Relationship Advice

Role of the Therapist in Couples Therapy

therapist ready to take notes

I am a child therapist interested in beginning relationship work. I found your book reviews interesting, and I would like to know more about your orientation to couples therapy. — Dominique

Dominique, a therapist doesn't need to believe in much to do individual counseling. Perhaps you see the one thing which was left in Pandora's box: hope. Perhaps you have a sense of namaste—the light within. Perhaps you remember something from Biology 101: every living thing grows to express itself.

Knocking at the therapist's door for individual counseling are people on a continuum. The continuum runs from "I wish I was dead" to "I wish I was free" to "I am free to express what is in me to express." Individual therapy moves individuals along the continuum, and individual counseling is a noble endeavor. But you don't need to believe in much to counsel individuals.

Whose Interests Will You Represent?

Relationship counseling is different. The therapist has to posit a great deal in the way of belief. The couples therapist makes claims about the nature of love and the social order.

Doing relationship work, whose interests will you represent? The church? The state? The individual? The husband? The wife? The child, born or not yet conceived? An abstraction called 'the marriage'? A particular psychological community?

Doing this kind of work, whose interest and what interest do you represent? What are your beliefs about marriage, love, and relationships?

three young men

In 2001 the National Marriage Project paid for a Gallup poll about the attitudes of young adults toward marriage. Ninety-four percent of never married young adults (ages 20-29) believed "when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost." Eighty-eight percent believed "there is a special person, a soul mate, waiting for you." There was no significant gender gap in the responses.

These results seem to be consistent over time. In 2007 88% of young Catholics (those born after 1981) agreed with this statement. "When you marry, you want your spouse to be your soulmate, first and foremost."

The Real Reasons For Divorce

The result among women may not be surprising, but what accounts for the results among young men? Boys and men don't read romance fiction or chick lit. The obvious, and the only adequate explanation to us, is that it is in us to want "the one." In the depth of our consciousness, that is what we want.

When we talk to people who are divorced, we can usually discover the real reason why they married. Tamara likes to ask "Why did you get married?" three or four times in succession. unhappy fighting coupleWith each answer the person gives a less superficial response, until finally, the real reason emerges.

People marry for all kinds of reasons: deliberate or accidental pregnancy, the dream of a white wedding, peer and family pressure, wanting Hallmark Moments, feeling sorry for another, "because it was time," and so on.

And once the divorced person tells you why they married, more of the story emerges: the dreams of marrying the wrong person, not wanting to get out of bed on the wedding day, thoughts of flight while dressing in the back of the church, and, of course, the history of overt behavior which should have stopped the wedding to begin with.

While the couple is married, however, it's hard to get past the explanation of love, no matter how unsuited two people are for each other. Troubled couples struggle not to acknowledge how great the gap between their inner need and the outer act, who they married and why.

What Is The Nature Of Love?

John Gottman ended one of his popular books by advising couples to give each other a compliment a day and make it sincere. That advice, on the last page of his book, is straight from the last chapter of Dale Carnegie's 1936 bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People. It is the opposite of what springs naturally from within.

You must decide how much of the couples literature is hokum. You must see the difference between people with a deep, genuine connection and people who married for reasons which are wearing thin.

What is the nature of love? Is our awareness so plastic we can mold ourselves to our mistake? Do relationship techniques assume we are pretty much interchangeable parts, so it doesn't matter who we married or why? These are the questions you must decide.

In Christian theology, God is love. Christians believe God is in their marriage. But if a couple married for a reason other than love, was God ever in that marriage? Should that marriage continue? How can you, as a therapist, restore what was never there?

When we first began writing the column, we were surprised that nearly everyone who wrote to us about their successful "marriage counseling" was divorced. They explained that marriage counseling led to individual counseling and a separation from their partner. Typically, they concluded by telling us the marriage or relationship they were currently in is what they should have been looking for the first time around.

It comes back to your beliefs, Dominique, and how you view the aims of therapy. It probably doesn't matter where you start, only that you follow the evidence as it unfolds before your eyes.

Wayne & Tamara

Singles Seek Soul Mate For Marriage, June 27, 2001, Gallup, Inc.
Marriage in the Catholic Church: A Survey of U.S. Catholics, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University, October 2007.
• John Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Crown, 1999.