing conflict and my apparent inability to change it, my client's relationship with his spouse was more important than my input.
If your therapist suggests you should get a divorce, it is because she or he doesn't know how to help you. Find someone new.
4. Your therapist takes your side.
Are you invested in saving your marriage? Do you want things to be different? Then run from a therapist who takes your side all the time.
Your therapist is not your best friend.
You might feel validated by hearing it's all his fault, but your relationship won't get better.
You'll get better when you feel both validated and also a little curious about a new perspective on your partner, but that only happens when your therapist evaluates your relationship challenges with a relationship perspective.
5. You don't know what your goals are.
Good therapy is goal-driven. The first time you meet with your therapist, she or he should ask you what you want to change. After a few sessions, your therapist should also provide her or his curiosities about what you might change..
This is a partnership.
Your therapist can't make your goals for you, but he or she can help you be clear about them. Every few sessions, you should revisit your goals, to revise them or to evaluate your progress.
Couples therapy is messy. It requires flexibility and patience, but it should also have a blueprint.
Good couples therapy can have dramatic effects on your marriage. If done well, you and your spouse or partner might be able to regain the passion and hope you forgot was there.
Be a shrewd customer and avoid these pitfalls to get the most from your experience.